Mexican War Streets proposal sparks heated Pittsburgh debate

Residents fear 'heavy-handed' regulations


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North Side residents squared off Monday night during a contentious hearing before members of Pittsburgh City Council on the North Side over a proposal to expand the Mexican War Streets Historic District.

The proposed expansion, which would more than double the original district designated in 1972, has angered some residents of the central North Side who say they don't want and can't afford to live in a historic district.

At the same time, many residents and landlords of properties in the current Mexican War Streets say the blocks north of them should be protected from unsightly renovations and development.

Council members could vote against the proposal because some people don't want it, but they shouldn't, said applicant Kirk Burkley, a member of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission who nominated the expanded area in 2011.

"Let's take this as an opportunity to say, 'Let's lift this neighborhood up rather than letting it be pushed down,' " said Mr. Burkley, who lived in the Mexican War Streets until moving to Shadyside in 2011 and who still owns property there.

PG graphic: Historic boundaries expanded
(Click image for larger version)

From the audience, a man responded, "What's pushing it down?" as opponents of the plan applauded.

Members of the planning commission including Mr. Burkley unanimously approved the proposed expansion in February.

Final approval rests with city council, which has scheduled a preliminary vote for Wednesday. If council members do not vote on the proposal, however, "it will stand," and the historic district expansion will take effect anyway, said council President Darlene Harris.

The expanded district lines would reflect historic boundaries designated by the National Park Service in 2008, stretching north to the hillside just below O'Hern Street before heading south and east to include parts of Armandale, Alpine, Carrington and possibly Reddour streets.

Maintenance of existing external features -- including vinyl siding and windows, awnings and creative painting schemes -- with the same, non-historic materials would be allowed, according to the 18 pages of guidelines and examples proposed for the expanded district. Any renovation to change the outside appearance of a building, however, would have to conform to the guidelines or potentially incur large fines.

But Blaine Edwards, a 69-year-old veteran of the Army and longtime central North Side resident, wants more freedom than that.

"Nobody can make a choice for me -- I want to make my own choices," Mr. Edwards said.

Most people on the North Side who own historic homes want to preserve them, but not in the way the expansion proposes, said Claudia Keyes of Jacksonia Street.

"All of us want to preserve the historic values of our homes," Ms. Keyes said. "We just don't want this, because it's heavy-handed."

Unless, of course, there is no particular historic value to a home, which in parts of the central North Side is often the case, said Roger Montgomery.

And that testimony by one Mexican War Streets resident that anyone who wants to buy nearby should be prepared to invest at least $200,000?

"I'm so low-income, I can't even think about that kind of money and if I could, I wouldn't put lipstick on a pig," said Mr. Montgomery, who that if he could, he demolish his house and build a steel-and-glass structure with solar panels in its place.

But historic designation could protect property values, said Armandale Street resident Greg Mucha, who said friends used to ask if he'd been shot at when he moved to the neighborhood nearly 30 years ago.

"That's changed a lot and I think one of the reasons it's changed is because of the historic district," Mr. Mucha said.

Surely North Side can work together so the area's many historic homes and businesses can be preserved, said Jacksonia Street resident Todd Gilgore.

"Those gorgeous structures, once they're torn down and removed, they're never coming back," he said.

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Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: aschaarsmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719.


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