Pittsburgh's Historic Review Commission considers expanding Mexican War Streets district

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The Historic Review Commission has found reasonable cause to more than double the Mexican War Streets historic district and will vote in December on the proposal of development and preservation groups in the Central Northside.

Seven residents and two former residents urged the expansion at a recent hearing, saying historic districts are proven economic stimulators and that much of the expanded district's architecture is similar to the current one.

"One motivating factor is to unify the neighborhood," said Paul Johnson, president of the Mexican War Streets Society.

In 1972, the city defined the historic district as seven square blocks. Four years ago, the National Register of Historic Places recognized the district as much larger. The proposal -- made jointly by the Central Northside Neighborhood Council and Mexican War Streets Society -- cites the need to mimic the National Parks Service's definition.

The application characterizes the Victorian district as "one of the few architecturally coherent neighborhoods in the city" owing to rowhouse design and uniformity of styles that include Italianate, Gothic revival, Richardsonian Romanesque, Empire, Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts.

Graphic: Mexican War Streets Proposed Expansion

"Historic preservation is what is driving investment in the lower flats, and the Mexican War Streets has been the economic engine," said former resident Kirk Burkley, a member of the city planning commission. "From a planning perspective, historic districts are a great tool."

On a map of the Central Northside, the city historic district hunkers neatly squared off in the southwest corner of the National Register district, whose border stutter-steps in a northward and eastward ramble to include Buena Vista Street on the west, O'Hern Street on the north, Reddour Street on the east and West North Avenue on the south -- 23 blocks.

Sarah Quinn, the city's historic planner, said there is "sufficient integrity of location, design, materials and workmanship" in the national district but recommended slightly abbreviating the proposed borders to leave out northern swaths "where there are no properties at all."

About 20 percent of the proposed district is vacant lots or hillside.

Randi Marshak, vice president of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council, said the Central Northside's master plan recommends the historic district expansion in part to save housing stock that might become vulnerable. The city requires that any demolition in a historic district be considered first by the commission.

"Our vision statement is to transform every empty space into housing and commerce," Ms. Marshak said. Addressing concerns about gentrification and displacement of some residents, she said, "We are concerned, but historic districts have been able to maintain ethnic and racial diversity."

Resident Joan Kimmel spoke against expansion. "The neighborhood already gets historic preservation," she said. Saved by preservationists from the wrecking ball in the late '60s, "it's not under threat like it was." In addition, she said, artistic and idiosyncratic treatments such as the colorfully over-the-top compound known to neighbors and busloads of tourists as Randyland would not have been allowed in a historic district.

"City of Asylum has renovated houses as art houses," she said. "These are the lucky results of having artists move in and produce destination points."

Zolina Cook said she opposes expansion because historic standards would drive up the cost of renovations.

"All of our improvements have been done with historic correctness in mind but maybe not to a purist," Ms. Cook said. "I am currently renting to a woman who has lived there for 15 years, longer than I've lived there. Her rent is $400 a month, and I would never consider raising it, but if I have to meet historic standards I would have to. That is the definition of gentrification. I can't see neighbors being displaced. And I don't want to ask permission to paint my house. That just goes against my grain."

The code addresses only exteriors of properties. It is more lenient when renovations are on the sides and rears of buildings. For instance, rotted windows in the front must be replaced with wood windows, but in the back, especially if out of sight from a right of way, they can be vinyl.

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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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