Pittsburgh City Councilman Ricky Burgess introduced legislation Tuesday that would prohibit people from seeking city historic status for properties they don't own, a bill that grew out of the yearslong effort to save the old St. Nicholas Church building on the North Side.
Mr. Burgess said third parties shouldn't have the right to interfere with owners' property rights. He said the city's historic designation "should not occur without the landowner's consent."
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert Colville issued an order July 19 paving the way for demolition of the church building, which adjoins Route 28 and is owned by St. Nicholas Parish of Millvale. The city has said it will appeal the order, prolonging the battle over a building that hasn't been used since 2004.
After four residents proposed historic status for the building in 2001, then-Councilman Jim Ferlo sponsored legislation that provided the special designation. Church officials steadfastly opposed the designation and say they cannot continue to maintain the vacant building.
Mr. Burgess said he supports preservation of historic buildings but believes it's inappropriate, if not unconstitutional, for third parties to tell owners what to do with their property.
"I can't use it to my own benefit? I think that's wrong," he said.
Mark Fatla, executive director of Northside Leadership Conference, said Mr. Burgess' bill "flies in the face of 40 years of historic preservation law" nationwide.
"It fails to recognize that the public has an interest in the structures that make up our city," he said. "This is not just each man for himself. Preservation codes are no different in many respects than fire codes and zoning codes and plumbing codes. There are reasons property owners have to abide by the rules. The rules benefit everybody."
Mr. Fatla's group, part of an effort to turn the building into an immigration museum, has tried to negotiate a $1 purchase of the property.
In addition to requiring the owner's consent for city historic designation of a property, site or object, Mr. Burgess' bill also would tighten the requirements for creating a city historic district. Third parties still would be able to nominate historic districts, but for the designation to take effect, 70 percent of property owners -- up from the current 25 percent -- would have to give their consent.
The bill also would adjust membership of the Historic Review Commission to include an attorney with experience in constitutional land-use issues.
Joe Smydo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1548.