Councilman Ricky Burgess recently introduced bill 2015-2001 to Pittsburgh’s Council; you can read the full text on the City’s website, but the gist of it is, community groups, neighborhood associations, preservation advocates, and all others would lose the ability to nominate historic buildings or sites for preservation–“only…the legal owner(s) of record” could request designation as historic. Designating a neighborhood as a Historic District would require assent of 70% (currently 25%) of its property owners.
Let’s say a developer starts buying up large parts of your neighborhood. (In East Liberty, this isn’t some far-fetched concept. It’s happening.) This developer proposes to demolish all buildings, historic or not, on this parcel they’ve assembled.
As a member of the public, these proposed changes to the Historic Preservation ordinance effectively strip you from one of the most effective means of maintaining your neighborhood’s character and sense of place. …
As it currently stands, a property owner of any nominated structure can contest an historic nomination. Most of the time, when an owner doesn’t want a property nominated, that is seriously taken into consideration. But this new bill dispenses with that and severely limits the control that people have over their neighborhoods and endangered historic structures.
According to the current ordinance, a property nominated as historic has to go through review by the Historic Review Commission—at which “The owner…shall be afforded the opportunity for reasonable examination and cross-examination of witnesses at public hearings on said nomination”—by the City Planning Commission, and by City Council.
Council shall conduct a Public Hearing, for the purpose of giving property owners, tenants, and community residents, the right to appear and be heard in person or to be represented by counsel, as to the appropriateness of designation.… The owner…shall be afforded a reasonable opportunity to be heard at the public hearing, and a reasonable opportunity for examination and cross-examination of witnesses.
The repetition isn’t an accident—if the property owner opposes a nomination, there are two separate points at which the City is required to give them the opportunity to stand up witnesses against it.
It’s entirely plausible that there are spurious nominations. It’s a fact that in almost any such system, there is potential for fraud and abuse. But that’s why the multi-stage review process exists; if the process is being abused, then that should be addressed. But taking away the ability to nominate properties as historic from anyone other than the very developers who are trying to buy them up and tear them down is not the way to do that.
I moved to Pittsburgh from Michigan in 2005, and to Lawrenceville in 2012. Without the ability of neighborhood advocates to recognize certain properties as contributing to the fabric of the community and worthy of being maintained, a substantial chunk of the city I’ve called home for ten years would have ceased to exist before I ever got here. What landmark of the City’s past will the next generation of incoming college students miss out on because some developer didn’t think it was worth saving, and we didn’t let anyone else speak up on its behalf?