Pittsburgh City Council voted narrowly to approve the historic designation of the St. Mary's Academy building in Central Lawrenceville today, following a sometimes-personal debate that explored the intersection of religion and governance.
The vote was 6-2 -- the minimum required under the circumstances -- on Lawrenceville resident Keith Cochran's nomination of the building. The nomination was opposed by the building owner, the Catholic Cemeteries Association.
Councilman Patrick Dowd, who represents the area, called the building "a treasure of an architectural piece" that deserved the protection of historic designation.
Councilman Ricky Burgess led the opposition. He is a pastor and has consistently opposed such designations of buildings owned by religious organizations that don't want to have to go through the required Historic Review Commission processes should they want to change the structure.
"We have a landowner who did everything possible to accommodate the neighborhood. They offered to sell the property," he said. "The building, should we deem it historic, will simply fall down.
"We are once again being very hostile to a religious organization," he added. "I'm sure the church will view this as a very hostile vote against them and their rights to use their property as they see fit."
"Just because we don't have the word reverend in front of our names doesn't mean we are not very religious," countered Councilwoman Darlene Harris. "I do not like to sit here and be told that I'm not religious and I don't care about churches, because I do. But I also care about my colleagues and their districts."
The designation was supported by the Historic Review Commission but opposed by the city Planning Commission. Because the Planning Commission was against it, six votes of council were required to approve it.