Squaring Off | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Squaring Off

A proposed historic district prompts a debate about Oakland's future

Fred DeIuliis has lived in South Oakland his whole life. As a child, he delivered newspapers to his neighbors there. He went to grade school, high school, and college there. He lives in the same Dawson Street house he bought in 1958 from his parents, who'd first come to Oakland because it was inhabited by people they'd grown up with back in the old country -- mostly the Abruzzi region of Italy. Many of his elderly neighbors rely upon him to translate English into Italian for them.

Ask him if he misses the South Oakland of his childhood, and he agrees with an emphatic, indisputable "yes." But he's quick to add that, were it not for his elderly parents' reliance on him to get around, he would have left for the suburbs long ago, like the kids he used to pal around with in the neighborhood.

"This neighborhood is over," he says. "Let's come down to reality -- it's a college campus, you can't change that."

Indeed, like much of Oakland itself, DeIuliis has gotten into the business of providing housing for students. With his brother, he owns six properties in South Oakland, on Dawson and Semple streets, properties he rents out to undergraduates.

Some of his neighbors, however, think they can change Oakland -- several members of the Oakland Community Council, an advocacy group focused on quality of life in the neighborhood, for example. Led by architect Nathan Hart, the group believes that preservation is the way to revive the neighborhood, or at least bring it into a future that isn't a student-dominated rental ghetto.

They have proposed that a several-block chunk of the area, centering on Oakland Square and extending up Parkview Avenue, and including some properties on Dawson Street next to Oakland Square, be declared an historic district.

"A historic district adds a lot of value, both to the house and to the neighborhood," Hart says.

And it's that value, Hart and others say, that will attract homeowners instead of absentee landlords.


Oakland Square and Parkview Avenue are arguably Oakland's most picturesque places to live. The houses are quaint and mostly well maintained, with gingerbread trim, gabled windows and porches. A larger percentage of owner-occupied homes seems to have prevented the urban decay so obvious in other parts of the neighborhood.

On a spring afternoon in the grassy parklet that the homes on Oakland Square all face, dogwood trees had just been touched with blooms. Daffodils and lilies grew in neat rows. The only trash in sight was in a can -- there were none of nearby Atwood Street's pizza boxes and beer cases out waiting for the garbage fairy to appear. The only audible music was birdsong, and all the cars were skillfully parallel-parked with space between them to spare. American flags fluttered in a gentle breeze, and shrines to the Virgin Mary, some festooned with rosaries or silken flower garlands, stood in half a dozen yards. Parkview Avenue, which links the Square to the Boulevard of the Allies, afforded the same peaceful, sunny oasis. Front yards and porches were neatly maintained flowerbeds and patio furniture, not last night's empty malt liquor bottles next to sodden, overstuffed couches.

Kathy Boykowycz moved to Parkview in 1974, after living in other parts of Oakland and other Pittsburgh neighborhoods. She's a freelance graphic designer whose husband, Walter, is an adjunct architecture professor at Carnegie Mellon University. They met there as students in the early '60s, she says. The neighborhood's central location and affordable housing drew them in. The two are in the midst of renovating their home, and converting the first floor into a small apartment, hopefully to be occupied by a graduate or law student, to supplement their incomes as retirement nears.

"I think Oakland's a fine place to live," Boykowycz says. "It's in the middle of everything I'm interested in being in the middle of."

"Our backyard has been Phipps Conservatory and the Carnegie Library and the museums," agrees Kristin Kovacic, who bought a Parkview home with her husband, poet and CMU English professor Jim Daniels. The two are raising her son and daughter, 11 and 10, in a house they bought in 1986 from the Italian family that built it. Daniels walks or bikes to CMU, and Kovacic enjoys her five-minute drive Downtown, where she teaches at the CAPA high school. Their short commutes save money on gas and, more importantly, allow for more family time.

Nathan Hart bought his Parkview home eight years ago, where he lives with his wife, after renting a house here one summer when he was an architecture student at CMU.

"I thought, 'This is a great neighborhood, a great house,'" says Hart, who owns two other houses on the street, rented out to undergraduate and graduate students.

The houses in the area are old and, Hart contends, architecturally significant. Many of them, including the 26 homes on Oakland Square, were built by Eugene O'Neill and Charles Chance, prominent Pittsburgh developer and builder of the late 1800s. The area predates Pitt's 1908 move into Oakland. Hart describes O'Neill, an Irish immigrant, as a visionary, and a major builder in the city's East End. He also says that most of the renovations made to the houses over the years have been to their detriment.

"Oakland Square was one of the first major developments in Oakland," Hart says. "This was when Central Oakland was estates and farms and mansions."

