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Panel ruling now goes to council

| Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

The Pittsburgh Planning Commission recommended Tuesday that St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church be designated a city historic structure, but not before the commission chairman lambasted the road project that threatens it.

'This is absurd,' said Tom Armstrong. 'More enlightened regions of this country would be planning light rail. Here, we're talking about building a huge slab of concrete. We should be thinking bigger.'

The commission's nonbinding recommendation goes to City Council, which has until May to make a final ruling on the church's status.

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh wants to sell the North Side church to PennDOT, which would demolish or move it to make way for the widening of Route 28 between Etna and the Heinz plant on the North Side.

PennDOT's $100 million upgrade is aimed at reducing accidents and fatalities. The state plans to begin reconstruction in 2006.

PennDOT has offered to move St. Nicholas, the first Croatian church in North America. Parishioners want it to be relocated between Penn Brewery and the Heinz plant on the North Side, one-fifth of a mile away.

The Rev. Ronald Lengwin, diocesan spokesman, said the diocese is determined to sell the church. Even if PennDOT did move the building, it would no longer be used as a church in the diocese, he said.

Thomas C. Fox, PennDOT assistant district engineer, said yesterday that the agency would be reluctant to move the church unless its history and function were preserved.

In December, the city Historic Review Commission recommended that City Council designate the church as a city historic site.

If the building does receive historic status, the Historic Review Commission would have to approve any plans to change or demolish it, said Angelique Bamberg, the city's historic preservation planner.

Bamberg said she could not recall any buildings being demolished after receiving historic status from City Council.

The church is eligible to be included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Joanne Aftanas, a member of St. Nicholas, said parishioners have petitioned the Vatican to overturn the Diocese's decision to sell the church.

Joseph D. Wilcox can be reached at jwilcox@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7847.

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