On March 11, Pittsburgh’s City Council voted to make the Workingmen Savings Bank building, also known to many as the ARC House, a historic structure. The building located at 808 East Ohio Street, has been vacant for some time now, and the historic nomination went through over the objections of the developer with six votes for, two against and one abstention. To nominate a building over its owner’s objections requires six council members.
The nomination by East Allegheny Community Council and the Allegheny City Society prevents the current owner, Lou Lamana, from tearing down the building or making significant alterations to the existing structure. Lamana had planned retail development for the vacant building he had bought at a sheriff’s auction.
The outcome of the vote was not in doubt though. The night before, members of the community gathered at the meeting of the Community Alliance of Spring Garden/East Deutschtown to voice their opinions. Around 70 to 80 people showed up, with the majority in favor of historic designation.
Councilwoman Darlene Harris said that her vote reflected the will of the people, and that she always votes the way her community wanted her to. She voted for the historic nomination.
“If my neighborhood asked for me to vote for it I would. If they wanted me to vote against it I would vote against it,” Harris said. She said that every neighborhood on the Northside was like a small city, and that they know what is best for their community.
Councilman Ricky Burgess, who chairs the committee responsible for historic nomination, believes that the process is being used as a weapon against developers by specific groups within the community.
“I did not expect that the most troubling issue I have had on this council to be the historic review process,” Burgess said. “It says that we will use the wishes of the majority to take away your rights.”
Burgess said that the process, which allows a group to petition a building for nomination and have it designated over the building owner’s wishes, was enabling people to supersede the rights of the individual and property owner. He said that if they wanted to preserve the property so much, they should buy the property and “put their skin into the game.”
He mentioned the Malta Building on North Avenue as another example of what he sees as a dysfunctional process. The Salvation Army building was designated a historic structure, preventing them from demolishing the building and building a new one.
Councilman Jim Motznik agreed with Burgess, saying that nominations seem to be used as a way to stop development, and he cited St. Nicholas church on Route 28. He asked how long the ARC House had been vacant, and said that the timing was suspicious to him.
“If they wanted to make it historic, why wait until someone buys it and wants to do something to it?” Motznik said. Motznik voted against nomination.
Council President Doug Shields agreed that the process was problematic, but that certain historic buildings deserve to be preserved. He said that historic buildings yield a unique economic benefit, and that although the building is vacant now, it has a lot of potential.
Councilman Bruce Kraus said that the community stated “A loud and clear voice that they wanted to see this property designated historic.”
Walter Flanigan, the president of the Community Alliance of Spring Garden/East Deutschtown said that the vote of the neighborhood group was clear – that they wanted the building to be designated historic.
Check back again soon for a longer story and updates.