Vacant Property Success Stories
Here are a few examples of how the Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) is being used in Wilkinsburg. Whether expanding a business, creating an art studio, enhancing a green space, or developing affordable housing, the VPRP provides opportunities to turn Wilkinsburg’s vacant spaces into vibrant places.
Expanding a Small Business: Al’s Fish & Chicken
Alaa Aqra, proprietor of Al’s Fish and Chicken, has operated a small take-out restaurant at the corner of Penn Ave. and Coal St. in Wilkinsburg since 2010. As part of his plans to grow the business, Aqra wanted to provide convenient, well-lighted parking for customers. However, the two-story building is situated on busy Penn Ave. on a small corner lot that currently has insufficient space for off-street parking.
“I didn’t want my customers to feel uncomfortable when they come to pick up food at my restaurant because they can’t park safely on Penn Ave. or Coal St.,” Aqra realized that the best solution was in his own backyard.
A vacant house at 912 Coal St. sat on a 30 x 60-foot lot immediately adjacent to the restaurant. Like many derelict properties, the house is filled with rodents and debris, posing hazards to the neighborhood.
An immigrant from Palestine who lives with his wife and two small children in nearby Blackridge, Aqra is active in the community and attends meetings of the WCDC. At a WCDC meeting, he learned about the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) and saw a cost-effective opportunity to acquire the abandoned house, demolish it, and gain ownership of a large lot that would provide space for parking.
Aqra applied to the program. Applicants must provide a plan of action and proof that they have the financial resources to carry out the project. “I had to provide estimates from demolition companies and proof of insurance,” he says. An appraisal was conducted and a conditional title transfer took place less than a year later. After passing an inspection, he officially took ownership of the property.
Aqra, who also works as a court interpreter, runs a translation service, and has an M.B.A. degree from Point Park University, says that VPRP offers a great opportunity to small business owners in Wilkinsburg. “I appreciate the resources provided by the WCDC. I hope more residents and businesses take advantage of the program. Wilkinsburg is a great place to live and work and I want it to grow and improve.”
Condo Living: 736 North Ave. Condos
Suzanne Nuss saw an opportunity in 736 North Avenue. The c. 1910 building offered a spacious, light-filled unit, with tiger-oak wainscoting in the dining room and other period details. The price was affordable. And it included a garage. Yet the building needed much work inside and out, and three of the eight condominiums were vacant.
Today, the building is fully occupied and renovation projects happen each year. Nuss says clearing titles and liens so that the units could be purchased was key to saving 736 North Avenue from the fate of a similar building across the street, which deteriorated so thoroughly it was eventually demolished.
She and the other condo owners credit Allegheny County’s Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) with being the “essential middleman” that freed two of the vacant units mired in title and tax delinquency issues.
“I spent two years banging my head trying to get answers about mortgage and tax questions related to the two condos,” says Nuss. “It was quite a relief when I got word that the VPRP process could start.”
She recalls that the liens against Unit #4 totaled 28 pages. Liens against Unit #8 ran 53 pages. With the latter property, the mortgage had been packaged and resold, causing complicated title issues. In addition, the property faced liens for school taxes, property taxes and unpaid bills from gas, electric and other utilities. In all, the liens for Unit #8 totaled more than $100,000.
“Without the VPRP, the process of searching and clearing title and liens would be overwhelming for the average person,” says Nuss. “The program has the power and connections to negotiate with all parties involved. Equally important, it caps the fees for legal work and other costs making them manageable.”
Buyers pay the appraised value of the property, plus acquisition costs that are typically around $4,000 per property for the VPRP to obtain and convey it. In addition, the buyer pays closing costs that run $200-$300 per property.
Unit #4 moved through the VPRP process first and was eventually purchased by the owner living in another unit, Rolynda Ford, who had eyed it for a number of years. Nuss acquired Unit # 8 with plans to resell it at some point in the future.
