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Projects Pump $10 Million into Wilkinsburg Homes

By Chris Ramirez
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Last updated: 8:02 am

Jay Willis plays the saxophone during a dedication of a mural Tuesday evening in Wilkinsburg. The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. dedicated the mural as part of the organization's public art program to preserve, restore and enhance the borough's appearance through artistic expression. Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

With gaping holes from its broken windows, the fenced-in brick building at Rebecca and Kelly avenues in Wilkinsburg is an eyesore, one that’s too big to ignore.

People moved out of the three-story fixer-upper a long time ago, before Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson or anyone else can seem to remember. Pigeons and blackbirds live there now.

“When a kid walks by these buildings and sees that … no one cares about it, it tells them adults don’t care,” said McCarthy-Johnson, a borough council member. “Youths need to see things moving on and improving. They need to see things turn around.”

They soon will.

A public-private partnership on Tuesday detailed plans to invest $10 million in house-restoration projects in Wilkinsburg.

A total of $8.8 million will pay for renovating two early 20th century apartment houses — the Crescent Building at Rebecca and Kelly, and the Wilson Building on Jeanette Street.

Borough officials and investment groups say restoring housing would be key to turning around the neighborhood, which has been blighted by crime and struggling for a defined economic blueprint since the demise of the steel industry in the 1970s and ’80s.

About 19,000 people live in Wilkinsburg, where unemployment is about 9 percent. Nail salons, barber shops and mom-and-pop businesses line most of its main thoroughfare, Penn Avenue, offering little variety or chance for jobs.

“This is a huge investment that we hope will eventually attract more new families to move here,” Mayor John Thompson said.

The two buildings will house 27 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Each apartment building will have a community room, laundry area and computer lab. Hosanna House, a community center and social services agency in Wilkinsburg, will provide support services to tenants.

The project, which includes acquiring and demolishing three neighboring structures, is being paid for with loans and grants from Allegheny County, Historic Tax Credit Equity, Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh and federal stimulus money that Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation is administering.

Work on the apartment buildings is expected to wrap up next year.

A second project — paid for by Allegheny County and the Scaife Foundations — will restore three vacant homes at Jeanette and Holland Avenue for $1 million. Once they are renovated, they will be sold to buyers.

“Affordable housing shouldn’t ever be difficult,” said Brian Hudson, executive director for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency. “This partnership will make homeownership possible for a lot of people.”

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation President Arthur Ziegler is seeing to it that new life is breathed into the Crescent Building at Rebecca and Kelly avenues in Wilkinsburg. The early 20th century apartment house is one of two such buildings in the community that will be renovated. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

Last year, TriState Capital Bank pledged $1.8 million over six years to help Wilkinsburg continue its housing renovation and development projects.

“Positive change is happening in Wilkinsburg,” TriState President A. William “Bill” Schenck III said. “And it’s happening because people have said they want it to happen and are behind what’s going on here.”

The inside of the newly renovated Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation's housing resource center in Wilkinsburg, formerly a Packard dealership, will house a sculptor. The center will provide workshops and programs dealing with home improvements. A neighborhood open house is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, with a workshop on restoring vacant lots as gardens and green spaces. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation yesterday opened its housing resource center, located in a former Packard dealership in Wilkinsburg. It will provide workshops and programs dealing with home improvements. A neighborhood open house is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, with a workshop on restoring vacant lots as gardens and green spaces.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633