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Allegheny

Pennsylvania court denies historic protection for vacant church in Bloomfield

Matthew Santoni
| Tuesday, June 12, 2018, 2:48 p.m.
Albright Community United Methodist Church in Shadyside, Saturday, September 19, 2015.
Steven Adams | Trib Total Media
Albright Community United Methodist Church in Shadyside, Saturday, September 19, 2015.

A vacant church at the edge of Bloomfield and Shadyside could lose its historic designation — and its protection from demolition and redevelopment — because of a Pennsylvania appeals court ruling Monday.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania on Monday upheld a decision that stripped the former Albright United Methodist Church on Centre Avenue of its historic designation by the city.

In making its determination, the court cited an argument that noted Pittsburgh City Council failed to vote on the designation. The building's owner, the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, objected to the historic status designation, which preservationists and the building's former congregation supported.

“To construe the deemed approval provision otherwise would effectively impinge on an objecting property owner's due process property rights,” wrote Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson in a 15-page opinion Monday.

The congregation left the 112-year-old building in 2013 because of water damage, and the conference assumed ownership when the congregation could no longer afford its upkeep. The conference reached an agreement with a developer with plans to demolish the church and replace it with a one-story retail building. Preservationists sought to have the structure designated historic so that any exterior alterations would require city approval.

The historic designation was reviewed and recommended by the city's Historic Review Commission and the Planning Commission, despite the objections of the conference, and the designation went to City Council. The council failed to bring it up for a vote, but it was “deemed approved” under a section of the city code that allowed it to take effect if both lower boards recommended it and council took no action for 120 days.

The conference filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas , citing another section of the city code that said approving the historic designation over a property owner's objection required approval from two-thirds of the nine council members.

Allegheny County Judge Michael Della Vecchia sided with the conference and ruled that the historic designation was inappropriate; the seven-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court upheld that ruling.

Tim McNulty, a spokesman in Mayor Bill Peduto's office, said Pittsburgh officials are reviewing the court's ruling. Attorneys for the conference could not be reached for comment.

“I don't want to live in a community and neighborhood where they tear down 100-year-old churches to build a drive-through Starbucks,” said Lindsay Patross, a Shadyside resident and operator of the “I Heart Pittsburgh” blog who compiled the historic designation application.

A friend in the former congregation invited Patross to volunteer at one of the yearly, free Thanksgiving Eve dinners they still host and she became an “accidental preservationist,” hoping to see the vacant church converted to a senior center; a “co-worship” space shared by smaller church congregations; or a community space for gatherings and performances similar to the former Shadow Lounge in East Liberty or the Union Project in Highland Park.

Patross said that former members of the church, neighbors and even the granddaughter of architect Chancey Hodgdon attended meetings to support the building's historic designation and preservation.

In addition to being one of a few surviving examples of the architect's work, Patross said, the church has notable stained-glass windows manufactured on what is now Pittsburgh's North Side, and has a rare layout that swaps a wide center aisle for two aisles up either side of the pews.

“I'm disappointed (in the ruling). ... But I feel this is a technicality,” she said, noting that she was not a party to the lawsuit. “I'm still thinking of how we can come together over this.”

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.

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