By: Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service:
A disconnect in communication with the Historical Review Commission leaves a number of residents unsatisfied
The crimson-red brick façade of the Allegheny Inn ignites the corner of North and Cedar Avenues, immediately separating itself from neighboring buildings.
The Inn is a remnant from the 1880s and after $1.5 million in renovations later, the hotel is a seeking to become a pillar in the changing culture of the city’s Northside. Only one problem stands in the way of the Inn – the city’s Historical Review Commission (HRC).
“We may have to shut down for the rest of the year,” General Manager Robert Miles said. “Since we’re a corner building we are being faced with a prejudice.”
Allegheny Inn is located at 1010 Cedar Ave directly on the intersection of Cedar and North Avenues. The rift between the Allegheny Inn’s owners and the city‘s HRC sheds light on the what Miles believes to be uncompromising attitudes in favor of keeping the original integrity of historical buildings regardless of the negative impacts on property owners; others may call this a simple bureaucratic malaise that is exacerbated by a lack of communication.
“Dealing with them has been a nightmare,” Miles said.
According to the HRC the air conditioning units on top of the Allegheny Inn are not historically accurate because they are visible from the top of Spring Hill; the HRC wishes for them to be moved to the ground floor of the building for the owner to put in a 10-foot-by-10-foot wooden fence, the other four buildings on Cedar Avenue’s 1000 block have not been informed they need to change their rooftop units. In order to do this Miles may have to close his business for the remainder of the year.
A representative of the HRC declined to comment on its practices or the specifics of the case.
Miles and The Allegheny Inn’s case with the HRC may be an extreme, but the feud between the two appears to be caused by a lack of communication and understanding between residential and commercial property owners and the HRC. In the eyes of residents like Miles it is a volatile situation, and one that is not aided by a lack of repentance from the city’s decision makers.
“We don’t care how much money you’ve spent, we just want it to be historically accurate,” Carol Maholkoff, a member of the Allegheny West Local Review Commission (AWLRC), said.
Maholkoff’s sentiments ring the alarm towards the disconnect between historical property owners and the bureaucratic process. Currently, there is no way for the HRC to know when a historical property is purchased and a majority of property owners, like Miles, are staging renovations on the advice of their personal contractors.
“The HRC doesn’t even know when a property is purchased, when a property turns over,” Maholkoff said.
For starters, only the outside aesthetic matters with HRC’s official wording being “anything visible and within view from public streets and right of ways.”
In other words, nothing inside the property matters; it is only the outside appearance. Despite minor differences between districts, many of the key structural components are a property’s widows, facades, fences, and awnings; each of these aspects of the building need to identified, reviewed and treated.
That means once the building is identified as a historically relevant property in need of preservation, an owner must get a Certificate of Appropriateness (CoA) from the city before any work is done. The HRC must review any intended work and will demonstrate to an owner how the building’s construction should be handled; materials, style and authenticity are all considerable factors in this process. Yet, owners must be aware that they should discuss any possible changes to a property with the HRC before going about construction, otherwise injunctions may happen. The best rule of thumb to keep is anything visible from the street may need correction or renovation and no work can legally begin without a CoA.
According to former HRC chairman John DeSantos, insuring the upkeep of historical housing provides neighborhoods with “long-term viability.”
DeSantos who served on the council from 1990-2003 (the position has been vacant since, Ernie Hogan is currently acting chair) is still up-to-date on current council meetings and admits that there is explicit disparaging in communication between the HRC and residents, however a lot of this is at fault of the realtor.
“[The] realtor must inform the purchasers. It is the law. A realtor must – in writing – inform property buyers [of a historical designation]. They can lose their license if they fail to do that,” DeSantos said.
And while DeSantos explained that the current model of the HRC’s public ordinance – which he helped designed – puts this onus on the realtor, he was quick to note that that is a state-wide rule courtesy of the Pennsylvania’s Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) not just the city of Pittsburgh.
Ultimately, property owners wishing to learn about historical designations are just a “click away.”
“[It’s] not normal for anyone spending any significant amount of money on real estate who wouldn’t do due diligence,” DeSantos said.
However, DeSantos was also quick to acknowledge that it wouldn’t hurt for the HRC to up the ante in communication and agreed there is a legit concern in regards to “misinformation” among residents, the council and the interpretation of historical guidelines. DeSantos said he believes monthly public meetings in addition to the HRC’s formal gathering on the first Wednesday of every month would help eliminate some of the confusion.
“[It’s a] little easier to address these concerns in public meetings,” DeSantos said. He held a meeting once a year as chairman as an opportunity to hear residential concerns as well as personally visiting potential properties up for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, it appears some of that synergy and understanding has been lost.
“The waiting process is too long,” said Elmarie van Dyk of The Property Trio, a real estate partnership that flips derelict properties turning them into refurbished homes. Van Dyk purchased 1234 Wolfman Street in the heart of the Mexican War Streets with her business partners, including Zirkia Snyman, who expressed their discontent for the overall process.
“We just decided we’re not going to go through the argument again and wait another month for us to finish our house,” said Synman. “The time frame in between the meetings is just too long. If you have a negative answer to come with another option to have it perhaps, again not approved we can’t wait – that is just eating up money.”
