Tearing Down History
The former Papa J's Centro restaurant at 212 and 214 Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown, was demolished overnight June 21 to 22. The building, one of the last constructed before the Civil War left in Downtown, had had a colorful history as a brothel before becoming a nightspot and then a restaurant. (Sean D. Hamill/Post-Gazette)
Nearly 300 structures identified as historic by Pittsburgh are gone, most of them the result of neglect by the city and their owners
September 19, 2019

Twenty-five years ago the city of Pittsburgh completed its first, and still only, street-by-street historic survey.

To create the Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places, the city’s historic review staff spent thousands of hours driving or walking all 1,300 miles of streets and alleys of the city’s 90 neighborhoods to identify structures that might merit historic designation and didn't already have any designation.

In the end, after public meetings to review the proposed register, the city staff created a list of 1,889 individual structures and 15 newly identified historic districts with hundreds more buildings within them.

Address: 212 and 214 Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown

Status: Razed

Significance: These were among the last pre-Civil War buildings left Downtown.

History: Former bordello, bar, then restaurant.

Some of the buildings they identified were well-known architectural touchstones, but most were little known beyond their  neighborhoods.

As a result, the list includes the majestic, granite-clad Art Deco Pitt Stadium in North Oakland, as well as the Modern Frederick Scheibler-designed, six-unit brick row house that lent character to an otherwise typical Pittsburgh block in Lincoln-Lemington, and the colorful Queen Anne clapboard home that quietly graced the corner where Grandview Avenue meets the P.J. McCardle Roadway in Mt. Washington.

The crowd filled Pitt Stadium for the last time in the Pittsburgh-Notre Dame game Nov. 13, 1999. (Associated Press)

Two of the historic districts identified included one of the last intact pieces of the Hill District commercial strip in the 1800 block of Webster Avenue, as well as the cozy, stone-clad Queen Anne rowhouses of the 200 block of Dinwiddie Street in Crawford-Roberts.

Though the register did not give any of them historic protection, it declared that those four buildings and two historic districts — and all the other structures the register identified — were “significant” to the city and that “that these neighborhoods and buildings should be preserved intact, and treated sensitively in the planning and execution of public and private development projects.”

Despite the work that went into it and the unanimous adoption of the register in 1994 as a formal document by the city’s historic review commission, planning commission and city council, that direction was never fulfilled. All four of those buildings are gone, and so many buildings in those two historic districts are now gone that they likely would never be granted formal historic protection again.

And that’s just a small slice of the devastation.

City of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places identified
individual structures:
To date 299 of those structures are gone.
No longer in existence

A Post-Gazette investigation found that 299 of those structures are gone, or nearly 16% of the individual structures identified — with many more likely to fall in the near future.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said John DeSantis, the Pittsburgh preservationist who came up with the idea for the register when he was chair of the Historic Review Commission in 1990. “Especially when you consider this: Every single building — no exception — on that list was on that list for a reason: architectural, historic, added because something happened there, or a historically important figure lived there, or it was a great work of engineering.”

The loss of register-listed buildings is endemic of an even larger loss of similar structures across the city. Those losses have changed the character of the neighborhoods, from the destruction of individual Queen Anne row houses that have left gap-toothed grins along Homewood’s streets, to the loss of dozens of grand, Perrysville Avenue Colonial, Italianate and Romanesque homes on the North Side, to the demolition of dozens of distinctive, pre-1900 commercial buildings Downtown that have slowly diluted the living history of the city’s most visited neighborhood.

“If out of a city of [110,000] structures, you are going to say there are a couple thousand here that we really need to keep, it should be our collective ability to do that,” said Mr. DeSantis. “And shame on us that we did not.”


So who or what is responsible for all that architectural carnage?

Forty-two of the 299 buildings that have been taken down were demolished  to make way for a new development, primarily in the city’s major commercial neighborhoods in Downtown, Oakland and East Liberty.

That count could rise. The city’s recent commercial revitalization, particularly Downtown, has put a dozen more register-listed buildings in the eye of the wrecking ball to make way for possible new developments.

Some of those proposed demolitions have been hotly debated, including a group of register-listed buildings near the Boulevard of the Allies and Market Street owned by the Troiani family. Two of the last pre-Civil War buildings remaining Downtown — at 212 and 214 Boulevard of the Allies — were demolished in June. The family is seeking to tear down another register building on the same block that used to be home to Froggy’s bar.

