Repeal Pittsburgh’s Historic Preservation Law

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the poster child for why many people hate historic preservation. Enacted in 1971 and amended several times, the law created a clunky, confusing, and biased process for designating and regulating historic landmarks and districts. Over its 51-year history, at least two Historic Review Commission chairpersons have resigned because of policy and procedural irregularities in the ways the law works.

The entire historic preservation program is overseen by a petty dictatorial bureaucrat gatekeeper many journalists who cover city government and historic preservation and residents describe in incredibly unflattering terms. These impressions are captured in this January 2022 PublicSource report on a Planning Commission historic preservation briefing about the pending nomination of the Tito-Mecca-Zizza House as a City of Pittsburgh historic site:

Uptown Partners did not participate in the briefing. Afterward, the community organization’s Executive Director Brittany McDonald wrote in the Zoom question-and-answer function that Quinn’s presentation was “inept,” displaying a “lack of professionalism and overt bias.” There was no immediate response from Quinn or the commission.

Historic preservation advocates in the city regularly pine for a better system. It is hamstrung by historical and cultural illiteracy that leads to racial bias in designating historic properties. Despite seismic shifts in professional historic preservation theory and practice towards inclusion and embracing historic places that “tell the full American story,” Pittsburgh’s historic preservation program remains mired in antiquarianism — an outdated approach that privileges pretty old buildings and sanitized histories.

Even the state’s umbrella historic preservation advocacy organization for years has maintained a hands-off approach to Pittsburgh — it’s so bad that the organization’s executive director regularly decides whether to ignore queries from people here.

All together, Pittsburgh’s historic preservation law and the ways it is implemented are bad for the city’s heritage resources; bad for historic preservation’s reputation; and, bad for taxpayers caught up in its regulatory web.

The law’s fatal flaws are fully revealed in the February 2, 2022, Historic Review Commission hearing where the body (appointed by the mayor and confirmed by City Council) evaluated the nomination of the Tito-Mecca-Zizza House. I prepared the nomination on behalf of Uptown Partners, a non-profit community development organization, and the case began its journey through the city’s broken historic preservation system in October 2021. During the February 2022 hearing, Historic Review Commission members displayed an incredible lack of familiarity with the law they were appointed to work under. Before voting against the nomination, they made repeated legally indefensible statements that were contrary to the city’s historic preservation law.

Ultimately, the Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission declined to support the Tito-Mecca-Zizza House nomination despite overwhelming support by leading academics in the fields of African American history, Italian-American history and culture, architectural history, sports history, and Pittsburgh history. Two of Pittsburgh’s three citywide historic preservation advocacy groups supported the nomination as did many community groups and neighborhood residents.

The February hearing was held virtually and it was streamed live to YouTube where people all around the country with a stake in the Tito-Mecca-Zizza House had a chance to watch what one observer described as a “shit show.” After the hearing, one of the Tito family descendants who lives in California and who is deeply invested in the property’s history wrote in a Facebook post:

During these meetings, my family where called – mafia, racist, criminals and disparaged in many many more ways. That with-standings, to lose this last tangible part of this Pittsburgh history remains a very sad commentary for The City.

I will have a lot more to say about historic preservation policy in Pittsburgh and this case over the coming weeks. Next up in this series: a regulatory Rube Goldberg machine.

Originally posted:

About David Rotenstein

David Rotenstein is a historian and writer specializing in documenting erased and forgotten stories.
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1 Response to Repeal Pittsburgh’s Historic Preservation Law

  1. Brittany M. says:

    Great article! Thank you for bringing mre attention to the much needed overhaul of the HRC and their policy. However, my comments about unprofessionalism and overt bias is directed at the commissioners specifically. Public Source did a terrible job quoting me.

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