“I went into this just wanting to help make the building viable,” says Nuss. “We did that and more with the help of the VPRP and the Borough.”
In addition to participating in VPRP, Wilkinsburg goes a step further and offers VPRP applicants tax rebates over 10 years plus other incentives.
The Art of Creating Space: Dee Briggs
When Dee Briggs was looking for a building of a certain size and scale where she could create her art, she found it and more in Wilkinsburg. The former firehouse offered light-filled studio space on the ground floor and roomy living quarters upstairs.
“The building was the main draw,” says Briggs, who purchased the fire station from a Wilkinsburg resident who had renovated it and was living there. “It was in beautiful shape.”
The same couldn’t be said for the vacant lots behind the building and neglected frame house beside it. Part of the triangle-shaped area behind the firehouse had served as a car lot years ago and featured concrete and asphalt pads along with “junk” trees and bushes and assorted debris. The house next door showed years of neglect and was soon deserted.
A few years after relocating her business and home to the firehouse, Briggs started to explore acquiring the adjacent properties. She was able to purchase four of the empty lots from a single owner. But the fifth –in the middle of the space – wasn’t owned by the same family. In fact, ownership was murky and records showed years of tax delinquency. Trying to acquire the derelict house also proved problematic.
Briggs turned to Wilkinsburg community leaders and the Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) for help. “The program makes projects like this possible,” says the artist/architect.
After creating a reuse plan and getting the borough’s ok to proceed, Briggs prepared applications to Allegheny County’s VPRP, and put up the required fees and acquisition costs. She removed the vacant house, salvaging building materials as much as possible, and joined all of the lots and the firehouse with a comprehensive landscaping plan. Other parts of the property are used as outdoor work space to create and display sculptures.
Briggs uses steel, concrete, aluminum and bronze in her works. She does much of the fabricating herself, inside the fire station. Her sculptures are collected by individuals and businesses and shown in galleries and museums throughout the country.
Removing the abandoned building and landscaping all of the lots enhanced the value of the building where Briggs lives and works.
Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery
Where many people see a vacant city lot filled with weeds and debris, Mindy Schwartz sees potential for growth. Schwartz has spent the past decade transforming vacant parcels on Holland Ave. in Wilkinsburg into Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery.
An environmental consultant who now serves as development and IT manager at nearby Construction Junction in Wilkinsburg, Schwartz says she has loved gardening since the age of 10.
“In my neighborhood there were a couple of derelict and abandoned houses. One of the houses was demolished, leaving a large, 50 x 140-foot lot,” she recalls. “I often looked at that empty lot and imagined gardening on it.”
She eventually did just that. “I had started a garden design business with a friend, and I began growing seeds on the lot. Eventually I decided to apply for ownership of the lot through the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program.” After a three-year process, she was approved to purchase the lot for the bargain price of $650, less than its assessed value. The other abandoned house was also eventually torn down and Schwartz began the process again to acquire that lot through the same county program.
The reclaimed lots formed the foundation for Garden Dreams Urban Farm and Nursery. Although creating a productive garden in soil littered with bricks and urban debris was a challenge, the small farm now sells high quality vegetable, herb and flower seedlings grown using organic methods. Heirloom tomatoes (more than 100 varieties), sweet and hot peppers, eggplants and basil, all Certified Naturally Grown, are a specialty.
Garden Dreams is also the site of a Sustainable Living Center, which is a resource for Wilkinsburg and the greater region. It provides a community gathering and education spot that focuses on sustainable living technologies and practices (such as catching rain water and gardening) that can economically benefit lower income individuals. The goal is to serve as a resource for people to learn sustainable principles in gardening, cooking, design and conservation. In the future, Schwartz envisions developing another nearby vacant lot that might eventually become the site of an outdoor bake oven and additional community activities.
“The farm has become a draw for people who want to move into the neighborhood,” says Schwartz. “They like the idea of living near an urban farm. Our intention is to buy more lots contiguous to the property with a goal of growing food on a neighborhood scale.”