Address: 300 and 320 Lafayette Ave., Fineview

Status: One renovated, one condemned

Significance: Both homes are in an intact block, mostly of Queen Anne architecture, from the 1870s.

Some losses of register buildings belonged to universities. The University of Pittsburgh has taken down seven of the buildings in the register, including Pitt Stadium, in Oakland. Carnegie Mellon University has torn down one Queen Anne-style home and bought three others listed in the register in the small, residential neighborhood east of South Craig Street near Forbes Avenue, a move that residents believe will lead to their demise as well. Point Park has taken down two buildings Downtown and has demolished the old Playhouse building in Oakland.

But the biggest culprit in the loss of buildings has been neglect, first by the former building owners who abandoned them and — more important — the city of Pittsburgh.

Through five different mayoral administrations — from Sophie Masloff to current mayor Bill Peduto — since the register was adopted, the city has allowed many buildings on the list to slowly deteriorate to the point where they had to be torn down because they have become a hazard; many after the city bought them for back taxes and allowed them to deteriorate even further.

Pittsburgh lags behind in historic designation In a National Trust for Historic Preservation survey of 50 American cities in 2016, it found that on average cities had designated 4.3 percent of their buildings as historic. But Pittsburgh, which had the fourth most buildings older than 1940 in the survey, had barely half the average amount of buildings designated as historic with just 2.3 percent. Percentage of buildings designated historic in Pittsburgh compared to selected cities:
Source: National Trust for Historic Preservation report, The Atlas of ReUrbanism | James Hilston/Post-Gazette

No one owned more demolished buildings on the register’s list when they were torn down than the city of Pittsburgh over the last 25 years, with 29 buildings. The Urban Redevelopment Authority, a branch of city government, took down nine other buildings in the register, and the city Housing Authority three more, bringing the total to 41 buildings on the list that were taken down by the city or a city-related agency that owned them.

The city also took down at least another 40 buildings it did not own because absentee owners had allowed the buildings to become so unsafe that the city determined they had become a public health risk.

The city may have taken down many other buildings it did not own. Because of decades of problems with its paper-based demolition records, the city could not provide demolition-related documents — including notices of demolition liens — for 117 demolished buildings, or 40% of the buildings in the register that are now gone.

“We’re losing neighborhoods because of the city’s past administrations’ approach to blight. Regardless if it’s historic or not, we’re losing neighborhoods,” said Ernie Hogan, Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group executive director and former chair of the city’s Historic Review Commission.

Some of those demolished buildings that the city has no permits for may very well have been taken down without a permit, said Maura Kennedy, the city’s director of Permits, Licenses and Inspections.

“Unfortunately that’s true” that buildings are sometimes taken down without a permit, said Ms. Kennedy, who was brought to Pittsburgh to oversee modernization of the department, after she did similar work in Philadelphia.

The old Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland as it looked in January 2018. Point Park University demolished it in August. (Lake Fong/Post-Gazette)

Mr. Hogan said when he was on the Historic Review Commission, he once helped stop the demolition of a home in the Manchester Historic District after the demolition operator failed to take out a permit. He said he got a phone call from a concerned neighbor as equipment was about to start tearing the home down.

The fact that a permit is not taken out is not only dangerous — city inspectors ensure that utilities are properly turned off and asbestos and other possible hazardous issues are dealt with before demolition is allowed — it also removes one significant barrier from a historic building being torn down.

Even though many of the demolitions with no permits may not have been prevented, historic advocates say it is often a formal demolition request that gets neighbors to finally take an interest in a historic property, sometimes preventing its destruction.


While some of the buildings on the list fell despite a public outcry — such as the Brashear Factory in Perry South or St. Nicholas Church in Troy Hill — most were torn down as quietly as they existed, without a single objection.

The all-too-common pattern: The longtime owner died or had to move and stopped paying property taxes; the home couldn’t be sold and became abandoned; after a decade or more of no maintenance the home deteriorated; eventually a neighbor complained to the city or council representative about the deterioration or open front door; the city issued a series of violations to the absent owner that escalated into a condemnation order, meaning no one could live in it; with no response over a couple of years, the home’s condition got so dangerous that the city paid to have the building torn down.

Address: 102 33rd St., Strip District

Status: For sale

Significance: May have been steel magnate Andrew Carnegie's first office building.

