Pittsburgh City Council registers disapproval of bid to expand Mexican War Streets historic district

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In a preliminary vote Wednesday, Pittsburgh City Council opposed a controversial measure to expand the Mexican War Streets historic district after several North Side residents who lived in the proposed expansion area voiced strong disapproval.

The proposal would extend the boundaries of the district north and bring with it an 18-page set of rules and regulations governing how new buildings are constructed and the materials and aesthetics of certain kinds of renovations.

Following a charged public hearing on Monday that lasted nearly three hours, eight council members voted no, while president Darlene Harris abstained. Council takes a final vote next Tuesday, and the vote tally is not likely to change.

The proposal generated an emotional debate, pitting neighbors on opposite sides of the current boundary against each other. Petitions reflected that most residents who would be affected by the expansion did not want it, while most of those currently within the district did. That was the final straw for Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the neighborhood.

"At the end of the day, despite my personal feelings on the matter on what I believe is best, I have to listen to the constituency," he said.

Supporters of the measure said it would preserve the neighborhood's historic feel. A comprehensive plan drafted by a community organization called for an extension of the historic district because it found that's what drew in new residents.

"There was a long community planning process that made several different findings on what were the strengths of the neighborhood, what attracted people to the neighborhood and what would help the neighborhood continue to grow," said Kirk Burkley, a property owner who applied for the expansion. "One of those ... was the historic nature of the neighborhood."

It also would guard against unsightly development, supporters said at Monday's public hearing.

But opponents had several concerns. Joan Kimmel, who lives in the proposed expansion area, has been in the neighborhood for 40 years. She said she was angry because she felt she and her neighbors were cut out of discussions on the process. And she said the historic district rules aren't appropriate or necessary.

Without the constraints of historic district regulations, "we are blessed with the ability to have more creative solutions," she said, pointing to establishments such as the Mattress Factory museum and Cities of Asylum, a house with art on the exterior.

There also were concerns that it can create a financial hardship. While some regulations allow residents with newer homes to be "grandfathered in," other renovations could prove costly or onerous because of the requirements.

It may not be the end of the line for those who want to see an expansion of the district. Mr. Burkley can appeal council's decision to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. He declined to comment on his plans Wednesday.

Mr. Lavelle also hopes to find a different solution to maintain the neighborhood's historic integrity without putting off residents. He's currently working on legislation that would enable the city to create conservation districts.

In other cities, a conservation district can be found in a neighborhood that has a declining number of historic structures but a community consensus to preserve its historic identity, said Noor Ismail, director of city planning. The guidelines that come along with the conservation district could be drafted with input from the community with their priorities in mind.

"Even though there are divisive factions, all of them love their neighborhoods," she said. "How can we find a way to bring the community together?"

mobilehome - neigh_city - breaking

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. First Published June 19, 2013 1:00 AM


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