Council kills bill to protect historic Pittsburgh church

November 12, 2018

Pittsburgh City Council’s effort to save the vacant Albright United Methodist Church at the edge of Bloomfield and Shadyside from demolition ended Wednesday when members voted to kill a bill seeking historic status for the building.

Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park, the bill’s sponsor, said she withdrew sponsorship because the designation was unlikely to survive a court challenge. The designation would have protected the building from demolition and redevelopment.

“I’m sad,” Gross said. “In this case, I feel that the courts leaned too far toward free market, private property rights.”

Abass B. Kamara, 41, of Highland Park, a congregation member, said he and other members and community groups will continue efforts to preserve the building as a community meeting space.

“I don’t think the events today will deter our efforts to protect and preserve the building,” he said, adding that his parents were married in the church and he has been a member since birth.

Commonwealth Court in June upheld an Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas ruling that struck down a historic designation for the church because Pittsburgh City Council failed to vote on it.

Council members thought it had been approved under a section of the city code allowing a historic designation to take effect if members take no action for 120 days. Commonwealth Court cited another section of the city code that said approving the historic designation over a property owner’s objection required a “yes” vote by two-thirds of the nine council members.

The building’s owner, the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, wants to sell the property and for several years has fought the historic status designation, which preservationists and the building’s former congregation supported.

A conference spokeswoman declined to comment.

The congregation left the 112-year-old building in 2013 because of water damage, and the conference assumed ownership when the congregation could no longer afford its upkeep. The conference reached an agreement with a developer with plans to demolish the building and replace it with a one-story retail building.

Gross said she was unsure if the sales agreement was still valid, but noted that it has yet to be sold.

She said she would like to see building preserved and adapted as a public meeting space that provides space for residents and the church congregation.

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