“We’re familiar with the story,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which has rehabilitated buildings that were in similar shape before PHLF rescued them. “You let a building go, it goes.”

Of the 299 structures and buildings in the register that are now gone, at least 110 were behind on tax payments when they were torn down. Most of those were likely torn down by the city.

Falling behind on taxes, then, serves as something of an early-warning sign for a building’s potential demolition.

Historic buildings that have been destroyed


Of the 1,595 structures remaining from the original register list, 70 are at least two years behind on taxes. Another 47 already have been condemned. 

Buildings from the register have been lost across the city. But the destruction is concentrated in two types of neighborhoods: Struggling communities such as Hazelwood, Homewood, Perry South and Allentown that were hit hardest with the decline of the steel industry; and dynamic commercial areas in neighborhoods such as Downtown, Oakland and East Liberty that have seen major players bring big money and big ideas in, often at the expense of older buildings.

Workers in 2015 tear down the remains of John Brashear's factory at 2016 Perrysville Ave., Perry South. A millwright and self-taught astronomer, Brashear manufactured astronomical and scientific instruments. His silvering process was the standard method for coating mirrors from the late 19th century until 1932. His former factory was in such poor condition by 2015 that a portion of it collapsed, forcing the city to perform an emergency demolition. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

One insidious problem with demolishing buildings in struggling neighborhoods where so many register buildings were torn down, said Mr. DeSantis, is that the lots they stood on tend to stay vacant.

“It’s bad enough when important buildings are destroyed in order to be replaced by the latest big box store or the latest fast food joint,” he said. “It’s even worse in some ways when they are simply neglected to the point of collapse, then demolished and a vacant weed lot replaces them. And a vacant weed lot will remain a vacant weed lot forever. We don’t typically see those vacant lots get rebuilt as anything, let along something constructive to the community.”

Of the 299 register structures that have been taken down, 128 remain vacant lots, some of them decades after demolition. The overwhelming majority of the structures — at least 60% — were taken down by the city.

Mr. Hogan said he blames the city for a policy that makes demolition “the cheapest solution to the city” in eliminating “blight” when it’s faced with a deteriorating building.

“Although it’s really not eliminating blight,” he said, “it’s eliminating a structure when they demo something. Because just like they didn’t have the resources to take care of the vacant building and board it and mow the grass, they don’t have the resources once they demolish the building to take care of the vacant lot.”

Lots staying vacant can happen even to sites of well-known buildings in dynamic neighborhoods, such as the Syria Mosque in Oakland, which was demolished in 1991 but remains a parking lot nearly three decades later, and an even more recent loss.

“That’s what drives people mad about the Civic Arena site,” Matthew Craig, executive director of Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, an advocacy group, said of the demolition of the arena in 2010. “All these years later, it’s still just a parking lot. So I do think that those are parts that make people feel kind of ripped off.”

Download data

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The city currently has more than 1,500 buildings on its condemnation list, more than half of them listed since Jan.1, 2018.

Ms. Kennedy said the city is trying to be thoughtful with its demolitions.

“The city is in no way looking to demolish every structure on the condemnation list,” she said. “We really want to preserve the community fabric of our neighborhoods. Demolition can definitely be a safety solution. It can also detract from that fabric. So we definitely want to be strategic in the demolitions that we do as a city.”


Mr. DeSantis said he was trying to be strategic, too, when he proposed the register in 1990.

After a series of raucous public debates over historic nominations in the city in the late 1980s, Mr. DeSantis said he realized that the city had set itself up for conflict because it had very few historic districts and individually designated buildings. But preservation-minded citizens quickly would nominate worthy buildings or parts of neighborhoods if they heard a developer was considering demolition to make way for new structures.

Address: 1100 and 1200 blocks of Voskamp Street, Spring Garden

Status: Some houses have been demolished.

Significance: 1870s and 1880s Italianate homes along a street laid out in 1860.

“The thing that developers feared the most was finding a good site, planning a project, buying the land, and then all of the sudden getting what the developers viewed as radical, zealot preservationists coming along and nominating their property for historic designation and all of the sudden throwing a monkey wrench into the developers plans,” he said.

Mr. DeSantis and the commission hoped the register would, essentially, warn developers whether a building had historic merit.

