Pittsburgh to fight court ruling on St. Nicholas Church
July 24, 2012 4:00 AM
Exterior of St. Nicholas Church along Rt 28.
By Diana Nelson Jones Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
City solicitor Dan Regan said the city intends to appeal an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court ruling that would permit St. Nicholas Parish to demolish the former St. Nicholas Church on Route 28.
Judge Robert Colville's July 19 order requires that the parish be granted a certificate of economic hardship within 30 days. Last fall, the city's Historic Review Commission denied the certificate, a last-ditch avenue for demolition of a historic property.
Mark Fatla, an attorney and executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, said he believes the court's decision "is seriously flawed, and I would hope the city will appeal. The city should protect the decision of its own commission."
"We intend to have it filed tomorrow," Mr. Regan said.
The building has been a contest between the parish and preservationists for several years.
It was nominated for and granted city historic status in 2001 against the wishes of the parish, which stopped using it in 2004 when it combined its congregation with one in Millvale.
The Rev. Dan Whalen testified numerous times before Historic Review commissioners that the costs of maintaining the church were crippling the parish's efforts to support itself. He could not be reached Monday to discuss the ruling.
Robert Ehrman, chairman of the parish's finance committee, told the commission that insurance has eaten up 17 percent of the parish's freewill offerings and 15 percent of its monthly expenses.
Church representatives have argued, supported by a structural engineer's report, that the building is not stable.
The Northside Leadership Conference, a partner in an effort to turn the building into an immigration museum, has tried to negotiate a $1 sale, pending a geologist's report about the stability of a retaining wall. The conference contracted its own study that indicates the building is sound.
Judge Colville cited failed efforts to find a buyer except for the $1 offer, which, he ruled, is not a reasonable return on sale, something that any owner of private property has a right to expect. He cited previous case law in describing the church's historic designation in 2001 as, in effect, "a taking" that left the church hobbled by historic code demands.
Regarding reasonable return, Mr. Fatla said, "We've offered to take the liability and property for $1 while their own expert has claimed it has negative value. We offered them a clear path to end their costs. One dollar is better than a liability of several hundred thousand dollars.
"The diocese has not responded to our offer. It's been on the table for about six months, and they simply have not returned phone calls. I think there's something else at work here. I believe they want to punish the Croatians who want to preserve their building.
"The reuse of this property and development of a trail would bring 50,000 visitors to this part of North Side, a huge economic benefit to these communities," he said. "This isn't some quixotic tilting at windmills. This is an economic development strategy."
The ruling questioned the legal standing of many people who testified and offered opinions before the Historic Review Commission about the building's viability.
Further, documents submitted to the commission would be objectionable "in a traditional court proceeding," according to the ruling. Findings of fact were signed by the historic planner and not by members of the commission, which the court said made it questionable as to whether the findings were supported by the commission members.
While reuse as an immigration museum is "hopeful, and the desire to implement such a plan might be laudable," the decision reads, "there exists no real evidence of record to support the contention that it is possible, let alone plausible or reasonable to do so."
A feasibility study in 2009 reported estimated renovation costs of $7 million. There is no evidence, according to the court decision, that anyone "would attempt to raise $7 million" for that purpose.
Mr. Fatla said that is an inappropriate supposition. He added that the matter of historic designation as a "taking" was not at issue.
"The diocese had the opportunity to make that argument 10 years ago and did not," he said. "The question as to whether the evidence was properly submitted was not also raised by the diocese on appeal. It's very unusual for the court to raise its own issues."