Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission OKs the demolition of 2 historic Downtown buildings

The demolition would make way for a new development featuring luxury condos.

At left, the block as it currently stands. At right, a planned development.

At left, the block as it currently stands. At right, a planned development.

The Incline illustration / Images from Preservation Pittsburgh and Historic Review Commission documents
Rossilynne Culgan

With just two votes, the city’s Historic Review Commission on Wednesday approved the demolition of two century-old buildings on Penn Avenue, making way for a new Downtown development featuring luxury condos, retail and a parking garage.

The facades of the buildings at 819 and 821 Penn Ave., which are located in both a city and a national historic district, will be peeled off and then essentially pasted onto the new building — a process known as facadism.

Ernie Hogan, the acting chairman of the city’s Historic Review Commission, calls preserving the facades a “a good solution” and sees it as “reknitting a block that’s been really decimated.”

“In the end it will look like these buildings still stand and will still function behind them,” said Hogan, who also serves as executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group.

The Davis Companies plans to build luxury condos, a parking garage on the site and retail space, the Post-Gazette reported this summer. The Davis Companies did not return multiple requests for comment.

Developers were worried about the integrity of the buildings and how it would be possible to brace the buildings to demolish the garage around it, Hogan said, adding that the buildings have suffered “significant water damage.”

Preservation Pittsburgh is not pleased.

“The building will appear like a mish mash of new and old,” Susan Brandt, the non-profit advocacy group’s vice president, said. “Preservation Pittsburgh does not support facadism, and (the decision is) really disappointing.”

Brandt said the group isn’t opposed to the parking garage being rebuilt but wishes there had been more discussion about the demolition of the historic buildings. During the city’s Historic Review Commission meeting Wednesday afternoon, which was open to the public, the commission read letters from residents about the plan.

The commission is comprised of seven members appointed by the mayor. It’s charged with maintaining “historical/significant buildings and neighborhoods in Pittsburgh” and has control over any new proposed new construction, demolition, or exterior work to an historic landmark, according to its website.

Here’s a breakdown of the commission’s vote, per Hogan:

  • Voting in favor of the demolition plan were Hogan and Erik Harless, who also serves in the city’s Permits, Licenses, and Inspections department.
  • Voting no: Matthew Falcone, president of Preservation Pittsburgh.
  • Joe Serrao abstained. Raymond Gastil, the city’s director of planning, recused himself (and did not respond to a request for comment).
  • Carol Peterson, another commission member, was absent. The seventh spot, the chairperson’s role, is vacant.

The decision comes with several conditions. For example, the project must earn full funding and secure municipal approvals before the wrecking ball can show up.

“The buildings will not be coming down tomorrow. They have probably a year’s worth of work to do,” Hogan said. “It gives them the ability to hone in on the final design.”

Preservation Pittsburgh implored the commission to preserve the buildings, asking the developer to incorporate the buildings — in full — into the design.

“They’re a very good example of the building in the 1900s,” Brandt said, noting the building’s cornices and beading work. “They should not be torn down. … It’s very disappointing that they have come to this.”

The buildings set to be razed are contained within the Penn-Liberty Historic District, which bears both a city and a national historic district recognition, established about 30 years ago.

The buildings currently house a violin shop and an art gallery on the ground floors, with the top floors vacant. The art gallery, called Future Tenant, has launched a crowdfunding campaign seeking $5,000 to fund the gallery’s move to a new location. “Due to planned construction on the block of 9th Street and Penn Avenue, Future Tenant is being forced to move from 819 Penn to a new location at 810 Liberty Avenue,” the group wrote.


So what happens next?

More meetings will be held. The Historic Review Commission will review the plans design likely in February, and then plans will go before planning and zoning, Hogan said.

The discussion will also have to go through what’s called a “106 Process,” a special review per the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 because the area in question is within a national historic district, Brandt said.

Preservation Pittsburgh will continue to weigh in “trying to find another way to do this other than tearing down the buildings,” Brandt said. The group encourages Downtown residents to share their voice in the process and welcomes calls to the Preservation Pittsburgh office about how to get involved.

“The project is a good project, but they just can’t tear down those buildings,” Brandt said. “They have survived all of these years and then to be torn down to build a parking lot? We don’t do that anymore.”