The effort was led by the city’s historic planner at the time, the late Mike Eversmeyer, who died in 2009, and then-senior preservation planner Lauren Uhl, who is now the Heinz History Center’s museum project manager.

“When I came to Pittsburgh [in 1986] I was stunned how beautiful the buildings were,” she said. “But no one seemed to care about them. They were so concerned with the loss of the steel mills.”

The Spring Hill United Church of Christ at 1620 Rhine St., Spring Hill, as it looked before its 2016 demolition. It was built in 1902 and closed in 2004 or 2005. In 2011, its roof caved in. (Haley Nelson/Post-Gazette)
Demolition of the church took place in summer 2016. (Laura Malt Schneiderman/Post-Gazette)
An empty lot remains long after demolition. (Laura Malt Schneiderman/Post-Gazette)

But he acknowledges that the register rarely was used as it was intended “and it began gathering dust on the shelf.”

Not one of more than 40 owners of demolished and remaining buildings in the register contacted by the Post-Gazette had ever been told that their buildings were included on the list. Several said it would have made a difference in determining whether to tear a building down or not.

“I did ask if it was on some historic register because if it was, I wouldn’t want to buy it,” said Ron Samsone, who bought and tore down in 2016 a register-listed, Queen Anne-style home that sat at the corner of Grandview Avenue and McArdle Roadway to make way for a new, modern home for him and his family. “I did get some assurances that it was not on some preservation list.”

Much to some preservationists’ chagrin, the commission in 1994 did not propose any city historic designations with the list, or even varying levels of protection to the buildings and historic districts on the list.

“We didn’t do a levels-of-protection for a reason: At least if it was on the list we felt that that was a sufficient statement that there was historic value of some sort,” Mr. DeSantis said.

Home buyer Ron Samsone bought and tore down a register-listed Queen Anne-style home at the corner of Grandview Avenue and McArdle Roadway so he could build a modern home for his family. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

Because it has largely been forgotten, some preservationists downplay the register’s value to the city.

The city’s preservation planner, Sarah Quinn, said the register “was just one of many surveys that have been done by the city and it’s just one point in time.”

There have been other surveys by the city. But they have all involved a more generalized search by taking suggestions from community leaders, or cataloging prominent public buildings like schools or churches. The register remains the only time in the city’s history that it has gone street-by-street to look at every single structure.

“The register stood as a document of what is significant in our community that we are not protecting,” Mr. DeSantis said. “It’s time for us to start protecting it... . How much more are we willing to throw on the fire until nothing is left?”

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill.



1953 Perrysville Ave., Perry South, before its demolition. Its gingerbread woodwork is visible at top. (Courtesy of the Lindheimer family)

When Gilbert and Katie Porr bought the small, three-story Queen Anne-style home in Perry South in 1974, it was a bargain.

They paid just $3,000 for the two-bedroom home at 1953 Perrysville Ave. because they were friends with the previous owner, Louise Lindheimer, whose family had lived there for nearly 50 years.

Mr. Porr, a truck driver, and Mrs. Porr, a Pittsburgh Public Schools security guard, still had four of their six kids at home at the time and the location let them stay in the neighborhood where they had raised their family.

But about a decade later, Mr. Porr’s health declined and the Porrs moved in with a daughter in 1992. Maintenance on the home suffered so much that it was condemned by the city in 1995, the same year Mr. Porr died.

(Melissa Tkach/Post-Gazette)

“The family walked away from it after that,” said Kim Porr, who was married to the Porrs’ youngest son, Arch, and for a time lived in the home with them in the late 1980s.

The next year the family stopped paying taxes on the home, and with no one maintaining the property, it became completely overgrown. Katie Porr died in 2002 after moving to McKees Rocks. But by then, the future of the home adorned with gingerbread woodwork around the windows and doors — once distinctive enough that it was included in the city’s Register of Historic Places as a home worth saving — was already written.

In 2005, the home was torn down by the city, which paid a contractor $9,000 for the work. In 2015, 20 years after the city first noticed it was declining, the city acquired the now-vacant lot at a city treasurer’s sale for $10,465 in back taxes.

The case of the Porr’s home is not unusual.

When it was adopted by the city as an official document in 1994, the Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places identified 1,889 individual buildings and 15 newly proposed historic districts with hundreds of additional structures, as having historic, architectural or cultural merit that made them worth saving.

