After years of watching a once thriving middle-class bedroom community crumble under the weight of population loss; an ever shrinking tax base and a hobbled business district, a group of Wilkinsburg residents came together six years ago to talk about how they could stave the ongoing decline of their neighborhoods and community.
Seated about nine miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg, which also borders the municipalities of Penn Hills, Churchill and Forest Hills and Edgewood and Braddock Hills, is one of the oldest boroughs in Allegheny County and it stretches over some 2.1 square miles.
Like many of the Mon Valley communities that were devastated by the collapse of the region’s once booming steel industry, Wilkinsburg has suffered over the years under the yoke of economic decline that saw “urban flight” lead to skyrocketing property taxes, dilapidated and abandoned houses, crime, and vacant housing lots.
And so longtime and recent borough residents started with the premise that if they could refurbish some of the rundown properties in their neighborhoods and put to use the overgrown vacant lots, they could begin to improve the appearance of parts of the borough, which would in turn spur people to take another look at buying houses in Wilkinsburg again.
As part of that conversation, the community invited the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation to help chart a strategy of how the restoration of vital and viable buildings could be accomplished. Since its 1964 inception, PHLF has shown how building preservation and restoration can be a model of reviving neighborhoods once written off as examples of the worst of urban decay.
In Wilkinsburg, that work started in 2004, with PHLF helping to fund and publish the Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Transformation Initiative. A 107-page document, the initiative was crafted as a complement to the borough’s Comprehensive Plan of 1998, “Moving Toward the Future,” which identified a six-block area as a target for redevelopment.
Community leaders and residents argued that redevelopment of the area seated just off the Martin Luther King Jr. Busway, commonly known as the East Busway—bounded by Rebecca Avenue, Jeanette Street, Lamar Avenue, Kelly Avenue and parts of Whitney Avenue—would have the most impact on the borough because of its housing density.
Their working principle was based on the theory that if they could significantly refurbish and restore the dilapidated buildings among the area’s 54-housing structures, they could make a dramatic impact on the borough’s quality of housing stock, which would spur reinvestment into the community by private developers and property owners.
That principle is a core thesis of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which over the years has established itself as not only a historic buildings and landmarks preservation organization, but also as a catalyst for community redevelopment and reinvestment.
To that end, the foundation started by honoring the Jane Holmes Residence and Gardens, a sprawling, 100-room house seated on five acres along the borough’s Swissvale Avenue, with a historic landmarks plaque. Opened in 1871, as home for aged protestant women—and eventually men—who had no place to go, the house ceased operation in fall 2007, but it still stands as a reminder of the philanthropy of Jane Holmes, a 19-th century pioneer whose generosity and humanity still lives on in the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, which she founded.
PHLF also awarded a historic landmark plaque to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and a Historic Religious Property grant to Mulberry Presbyterian Church, now known as Mt. Gilead Church.
In 2005, PHLF partnered with the Community Technical Assistance Center to survey 1,200 land parcels in the borough, showing that 70 percent of the housing structures in Wilkinsburg could be refurbished.
That work started in 2006 with a $500,000 grant from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and a $500,000 commitment from the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development for Phase One of the Hamnett Place Housing Restoration Program.