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Sewickley considers historic designation

By Alisha Hipwell ,
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Sewickley is known for its glorious collection of historic homes. They include the work of some of the area’s finest architects, like the team of Frank Alden and Alfred Harlow, who built the Carnegie Institute.

Few would argue with the logic that has created three historic districts in the borough to protect and preserve at least the outward appearance of many of those homes.

But Sewickley is not all historic homes and important architecture. Just ask anyone who has driven through town on Route 65, which is lined with apartment buildings and rows of modest brick bungalows.

So why would anyone think the whole town needs the protection of a historic preservation ordinance?

A Sewickley councilman is suggesting just that. Charles Hays, citing concerns about development in the borough, has called for council to study the idea of extending the purview of the borough’s historic review ordinance to include the entire town. Borough council plans to study the pros and cons of the suggestion at a special February retreat-style session.

“I think we’ve reached the point where it’s time to protect the entire community. … It may be time to see what the community thinks about this idea,” said Hays, who has frequently criticized projects he believes would damage the cultural and economic diversity of the community. “There may be a way for the community to have a little more control over what happens.”

The idea already has the backing of some members of the borough’s Historic Review Commission. Steve Davis, an Edgeworth resident and member of the commission, told council at its December meeting that the commission was in favor of the idea but would only pursue it with council’s blessing.

Sewickley would not be the first municipality to take such a step.

Michel Lefevre, chief of preservation planning for the state Bureau of Historic Preservation, said other cities, including Lancaster and Bethlehem, have protected virtually their entire towns with either historic preservation ordinances or less-restrictive conservation district ordinances.

“What municipalities have been saying is, ‘We have historic districts and it’s been working. Now we want to protect other areas but do it a little less stringently,’ ” Lefevre said.

“We’ve come a long way from the notion that the mansion on the hill owned by the important white guy is the only historically significant building,” he said.

Mary Beth Pastorius, a Beaver Street resident and former 10-year Historic Review Commission member, said members for years have been interested in extending the borough’s historic preservation ordinance to the entire town.

The idea is back in play because of an increase in commercial development projects in the borough in the last decade, developments that have given pause to even those community figures, like Hays, who are more likely to champion property owners’ rights than historic preservation.

“It’s a hot topic now because you have people taking existing properties, tearing them down and building larger facilities,” said borough Manager Kevin Flannery.

One project cited by both Pastorius and Hays is the construction of a Thrift (now Eckerd) drugstore on Beaver Street in the mid-90s.

“With the parking lot in front and the design of the building — it’s not at all sympathetic to the historic character of the village,” Pastorius said.

Hays cited other projects, like the demolition of some older brick apartment buildings on Academy Avenue to make way for condominiums and the renovation of the former Connelly Motors building on Beaver Street into office and restaurant space.

More recently, a plan to tear down three apartment buildings located just outside a historic district at Beaver and Peebles streets and replace them with million-dollar condominiums created an outcry; residents have argued that the design of the four-story condominium buildings would be out of sync with the rest of the neighborhood.

Lefevre said similar concerns about development have prompted other municipalities to broaden their definition of “historic” and expand their preservation ordinances.

Such ordinances do not require state approval, something necessary for stringent classifications such as National Historic Landmark designation, but they do have to stay within the guidelines of state legislation which makes preservation ordinances possible.

Those guidelines let municipalities go beyond the familiar restrictions of zoning.

“What people now look at is a sense of place, created not by one, two or three buildings that are designated historic, but when a number of buildings, some less important perhaps, all contribute,” said Lefevre. He said zoning regulations frequently don’t address issues, such as architectural style, that are important to property owners.

While a historic ordinance applied to the entire town would not halt development, proponents of the idea say it would give the community a voice in the style of development allowed.

“It is the only way legally that a community can have a discussion about style and design,” said Pastorius.

Sewickley’s five-member Historic Review Commission reviews applications for exterior work on property in the three historic districts.

The commission reviews only work that requires a building permit and only work that is visible from a public right of way. It does not, for example, review exterior paint colors, but it does review new construction and demolition projects in historic districts.

The commission then makes a recommendation to council on whether a project should get a Certificate of Appropriateness.

Council can reject the commission’s recommendation, and has done so, most recently in the case of a proposed columbarium on the grounds of St. Stephen’s Church. The commission recommended that the project be granted a certificate, but council voted it down.

Proponents of giving the commission such power throughout the town — or of creating a similar process — argue that residents’ property values are affected not just by the structures that sit right next to them but by the ambiance of the entire borough.

“The only thing we’re trying to do is direct change so it helps everyone,” Davis said. “It’s not that we don’t want change, but that we want to guide it properly so we maintain the essence of Sewickley.”

There are practical issues to be considered, however, not the least of which is the amount of time and paperwork such a change would entail for a volunteer commission.

“How many hours of meetings would we need to have to keep up? We could have a bottleneck of bureacracy,’ said Charles Reist, a member of both council and the commission.

Flannery said any serious discussion of the issue also would have to examine the impact on the average homeowner and on business owners in the borough.

“Are you going to force community businesses to go to [the commission] if they want to change their sign out front?” asked Flannery.

Sewickley Chamber of Commerce President Don Reinhardt said he was aware of the idea and that chamber members planned to discuss it at their meeting Tuesday.

Lefevre said one option is for municipalities to create “layers” of regulation, with some layers more stringent than others, depending upon the character of the area and what kinds of work the borough wishes to regulate. But he stressed that public support for preservation ordinances is crucial.

Pastorius and Davis believe that support will come if homeowners accept the notion that individual property values are tied up with the overall look and feel of the town.

“On the one hand, the argument against a historic ordinance is that no one is going to tell me what to do with my house. On the other hand, what a historic ordinance gives you in exchange for giving up a little bit of freedom is protection,” Pastorius said. “You don’t have to worry about your neighbor doing something really inappropriate that ruins the look of the block.”

February’s study session is merely a first step. Should council decide to pursue the idea beyond that, it would be embarking on what Flannery described as “a lengthy process” involving a survey of homes, notification of the public, formal public hearings and a vote on an ordinance.

“We would have to give a very thorough explanation of the reasons behind doing this,” he said.

Alisha Hipwell is a freelance writer.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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