The property at 1953 Perrysville Ave. before its demolition. (Courtesy of the Lindheimer family)

A total of 299 are now gone. And two of the 15 historic districts have lost so many buildings since 1994 that they would never be considered for official city historic status.

The city was involved in more than a third of the demolitions and knew of the buildings’ deteriorating conditions long before they were demolished – just like the Porrs’ home.

Many preservation advocates say, though private developers and homeowners have a role to play, it is the city that is in the best position to prevent the loss of even more structures in the register, as well as other buildings that contribute to the city’s neighborhood fabric.

“I think it’s a joint effort” between the city and private owners and developers, said Lucia Aguirre, an architect and chairwoman of the city’s Historic Review Commission. “But the city could probably be the first step.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, “The goal of our administration is to preserve whenever, however possible.” And preservationists do praise Mr. Peduto for his pledges to try to preserve more of the city’s built heritage. But they also would like to see the city be more aggressive in protecting buildings that are deteriorating.


One goal of various preservationists — and even preservation-minded developers and investors — has been to get the city to intervene sooner.

An idea that has floated around for more than a decade is what Arthur Ziegler of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation calls “core-and-shell.”

Instead of spending the money to tear down a building, the city would seal it up — put a new roof or gutters on, seal all the windows and doors — and make sure it doesn’t deteriorate any further until a new buyer is ready to renovate the building.

“We believe a lot of houses could be done if we could find the legal means and the money, subsidy money, to do what we call ‘core-and-shell,’” Mr. Ziegler said. “You fix up the exterior. You clean the interior. And then you put it on the market. And someone buys and finishes it. Some we’d like to buy and finish and keep affordable.”

Ernie Hogan, Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group executive director and former Historic Review Commission board member, said he proposed a similar idea to former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s administration and suggested having a community group do the stabilization work.

The 19th-century factory building of Pittsburgh astronomer and inventor John Brashear was left to deteriorate until part of it collapsed in 2015. Nearby apartment dwellers were forced to evacuate their homes, and the Perry South historic building was demolished. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

“They were very interested in figuring it out,” Mr. Hogan said. “But we couldn’t get through the Law Department’s concerns of liability. Because the city owned [the buildings], the city was like ‘What happens if the worker gets hurt? We’ve got to make sure the insurances are in place. How are we going to do all of that?’ Typical, like all the reasons why you couldn’t do it, not how do we figure this out.”

Mr. Peduto said he would like to go even another step further and seal up homes that the city does not yet own that are clearly abandoned and deteriorating — even at the risk of technically violating state property laws that prevent the city from doing more than board up doors and windows to prevent access to a home if it is abandoned.

“But again, the likelihood of getting sued is minimal. The people that own the property may not even be around, or if they are, they may be in a different state.” Mr. Peduto said. “As I’ve said to my city solicitor, ‘Let them sue us.’ If you’re going to be able to benefit the neighborhood and be able to preserve a building, I’d rather put a blue tarp on the roof and be sued for doing it rather than lose that building.”

Mr. Peduto said that in an interview a year ago during early reporting on this story.

Asked more recently if the city has begun such a program, his spokesman, Tim McNulty wrote in an email that the city has yet to implement such a program. “The mayor would like it as an option but it would still have to be studied by the Law Department.”

The processes currently in place are:

City treasurer's sale

Con: Long and slow.

See the steps

  1. Either the government, a community development group or a private individual says it or s/he wants to acquire a tax delinquent property.
  2. The lists are made six months out, and Jordan Tax Service makes a list of properties that can be in the treasurer's sale. (One year)
  3. The city sends a letter to warn the owner that his/her/its property is on the list, and the city begins checking for any tax liens, utility liens or other delinquency. (Three months)
  4. Thirty days later, the city sends a Selection Letter to the registered owner warning him/her/it that the property is up for sale. (30 days)
  5. The city mails certified and regular mail notices to the owner giving him/her/it 30 days to pay. (30 days)
  6. A cut-off date is set for advertising and posting notice on the property that the property is up for sale, and advertising begins that the property is up for sale both three and two weeks prior to the sale. (21 days)
  7. Sale day.
  8. If the property does not sell—which is the goal of the treasurer's sale so the city can acquire the property to give to the entity that requested it—the Redemption Period begins, in which the owner can still pay and get the property back. (90 days)
  9. The city moves to acquire the property in a Certified Treasurer's Sale process to get a judge to approve the city's acquisition of the property by proving that the city did everything right by notifying all those who had an interest in the property. (Time can vary from 90 days to four months.)
  10. The city then attempts to complete the "Quiet Title" action—designed to rid the property of any and all back taxes or other money owed to utilities, governments, anyone—by further researching anyone or any government or entity that might have had a financial interest in the property and notifying them that the city is acquiring the property. (Time can vary from 90 days to four months.)
  11. Once the city has a list of financially interested parties, it presents the list to the judge, and then has to send certified letters to each and everyone of them. They have 30 days to respond. (30 days)
  12. Once the 30-day period expires, the city heads back to court with an affidavit of notices and a final order and deed, which the judge signs, giving the city ownership of the property. (30 days)
  13. The city then moves to close on the property, put it in the city Reserve program and eventually transfer it to either the URA, a community development group, a private individual or keep it in the city's ownership. The closing process then runs similarly to a private sale. (Time can vary up to three months.)

