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Lawsuit challenges bid for historic status for Bloomfield church

Bob Bauder
| Sunday, March 13, 2016, 11:02 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.
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.
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.
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 Methodist church conference is suing Pittsburgh and a preservation group, claiming they are jeopardizing the sale of a flood-damaged Bloomfield church by attempting to have it designated a historic structure.

The Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which represents about 800 churches in 23 counties, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Allegheny County seeking to void a Historic Review Commission vote that recommended historic landmark status for Albright United Methodist Church. It names the city, Friendship Community Group, a civic organization, and six Pittsburgh residents as defendants.

“Essentially, they're sort of seizing our property illegally,” said Mt. Lebanon attorney David J. Barton, who represents the conference.

Pittsburgh Planning Director Ray Gastil, whose department includes the Historic Preservation Commission, said he is confident the church is eligible for and merits historic designation.

Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

“I'm disappointed that the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference has chosen this (strategy),” said Abass Kamara of Friendship, who is named in the suit.

The lawsuit argues that the conference owns the church on South Graham Street and holds religious activities there.

It contends Historic Review Commission members violated a city preservation ordinance March 2 by unanimously recommending the church be designated as a historic landmark. The designation is subject to City Council approval.

The church, which has numerous stained-glass windows, was built in 1906 and designed by Pittsburgh architect Chancey W. Hodgden. It is widely regarded as a prime example of the Richardsonian-Romanesque and Gothic Revival style.

The lawsuit, filed in the Court of Common Pleas, says six residents and the Friendship Community Group illegally nominated the building for historic preservation by claiming it is vacant.

A city ordinance requires an owner's consent to nominate a religious structure. Preservationists successfully argued that it was not required in Albright's case because the church is vacant and no longer a religious building, according to the lawsuit.

Barton said the historic recommendation has blocked the church sale to East Liberty-based Ross Development Co. for more than $1 million. The money, he said, was intended to be used for conference programs that aid needy Pittsburghers.

Ross intended to demolish the building to make way for a Starbucks coffee shop with a drive-thru.

Under city code, buildings nominated or designated as historic cannot be demolished or altered externally without city consent.

The lawsuit also names Tim Sergi of Bloomfield and Kamara's sister, Taafoi Kamara, Jessica Duell, Thomas Mangan and Jennifer Haven, all of Friendship.

Sergi declined to comment. Taafoi Kamara was unavailable, according to her brother. Duell, Mangan, Haven and the Friendship group could not be reached.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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