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Zoning Change Aspires to Shorten Top Building Heights 

In most city neighborhoods, historic churches with soaring spires sit harmoniously alongside low-slung homes -- until a bulky high-rise gets wedged in between, using the top of the church spire as the only city-imposed height limit.

It's a zoning quirk city officials are now trying to eliminate.

Three years ago, neighbors of St. Mary's of the Mount Church on Mount Washington feared the church's 100-foot-tall steeples would beckon a flood of tall developments that would all but obliterate their views.

The church, sans steeples, rises only 65 feet above grade, says Mount Washington resident Paul Renne. "They'd get a good lawyer and say, 'Let's make this clever argument,'" recalls Renne, who fought one such developer all the way from Pittsburgh City Council to the state Superior Court, and lost. The developer got approval from the city's Planning Commission to build 70-feet-tall loft apartments on Grandview Avenue, now dotted mostly with low-slung restaurants and single-family homes. Renne lives a few blocks away.

Now a zoning-code change being considered by the commission may eliminate these maneuvers. The change calls for exempting such ancillary structures as steeples, spires, belfries, radio and television antennas, chimneys and smokestacks from being used as neighborhood height limits. Other freestanding structures, such as fire towers, monuments and utility poles, also may not be used for this purpose.

"We want to close all the loopholes," says Pat Ford, the city's planning director, at the Oct. 24 commission meeting, when the change was introduced. Public comment on the change will be heard at the next meeting on Nov. 7.

"You get the hard feelings on both sides," says Renne, lamenting that the change is coming too late to affect his own neighborhood. For now, the Mount Washington site for the proposed lofts still sits vacant.

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