According to Synman, The Property Trio has invested $235,000 in their renovation budget for the property (this excludes purchase figures). The team had additional plans for the Wolfman Street property, but decided to withhold from them due to their concerns over the waiting process.
“We’ll never buy a historical property again,” Synman said. Despite their claims towards the unreasonable time between meetings and concerns for holding costs they were adamant in admittance of fault for “not doing their homework” before purchasing the property. Yet, for them a bi-weekly meeting wouldn’t be a bad middle ground.
Something that their Mexican War Street neighbors on Lemmons Row may also agree with.
Currently seven residents on the 1400 block of Buena Vista Street are suing the HRC due to negligence along with a new property owner, Heather Johnson of 1405 Buena Vista Street.
The area in question was preliminary accepted with a historical designation by the HRC in December of last year. According to the statutory appeal bullet #13, residents Todd Meyer, Patrica Rogers, Gail Dwyer, Barry and Gwendolyn Ratliff and Douglas and Maria Durfey claim:
“The HRC did not thereafter at any point provide the Appellants of any additional requirements.”
However, according to court documents Meyer, Rogers, the Ratfliffs and Durfeys moved forward with their lawsuit following the HRC’s decision to allow for Johnson’s renovation of her façade, windows, garage door, and balcony which according to the appeal has an “overall height that is substantially higher than the rest of the Lemmon Row properties.”
That change in height goes against the current Mexican War Street’s local guidelines, for their own chapter, thus the lawsuit.
None of the involved parties were available for comment, but if this pending civil case and its public files prove anything the connection is clear – there is an evident lapse in bureaucratic communication and a lack of empathy for residents when it comes to the handling of historical properties.
Maholkoff, whose work with AWLRC is similar to the Mexican War Streets local chapter; their role is to provide new residents with the necessary information after purchasing a historical property. Those particulars pertain to both local review commission and the city’s HRC guidelines; the two – in theory – should work synonymously with one another. Albeit, Maholkoff admits there is a breakdown in conveyance of historical properties. “We need some kind of mechanism…so when a building changes hand there’s required work that needs to be done.”
The Manchester Citizens Corporation (MCC) has been the complete inverse in terms of positive communication and transgressions between Manchester residents and the HRC.
“[We have a] progressive working relationship with the HRC,” MCC chairmen, LaShawn Burton-Faulk said.
Burton-Faulk explained the MCC is “very thorough” in terms of communicating the MCC standards in association with HRC guidelines. Their streamlined approach carries over to residents taking the initiative to help one another out with questions about historical renovations or as Burton-Faulk referred to as “feet on the street” and “eyes on the ground.”
MCC has found a way to provide residents with an appropriate alternative when dealing with historical properties; they’ve found a way to efficiently self-govern themselves and provide each resident with the tools and information to comfortable live and renovate their homes/properties as they see fit.
As Burton-Faulk explained, “Urban communities are very sexy now, with urban living becoming more hip, more and more people are going to flood in.” Burton-Faulk and the MCC are prepared for that and are doing their best to ensure they implement their standards.
To see the historical maps of each Northside district clink on the links below:
Allegheny Commons Park – http://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/Allegheny-Commons-Park-CHD.pdf
Designated Nov. 26, 1990 and encompasses majority of the Allegheny Park. Allegheny Center and Foster Square are not included in the district, but portions of Merchant Street, Western Avenue and to the intersection of Ridge Place and Brighton Road are. Notable landmarks: The Aviary.
Allegheny West – http://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/Allegheny-West-CHD.pdf
Also designated in 1990 and covers the 700-913 block of Brighton Road, 930-956 block of Allegheny Avenue, and 915 and 901 of Ridge Avenue until the intersection at Brighton Road. The 800s and 900s blocks of Beech, Western, and Lincoln Avenue are all within this district. Notable landmarks: Emmanuel Episcopal and Calvary Methodist Churches.
Historic Duetschtown – http://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/Deutschtown-CDHD.pdf
Designated on February 12, 1997. Majority of this district is formed off of Cedar Avenue including the over 706-1010 blocks until North Avenue. The 400-604 block on Cedar Avenue until Pressley Avenue is also included, although East Ohio is excluded. Meaning everything from The Priory to Avery Street is within the district. Notable landmarks: The Priory and Allegheny Inn.
Manchester – http://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/Manchester-CHD.pdf
Designated on July 30, 1979 and is one of the more confusing districts due to abrupt cuts in the historical boundaries. The majority of Chateau Street is covered including blocks 1000-1522, 1616-1626, and 1800-2010. Only three portions of Allegheny Avenue are marked including blocks 1015-1207, 1305-1313, and 1501-1513. Portions completely covered include: Baliff Way, Divine Street, Decatur Street, George Alley, Haines Way, Riggo Way and Siggsbe Way. Notable sections: 1100-1118 Fontella Street, 1415-1443 Hoffman Street and 1300-1442 Pennsylvania Avenue (both odd/even number properties).
Mexican War Streets – http://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/Mexican-War-Streets-CHD.pdf
The oldest section in the Northside designated on December 28, 1972 includes everything from North Avenue to Sampsonia Way stopping at Buena Vista Street (1201-1247, 1200-1306) and Wolfrum Street.
For more information visit the Historical Review Commission page at www.pittsburghpa.gov
Information provided by Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning, Historical Preservation Guidelines