Pittsburgh halts appeal, opens way to razing of St. Nicholas Church

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The fight over the former St. Nicholas Church on Route 28 in Troy Hill has ended with a whimper: The city has withdrawn its appeal of a July decision in Common Pleas Court that gave the parish the right to demolish the historic building.

"The war is over. The decision stands," said Mark Fatla, executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, a partner in a preservation effort to reuse the old church as an immigration museum.

Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville on July 19 ordered the city to grant the parish a certificate of economic hardship within 30 days. It was a victory for the parish on appeal of the city Historic Review Commission's denial of the certificate last fall.

A certificate of economic hardship is the last chance an owner has to demolish a historic property.

City solicitor Dan Regan said the St. Nicholas parish filed a takings case after the city's July appeal. That's a claim that when the city denied a certificate of hardship earlier this year, it in effect took the parish property. Judge Colville used that wording in his decision.

The takings case was to have been heard by the county board of viewers next week.

"In my opinion," Mr. Regan said, "there was high probability the city was being exposed to unnecessary financial risk, and I had to make a decision I felt was most prudent. I thought we had very real exposure to financial liability, and I weighed that against the issues" of historic value.

Withdraw papers were filed on Thursday, he said.

Officials with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said both sides reached "an amicable resolution" in which St. Nicholas Parish also withdrew its petition, or "takings case."

"The parishioners have acted as responsible citizens, warning that the former church building was in danger of collapsing onto Route 28 and asking for permission to have it removed for the safety and welfare of the community," the diocese said in a statement Friday night.

Bill Vergot, chairman of Preserve Croatian Heritage Foundation, said he was angry that the city failed to let the preservation advocates know about its decision and even angrier at the decision.

"We have been working feverishly for 12 years to preserve the church and to make it into an immigration museum," he said. "We have raised $100,000 from good Croatians and friends in Pittsburgh and across the country, and all the studies showed it would be feasible and that it would be a boon to Pittsburgh's cultural scene.

"I was married in that church and I loved it dearly," he said. "There is no reason it couldn't have been embraced to show the beauty and power of the Croatians and all the immigrants that made our community great. I am really hard-pressed to say anything positive about our diocese or the city of Pittsburgh administration."

"The city did not consult anyone before doing this," Mr. Fatla said. "When you know the community is interested and that considerable effort has been expended, to make that decision in a vacuum is most unfortunate."

City Council President Darlene Harris, who said she had been kept apprised of every step in the St. Nicholas case by the city Law Department, was irritated that she had to find out about the city's latest decision from a member of the Croatian community.

"I am appalled by this action that was taken without my knowledge," said Ms. Harris, whose district includes that part of the North Side where the church is located. She said she intends to speak to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl about it.

"This is a sad day for the Croatian community. This is a sad day for the North Side heritage, but it also indicates historic preservation itself is endangered in the city."

The building has been a contest between the parish and preservationists for years.

Parish representatives have persistently described the vacant building as a money pit that has been draining parish coffers. They expressed resentment that it was nominated for and given historic status -- thus protection from demolition -- against the parish's will. It was granted city historic status in 2001 and shuttered by the parish in 2004 when it combined its congregation in Millvale.

The parish, the diocese said Friday, was "dying because of the cost of maintaining this useless property." It said the parish has spent $360,000 maintaining the building, with nearly 17 percent of the parish's monthly offering going toward that expense.

The Northside Leadership Conference tried in vain to negotiate a $1 sale pending a geologist's report about the stability of a retaining wall.

Judge Colville cited failed efforts beyond the $1 offer, which, he ruled, is not a reasonable return on sale. 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.

At the time, Mr. Fatla said the $1 offer was "a clear path to end their costs when their own expert has claimed it has negative value."

On Friday, Mr. Fatla said it is "disappointing the city has chosen not to protect the decisions of its own commission and that it won't protect the interests of its communities. This is not a good day."

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Staff writer Joe Smydo contributed. Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.


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