Allegheny County sheriff's sale

Pro: Takes less time than a city treasurer's sale.
Con: Goal is to get back tax money, not get city control of the property.

See the steps

  1. The county selects properties it proposes be sold at a sheriff's sale based on back taxes owed on them and sends notices to registered land owners. (Two or three months)
  2. The county files a complaint in state court for the tax lien for the back taxes owed on a property. (One month)
  3. Service of the complaint is attempted upon the registered owner either by the sheriff if local, or through mailing if located out of state. (One to three months or longer)
  4. If a complaint can't be served by the sheriff, the county has to ask the judge to agree to have the property posted or mailing it to the registered owner. (One to three months or longer)
  5. If no one responds to either the sheriff's service, or the posting or mailing within 30 days, the county can request a judgment to be entered for the sale. (One month)
  6. The county sends a final notice to the registered owner before the sheriff's sale. (One month)
  7. The county orders a title search of the property to find anyone who has either a lien or an ownership interest in the property and then notifies everyone whose name comes up in the title search that the property is being sold. (One month)
  8. If no one responds to the notifications within 30 days, the property is listed for sheriff's sale—paying all back taxes or more—about two months from the filing by the sheriff, and notice of the sale is provided to all parties identified on the Tax Information Certificate. (Two months)
  9. Sheriff's sale day.
  10. If the property does not sell, the county has to move to sell the property "free and clear" of any taxes and liens by pursuing a court petition. (Three months)
  11. .A second sheriff's sale is attempted at a reduced sales price for the property because it is now "free and clear" of the taxes and liens.

The city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has stabilized and sealed 14 buildings in the city that it owns in the last two years, said Bethany Davidson, the URA’s manager of land recycling.

“When we hear a building is part of the fabric of a neighborhood, we try to preserve it,” he said.

Stiffer enforcement of a law by the Allegheny County Department of Health may make such a program even more feasible.

In late 2016, the health department reached an agreement with the city that it had to do an asbestos survey for more building demolitions. That small change led to a dramatic increase in the cost of demolitions done by the city, from an average of $9,100 for each building torn down in 2016, to about $39,000 so far in 2019, according to the city’s online building demolition database.

This has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of demolitions by the city, dropping from 233 buildings in 2016 to only 42 in 2017 and 73 in 2018. This year, the city has torn down just 12 buildings through April 5, the last date of a demolition in the city’s online database.

But the health department’s change also has the added impact of making a program like Mr. Ziegler and Mr. Hogan proposed even more feasible, they believe.

“What we wanted the mayor to consider was, instead of spending then $8,000 for a demo, why not spend $5,000 and put a roof on the house to stop a water leakage, do any structural update, board it and take care of the yard for the next 10 years till we need the house,” Mr. Hogan said. With increased demolition costs, “I think it makes the idea even more possible.”

Another factor that makes demolitions done by the city so costly is that, though the city does place liens on each demolished building hoping to recover the cost of demolition, the reality is that it almost never recovers those demolition costs.

City records show that between 2016 and 2018, property owners paid off only two demolition liens for a total of $18,500 between the two cases, while the city spent more than $8 million on demolitions during the time period. 


Another obvious measure is to get to the properties more quickly, before they fall apart.

“In my opinion, if they took ownership of these dilapidated buildings and offered them for sale to the public quicker, a lot of them would be saved,” said Ken Reilly, whose demolition company tears down a lot of buildings for the city and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and who also buys and renovates homes in North Side neighborhoods.