Around the same time, in the late 19th and early 20th century, a great influx of European immigrant workers settled in and around Pittsburgh, bringing their traditions and languages to work in the then-booming coal, steel and railroad industries. Oakland became home to large Italian and Greek communities.

Even 30 years ago, Boykowycz says, "This was a heavily residential area when we first moved in. There were a lot of families."

But, she says, "A lot of the younger generation moved out, they didn't stick around the city." Longtime residents bemoan the loss of small businesses like butcher shops and variety stores, as well as a grocery store and elementary school. Today's bars and beer distributors just aren't quite as welcoming to families with small children.

The children of the area's original residents grew up and left. "As a few houses became rental properties, the neighbors began feeling that it's very uncomfortable to live there," Boykowycz says. "At some point there's a tipping point and everything just turns over real fast."

At the same time, South Oakland has been increasingly dominated by the presence of undergraduates from the surrounding universities, most notably the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Overcrowded dorms have prompted many students to seek off-campus housing, changing the character of the neighborhood. The crush for undergraduate housing made it more attractive to take older houses, subdivide them into as many apartments as possible, and rake in rent every month.

"All the permanent residents have issues with the students," says Boykowycz. "Sometimes when they have a big party, the neighbors are cleaning the beer bottles out of their bushes afterwards. I think a lot of the students just don't respect the property they're in."

DeIuliis echoes the sentiment, adding that he's called police on his own tenants from time to time.

"I'm not proud of that," he says. "Some kids don't know how to act." He adds that local landlords, far from needing any sort of oversight, are their own regulatory body.

"We share phone numbers," he says. "If you got a problem with my tenants, give me a call," he says, adding that he's known landlords to show up at 11 p.m. on students' doorsteps to halt out-of-control parties in progress.

Even so, a glance at the pizza boxes, chained bicycles and beer detritus in South Oakland confirms that the neighborhood has tipped, and has tipped toward the students. But that may be about to change.

Hart says he's been kicking around the idea of the historic designation for about two years, and has sent out many mailings and knocked on lots of doors in the district, answering questions about what the designation would mean, and how, to his mind, it would improve the area.

Backers of his proposal say that designating the Oakland Square Historic District would help preserve and improve the homes in a way that's in line with the architects' original intent. Any external changes visible from the street or alley made after the designation passes, if it does, will have to meet criteria set by the city's Historic Review Commission.

Hart, Boykowycz and other pro-historic-district neighbors maintain that the historic designation will make it harder for absentee landlords to neglect buildings that are falling into disrepair, and that illegally overcrowding apartment units will be tougher. (City zoning laws state that no more than three unrelated persons can share an apartment unit, but it's widely acknowledged as a toothless law that often goes unenforced.)

They say that if the area becomes an historic district, the houses will be better kept and will have a better chance of attracting homeowners instead of landlords, who they say don't care about the quality of the neighborhood, since they often don't live there. They say they figure this will contribute to the character of the neighborhood, rendering it more of a vibrant urban environment instead of one giant keg party.

The rules are "going to raise the bar for local landlords and takes the student population out of the private rental market," Hart says.

Hart sponsored the measure, and obtained more than the needed 25 percent of affected residents' signatures. At a Feb. 2 meeting of the HRC, the measure was unanimously recommended by the commission, after several residents testified in its favor. No one at that meeting opposed the motion. Then, on Feb. 22, the City Planning Commission gave the same across-the-board approval, with no public testimony, either for nor against.

On May 19, the measure goes up for final approval before City Council. The positive and genial atmosphere that characterized the first two public meetings is unlikely to be seen in council's chambers.

"I will be going and I will be speaking against it," DeIuliis says. "I'd like to bring it down if possible."

The properties DeIuliis owns aren't within the boundaries of the proposed district. But DeIuliis says many of his neighbors voiced concerns over what a historic designation would mean to them. The reason they came to him, he says, is that they didn't understand the mailings that Hart sent to them. They were in English, DeIuliis points out, not Italian.

The historic designation will only hurt homeowners trying to support themselves through their rental properties, he says. And it comes too late.

"They say, 'We don't want absentee landlords.' Come on, it's 40 years too late," DeIuliis says. "The people who don't have two incomes live on their income from their rental properties. They want their freedom; they want to be left alone. Who volunteered my properties? I give up my freedom for what purpose? ... What gives him the nerve to come in here and tell us what to do?" he asks. "If he wants to renovate, that's his business. He can afford it."

