Council hit for Wilson home delay

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A public hearing on the historic designation of August Wilson's boyhood home yesterday combined paeans to the playwright and calls for an investigation into political delays.

"August Wilson is an international figure whose legacy is larger than the city of Pittsburgh," Frieda Ellis, the late Pulitzer Prize winner's sister, told Pittsburgh City Council.

Then she spoke for her brother, quoting and paraphrasing characters from his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle. "Give me what is my due," she said. "I hold you to it."

The hearing came 12 days after time limits in the city code for historic designations expired.

The rules lay out an eight-month process that started with the June 6 nomination of the 1727 Bedford Ave. property by Paul A. Ellis Jr., the playwright's nephew. The code gives council three months to do its part after the Historic Review Commission and the city planning commission sign off on a nomination, as they did in August and September.

Normally, expiration of the time limit kills the nomination. In this case, Council President Doug Shields got a city Law Department opinion saying that the penalty need not apply, because the delay was not the fault of Mr. Ellis.

Whose fault was it?

"There must be a full review and independent investigation of how this review could have gone amiss," said Daniel Lavelle, chief of staff to state Rep. Jake Wheatley.

Mr. Ellis and others blame Councilwoman Tonya Payne, who represents the Hill District and has had differences with some Ellis family members over neighborhood development.

Last year Ms. Payne chaired the council committee in charge of moving designation legislation forward, and her office received several e-mails urging prompt action. But the designation was not introduced in council until this year, after Councilman Ricky Burgess took over that committee.

"I made an error," said Ms. Payne. "Mistakes are made in government all the time."

She said she apologized. "I know there's no forgiving from my adversaries."

There wasn't any yesterday.

"Tonya Payne has not said a word, not even once, to me about this entire incident," said Mr. Ellis. "Is she too embarrassed to look me in the eye?"

Mr. Shields said council would start looking into the matter at its Wednesday meeting. It has requested city Solicitor George Specter's attendance to discuss the matter, and is likely to cast an initial vote on the designation.

"I think you'll have a unanimous vote, period," Ms. Payne said. A final vote could follow next week.

Mr. Ellis said he hopes the designation will help him raise money to turn the 15-room structure into a writer's retreat. He has a $35,300 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation to pay for a feasibility study.

He hopes the building, once renovated, will house graduate students studying on fellowships at area universities, and host educational workshops, conferences and public events.

Mr. Burgess has introduced legislation that would give council 120 days to consider historic designations, and deem them approved if council does not act after the two commissions have given their nods.

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542.


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