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Preservation Program Would Expand, Coordinate Pittsburgh Historic Designations

Many of Pittsburgh's most notable historic landmarks, like the Fort Pitt Blockhouse and the Cathedral of Learning, are already protected by the Historic Review Commission of Pittsburgh. The city has also designated twelve neighborhoods as historic districts, in which the area's aesthetics are strictly controlled.

However, a new plan from the Department of City Planning aims to expand the city's protection of its historic assets. Under the PRESERVEPGH outline, Pittsburgh would coordinate citywide historic preservation for the first time in its history.

"We're trying to understand what makes up that essential quality of place. What are the characteristics of Pittsburgh that the residents like so much?" said Noor Ismail, Director of City Planning. "Pittsburghers are very passionate about their sense of place."

Ismail said PRESERVEPGH is meant to identify the buildings and districts Pittsburghers want to preserve, through online comments and public hearings. The Planning Department has already outlined roughly 13,500 parcels that have possible historic value. Then, the plan calls for more protections for these assets, as well as a 25-year stewardship plan.

However, the effort to save more historic buildings from the wrecking ball will be costly, and Ismail said private money and nonprofit grants will be necessary in addition to dedicated funding in the city budget. She said a citywide preservation fund is sorely needed.

"Most of the time when a demolition comes before the Historic Review Commission, we are in angst, because we have monies for demolition but we don't have monies for preservation," said Ismail. "Most of the time, these buildings end up being taken down anyway."

One of PRESERVEPGH's recommendations is to add twenty-five more neighborhoods to Pittsburgh's list of historic districts, on top of the twelve already protected. City Historic Preservation Planner Sarah Quinn said there are several benefits to being labeled a historic district.

"We have a known increase in property values within historic districts," said Quinn. "In a lot of cases, we feel that there's proof that designation tends to stabilize property just from having owners that are very concerned, and care about their neighborhood, and are willing to invest. And then just the overall sense of place that we have here in Pittsburgh."

At a City Council meeting on Wednesday, several Council Members indicated their support for the PRESERVEPGH proposal, which is part of a larger PLANPGH document. Councilman Bill Peduto said historic preservation hasn't traditionally been a priority in Pittsburgh.

"Quite honestly, there was a lot of change that happened in the city in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was urban renewal through demolition," said Peduto. "It wasn't just the Hill [District], and the North Side, and East Liberty, and Downtown. It was happening all over the City of Pittsburgh, and once it's gone, it's gone forever."