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Landmarks group aids in Wilkinsburg

By Ron DaParma
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation has joined an effort to preserve a number of older, abandoned buildings in Wilkinsburg.

The local foundation and community leaders say the wrecking ball is not the best way to deal with some Wilkinsburg structures that may be architecturally noteworthy or historically significant and able to be restored to worthwhile use.

Such efforts are favored by Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato as a way to help rebuild the tax base in Wilkinsburg and other financially struggling “ring” communities just outside Pittsburgh such as Braddock and Rankin, said Dennis Davin, the county’s economic development director.

“This is a very valuable and exciting relationship,” said Denise Edwards, a Wilkinsburg councilwoman and a participant in the Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. “This is an effort to retain the integrity of the community and make it economically feasible to restore this neighborhood.”

Patterned after a program used in Philadelphia, the effort is focused on revitalizing a six-block area near St. James Church known as the Hamnett Place neighborhood, said Cathy McCollom, the foundation’s chief programs officer.

As an alternative to demolition, plans are to rehabilitate six abandoned buildings along Jeanette Street and offer them for sale to create opportunities for new single-family housing.

The foundation, which is acting as developer and project manager, hopes to acquire the properties in the next several months and start work by early next year.

Two of the buildings — 520 and 522 Jeanette — will be completely restored, including interior finishes, while two others — 508 and 516 Jeanette — will undergo “shell rehab” including an exterior renovation and installation of utility connections. Interior finishes will be left for a new owner, McCollom said.

The remaining two — 517 and 524 Jeanette — which are in the worst condition, will be cleaned and their structures stabilized, with repairs for the roof, foundation and windows.

The hope is to convince other developers or individuals to acquire or restore other properties and spark additional revitalization in Wilkinsburg.

The buildings targeted for restoration have been abandoned for some time and their condition is detrimental to the rest of the neighborhood, said Wilkinsburg resident Zita Ann Berry, a member of a project steering committee comprised of about 40 to 50 people.

“There are some lovely restored houses already in Wilkinsburg,” she said. “We’ve had an influx of young people who have been updating and done wonderful things with some old Victorian houses here.”

“Wilkinsburg has many fine buildings, houses particularly,” added Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., the landmarks foundation president.

The foundation became involved about 18 months ago after residents became concerned about a development proposal that called for extensive demolition in the area, which also includes parts of Lamar, Rebecca and Whitney avenues and Mulberry Street, McCollom said.

She is a member of Allegheny County’s Vacant Property Commission, which reviews such plans in various communities.

“When I saw some of these buildings had some good bones, so to speak, I realized that rehabilitation was possible,” McCollom said.

After discussions with community officials, including Mayor Wilbert Young, a study conducted by the foundation and community volunteers identified 54 parcels in the area, of which 19 were unoccupied buildings, five were vacant lots and eight were tax delinquent.

In addition to restoration, the study recommended clearing some of those unoccupied properties for new construction, parking or green space.

An overall budget is not finalized, but McCollom estimated the cost to redo the initial six properties could range between $90,000 and $130,000 per unit.

Allegheny County has agreed to provide about $500,000 for the project, said Davin, the county’s economic development director. Matching funds will come from the Landmarks Foundation and probably the state, he said.

Ron DaParma can be reached at or 412-320-7907.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review © Pittsburgh Tribune Review

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