The advantage to the city acquiring property is not just that it can control its condition. When it sells the property, it can sell it “free-and-clear” of any back taxes that are owed, which can often be $10,000 or more — a figure large enough to scare away new owners who might otherwise be willing to spend money to renovate a home.

“I’m more willing to invest in a building I don’t have to pay back taxes on,” Mr. Reilly said.

Currently the city acquires nearly all of the property it owns through quarterly city treasurer’s sales. This troubled, byzantine process can take a long time — two years or more — is complicated, and ultimately is not a guarantee the city will own the tax delinquent properties it has targeted because anyone can bid to buy them.

The county has a more efficient process called the Vacant Property Recovery Program. The program uses eminent domain and gives the county control over who ultimately owns the property. It is used by 77 other municipalities and can take as little as one year before the property is transferred to a new owner.

The possible solutions to the problem are spelled out below:

Philadelphia County sheriff's sale

Pro: Takes half the time as the Allegheny County process.
Con: Not typically used.

See the steps

  1. The city of Philadelphia files a lien against property owners who owe back taxes and send notices. (One to three months)
  2. The city selects properties for sheriff's sale and prepares a Tax Information Certificate to identify all liens and judgments against the property. (One month)
  3. The city prepares a petition filed in state court to sell the property "free and clear" of liens and schedules a hearing. (Within two to three months of filing)
  4. The city mails notices to everyone identified in the Tax Information Certificate. (One month)
  5. If no one responds to the notice, the county files a petition, and then a judge issues a decree allowing the property to be sold at a sheriff's sale. (Six to eight weeks)
  6. The city mails a final notice before the sheriff's sale is scheduled. (One month)
  7. If taxes remain unpaid, the property is scheduled for a sheriff's sale and notice is sent to all parties identified in the Tax Information Certificate. (Two months)
  8. If the property does not sell at the first sheriff's sale, the city can attempt to sell it again for a reduced price below the taxes and fees owed on the property at the next available sheriff's sale. (One month)

City's land banking process

Pro: Lets governments have a treasurer's sale without being required to have a competitive bid.
Con: Pittsburgh's Land Bank lacks the money to be effective.

See the steps

  1. Follow the steps of the city treasurer’s sale and bid the "upset price," that is, the amount of back taxes owed. You don't have to outbid any bidders. (Two years or longer)

Allegheny County's Vacant Property Recovery Program

Pro: Quick and no one can outbid the targeted buyer.
Con: Pittsburgh is not a participant.

See the steps

  1. An application is submitted to the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County and reviewed. (Time varies widely.)
  2. Completed applications are sent to the municipality in which the property is located for review. The property is then presented to the Vacant Property Review Committee to determine if it is "blighted." The county notifies the property owner of the "blight" determination, and the owner has 15 days to cure the condition. If there is no response, the county reviews the application and approves the possible sale. (Minimum four months)
  3. A sales agreement is sent to the applicant, and the applicant returns the agreement with payment. (Time varies widely.)
  4. The county performs a title search. Following the search, the county notifies the court and the property owner and any other interested parties that it is condemning the property. The county then petitions the court to accept the payment on the property, and the court orders all existing liens on the property eliminated. (Minimum six months)
  5. The sale closes, and the property is turned over to applicant (Minimum one month)

Though Pittsburgh does not participate in the program, City Treasurer Margaret Lanier, who has been trying to improve the treasurer’s sale process, said she wants to look into the county program.

Mr. Ziegler said PHLF has worked with both programs and it has been a night-and-day experience.

“There is a problem: The county has a very good, expeditious way of disposing of tax delinquent properties if, let’s say, someone like us wants them. We’ll go in and say, we’d like to have those properties. They’re tax delinquent. They will acquire them and hold them until we’re ready to take them, and they sell them to us for a couple thousand dollars at cost,” he said. “The city’s process is very cumbersome and can take years. And because of that they are more and more delinquent and the buildings department says they’re a public safety hazard and takes them down.”

Mike McCabe, an attorney whose firm handles legal work for both the Allegheny County Sheriff’s Sale, and the city treasurer’s sale, also happens to do work for the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Sale, which takes about half the time to get a property sold compared to Allegheny County.

