Strip District nominated for national historic status

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The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation is preparing to nominate one-third of the Strip District for the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that would give about 64 property owners potential access to historic tax credits for upgrades.

Unlike a city historic designation, the National Register does not require approval for demolitions and only upholds federal standards for alterations if tax credits are used.

The area of distinction would run from 15th to 22nd streets and from just south of Railroad Street to Liberty Avenue. A public meeting to discuss the National Register nomination is scheduled for 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. Dec. 4 at the Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St.

"We think it's important that the people in the Strip attend to find out more about it," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of the nonprofit Neighbors in the Strip.

Bill Callahan, the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission's Western region community preservation coordinator, said the nomination should be ready for statewide review in February. The National Parks Service will have 45 days upon receipt to act on the state recommendation.

PG graphic: Proposed National Register boundary
(Click image for larger version)

"There is no downside to this," Mr. Callahan said. "It would be a validation of how significant the area is."

The Strip District particularly is interesting among National Register eligible sites "because it doesn't fit the public perception that preservation is about the fanciest architecture or the rich guy's house," Mr. Callahan said. "In terms of the National Register, there's a distinct recognition that the way everyday people lived in, developed and worked in neighborhoods is part of the larger American story. There's no question that the Strip represents one of the core themes of Pittsburgh's development.

"It's always been kind of rough around the edges and never been architecturally eye-catching, but there's a great story there reflected in the buildings."

He said it's a story of "interconnected systems" and operations of the food trade.

"The goods were off-loaded at the terminal and distributed to warehouses on Smallman and then redistributed to wholesalers and retailers in storefronts on Penn."

The Strip District's larger borders are from 11th to 31st street, between the Allegheny River and Liberty Avenue, except where it extends south to include part of the hillside below Bigelow Boulevard. The smaller area is being nominated because it represents a cohesive group of historic resources that are all produce related, said Frank Stoker, assistant archivist at Landmarks.

It includes the five-block-long terminal building the Buncher Co. wants to partially demolish for a $450 million riverfront redevelopment plan.

National designation would not affect that plan. A public hearing on the building's nomination for the more rigorous city historic status is scheduled for City Council on Nov. 26.

City status requires that the Historic Review Commission approve a demolition, for which property owners must make a convincing case that the building is unsafe, a financial hardship or both.

The National Register does not restrict anything a property owner can do to a building, but the designation would provide potential federal income tax credits of up to 20 percent for improvements that could include heating, ventilation, air conditioning and roof repairs.

Mr. Toker said Interior's tax credit standards "call for like materials so that it is more or less a restoration."

Even though the National Register listing is an honorary status that could prompt future investment, Landmarks President Arthur Ziegler said he has fielded concerns.

"We are being clear to explain there is no governmental regulation if you are spending your own money" to work on your building, he said. "If you go for tax credits, then you have to" follow Department of Interior guidelines.

Mr. Ziegler said Landmarks would not pursue a city historic designation. "No one over there has asked for it and we generally do not initiate that. We are trying to concentrate on the National Register because it brings historic tax credits and recognition."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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