Besides, he contends, if creating a vibrant family-friendly community is the goal, DeIuliis says, Oakland faces bigger problems than holding onto the facades of its buildings. "No schools, no supermarkets, if you have a family, why would you want to live here?" he asks. "These people, they have their own houses and double incomes, good for them if they want to renovate. I've seen people, they'll have kids and the wife will realize she can't walk down the street with a baby carriage, and she'll pick up and leave."

Even Kovacic, a supporter of the historic district, acknowledges that building a community requires more than merely saving its buildings.

"On our block we have at least half a dozen families with children in elementary school," she says. "None of the kids on the block go to the same school." Her own kids get picked up by bus to attend Winchester Thurston School.

"There are student behaviors that are not family-friendly," Kovacic says of the nearby college students. "Some parts of Oakland are not maintained to a degree that families don't want to live there. But Oakland is a good place to live, and I think it could be a really wonderful place to live with a little care and tending."

The conflict between homeowners and landlords may come to an end in the shadow of a player bigger than either side: the University of Pittsburgh.

In what's perceived by residents as a move to reclaim the students as tenants -- and perhaps their rental revenues -- the University of Pittsburgh has built one new 420-bed dorm, Pennsylvania Hall, which opened in the fall term of 2004. The school is also beginning construction on an as-yet unnamed 512-bed dorm, which should be ready for occupancy by fall 2006.

"If Pitt does what it says it's going to do and puts more students on campus, it won't be boom time for absentee landlords anymore," Hart says.

Kathy Boykowycz says that landlords are already feeling a pinch. "Since the dorm up there opened, anecdotally, people are saying that the for-rent signs are staying up longer," she says. She figures more and better dorm space will only make it harder for landlords to rent out low-quality overstuffed units to students.

DeIuliis acknowledges the point -- grudgingly. "[Hart] says there'll be less of a demand for student housing, as if I care," says DeIuliis. "It's an insult to anyone's intelligence. I even have trouble renting apartments down here now."

Landlords, says Boykowycz, will be forced either to compete with ever-cheaper rents, which will attract poorer and poorer tenants and will be physically bad for the neighborhood; or to greatly improve their properties in order to attract wealthier, more desirable tenants, such as families and professionals. A possible third option she sees is that chopping houses into apartment will become so unprofitable that selling to single-occupant owners, instead of selling the houses as investment properties to other landlords, will become the best option.

"I think things have to get to a point when it will start being more attractive to buy a house in the area than not to, and I'm not sure exactly how that's going to happen," she says.

A lot may depend on the outcome of the historic designation.

In order for the proposal to get this far, Hart needed 25 percent of the affected homeowners to sign a petition in favor of creating the district. But DeIuliis contends that the signatories were "handpicked," and that that the residents he's spoken to aren't entirely sure of Hart or his motives.

"I can only send out so many mailings and knock on so many doors," Hart counters. "Nobody has come to me and opposed this personally."

He says he worries that some of the people expressing concern to DeIuliis don't even own property in the proposed district.

"It's frustrating fighting this disinformation when I don't even know who's being told what," Hart adds.

Indeed, the historic designation has been a source of some confusion, says Angelique Bamberg, historic preservation planner with the Historic Review Commission.

"There are some exaggerated rumors flying around," she says, noting that she's gotten many calls from residents, both inside and outside the proposed district. Many callers have the wrong idea about just what being designated a historic district will mean, she says. Some don't know if their homes are even part of the district.

For one thing, despite resident fears, no existing features will have to be changed. And the HRC has no authority to come knocking, demanding changes in buildings, facades or features.

"Every feature that exists on those properties is grandfathered in," Bamberg says. "The commission doesn't initiate work that needs to be done, it's the property owner that initiates." The commission then works with the property owner to insure that the proposed changes are in line with the historical guidelines. That applies only to new renovations, though -- existing ones, regardless of how they fit with the historic guidelines, can stay.

She says that a property owner's financial situation is always taken into account, and that the commission won't demand anything that's not feasible. She says that changes will be gradual, but adds that they can only help the neighborhood.

"I think it's a good idea," she says. "It's a very fair system, and it tends to have a very stabilizing effect. The person across the street can't degrade property values."

She encourages any residents with questions to call the commission's office, and to come testify at the May 19 council meeting.

Despite the emphasis on the past that naturally comes with a phrase like "historic district," Kathy Boykowycz says it's not the past that she and other backers of the proposed district are trying to re-create.

"I don't think of it so much in historic terms," she says. "It should be a very desirable neighborhood, being in the middle of everything."

"It's imperative that if our area is to be a success, we have to attract homeowners," Hart says. "We're doing our best to hold down the fort."

"I understand where Nathan's coming from," says DeIuliis, who calls Hart a "nice kid." But as fondly as he remembers his own childhood there, he says, "[I]t's not a family neighborhood."

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