He’d like the state Legislature to change state law so that Allegheny County and Pittsburgh could sell tax delinquent properties quicker, just like Philadelphia.

Potential bidders listen during a city treasurer's sale at the City-County Building in April. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

“Let’s assume the Legislature says we’d like to use the Philly model for Allegheny County and Pittsburgh,” he said. “If they wanted to do that, they could use [Pittsburgh’s] land bank process to get ahold of the property without competitive bidding.”

Five years ago, the city approved making use of a 2012 state law allowing municipalities to create “land banks.”

Employing the land bank, the city still would enter the treasurer’s sale process. But when a property is put up to bid, only the city could bid.

But Pittsburgh has had trouble setting up the land bank, which just last year began the process of trying to acquire its first property — a vacant lot in Larimer. The land bank will also be used to acquire buildings to try to prevent their demolition, said Irene Clark, the land bank’s attorney, who has worked on blight issues in the city for three decades.


Mr. Peduto said he would like to make at least one move that would give buildings like 1953 Perrysville Ave. a chance to survive.

The Pittsburgh Register of Historic Places did not provide city-designated historic protection that would have required multiple hearings before an owner could tear down a building — a legal step that has proven incredibly effective in preventing demolition of city-designated historic properties.

Since the register list was created, 44 of the individual structures in the register have been given city-designated historic status. Not one of them has been demolished.

Blue "condemned" signs can be seen on the front doors of some of the register-listed Late Victorian Vernacular-style rowhouses in the 7300 block of Hamilton Avenue in Homewood South. There were originally 33 homes in this row 25 years ago, but now eight have been demolished, and another eight are on the city's list of condemed buildings. (Sean D. Hamill/Post-Gazette)

But Pittsburgh lags behind many cities in protecting buildings.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2016 report, The Atlas of ReUrbanism, which compared 50 of the country’s largest cities, Pittsburgh has granted local protection to only about 3,200 buildings, or 2.3% of its 138,000 buildings. That’s about half the average — 4.3% — of the other 49 cities in the survey.

That is about the same percentage of buildings locally designated as Philadelphia has at 2.2%, but far below other comparable cities like St. Louis (which has protected 13% of its buildings) and Baltimore (5.3%) and Denver (5.4%).

Mr. Peduto proposes creating a less-restrictive historic designation that would provide a pause before any of the remaining 1,595 register buildings are torn down.

“The Registry at least gives us a baseline of where we should begin” to save the city’s non-designated structures, he said. “The properties that remain, that are still on it, should be given, through legislative action, additional requirements prior to demolition, community notification, extended period of time of posting before the demolition, opportunities for people who want to save and preserve it to be able to rally around it to try to put together a plan to try to do so. It shouldn’t follow the same process of any other property, unless it’s a public safety hazard.”

The idea is a step below full historic designation, which would require an application and hearings before the city’s Historic Review Committee before it moves on to city council.

“This is something a number of other cities have addressed, and are addressing, in a number of different ways,” said Jim Lindberg, senior policy director for the National Trust, noting that some cities — including Boston, Washington, D.C. and Nashville — have similar demolition-delay ordinances.

“But I think what [Mr. Peduto] is proposing is most similar to what Chicago has done,” he said.

Chicago, which did its own street-by-street survey, which was completed in 1996, built in a color-coding system for buildings it thought were worth protecting, starting with red — the buildings most worth preserving — down through orange, green and yellow. But, like Pittsburgh, Chicago did not provide any additional protection to any of the buildings it listed under any color.

After a battle to save the Chicago Mercantile Exchange building in 2002, the city adopted a demolition-delay ordinance. For any building rated either red or orange in Chicago’s 1996 survey, a demolition permit application triggers a 90-day delay before it can be acted on to give the city’s Landmarks Commission time to consider whether the building should be designated historic, or for other alternatives to be acted on, including restoration.

Mr. Peduto said the idea of something like a demolition-delay ordinance has floated around Pittsburgh city council for years, but has never been enacted. It might have a chance now, given the Post-Gazette’s data on the register, he said.

“I think that once people start seeing that over 15% of our historic structures have been lost in a quarter century, that might be enough to compel legislation,” he said.

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @SeanDHamill.




Sean D. Hamill
Andrew Rush
Sean D. Hamill
Melissa Tkach


James Hilston
Dan Marsula


Laura Malt Schneiderman
No longer there

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