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Expansion plan puts North Side neighbors at war

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Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Sampsonia Street, part of the North Side's Mexican War Streets neighborhood, on Tuesday, May 28, 2013. Supporters want to extend the boundaries of a historic district in the neighborhood beyond Sampsonia, a proposal that has divided residents.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Homeowners in the Mexican War Streets are split over a plan to include more of the North Side neighborhood in a historic district, meaning a city commission would have to approve exterior changes to buildings.

Residents say rancor over the proposal has divided the neighborhood and included such antics as anonymous hate letters slipped under the doors of people who oppose the plan.

About 40 residents took their complaints to City Council on Tuesday. Council rescheduled a public hearing because of a Planning Department error in notifying people about it.

“I can't see somebody telling me what I can do with (my house), how I can do it and when I can do it,” said Blaine G. Edwards, summing up the most common complaint. “For somebody to tell me what I can and cannot do is out of the question for me.”

The city in 1972 designated part of Mexican War Streets — Sampsonia Street to North Avenue and Sherman Avenue to Drover's Way — a city historic district. Supporters want to push the district's boundaries to Reddour Street, Charlick Way, Carrington Street, Armandale Street, Redknap Street and Cameo Way.

Proponents say the expansion would not require any property owner to change anything in place. Going forward, the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission would have to approve any changes to building exteriors.

“Everything in this neighborhood is grandfathered. ... What's going on here is people are looking for any excuse at all to derail this,” said Paul Johnson, president of the Mexican War Streets Society, which supports the expansion.

Opponents say the area surrounding the historic district is different architecturally and not suited for such a designation. They say they weren't included in the planning.

“This process is not a democratic process,” resident John Canning said. “This really breaks my heart to see the tensions this has created in my community.”

Johnson said the main reason for the expansion is to make it harder to demolish historic buildings.

He said the proposal is part of the neighborhood's master plan for development. The Mexican War Streets Society and Allegheny City Central Association hired consultants to make the plan, held 18 public meetings attended by as many as 200 people and went door-to-door with informational flyers during the past 18 months.

“Several of the people who objected today voted to make this nomination,” said Kirk Burkley, a member of the Pittsburgh Planning Commission who proposed expanding the historic district. “How do you get volunteers to spend countless hours of their time to put together a community plan if people get to come in at the last second and say, ‘I wasn't involved, I don't like it?' ”

Council members said they would wait until after the public hearing to decide whether to support the proposal. The hearing starts at 6 p.m. June 17 at the Institutional Church of God, 302 W. North Ave.

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