Wilkinsburg Grows Greener

A vacant lot can be a catalyst for growth. The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC) is leading efforts to transform several vacant parcels in the borough’s business district into greener, more vibrant community spaces for neighbors and visitors alike to enjoy.

A New Parklet on Penn

At the top of the list is a plan for a public parklet in a vacant lot on Penn Avenue in the heart of the business district. Designed by Pittsburgh-based mossArchitects, after a thorough community review process, the new parklet will bring much-needed green space to the busy commercial corridor. The revitalized space will feature landscaping, walkways, benches, trellises and an informal performance stage with a backdrop provided by an existing mural on the adjacent building. Simple string lights will provide ambient night lighting as a draw for activity throughout the day. Fundraising for the Penn Avenue Parklet is a priority for the WCDC, according to Executive Director Tracey Evans.

South Avenue, Wood Street and Beyond

The space to be occupied by the new parklet is among several vacant properties that may soon be sprouting new life. In fall 2012, seven landscape architecture students from the Pennsylvania State University partnered with the WCDC to create designs for other vacant parcels in or near the borough’s business district. After visiting the community and talking with residents, the students developed creative designs for a lot at South Avenue and Wood Street, the Gazebo Park on Wood Street, the pedestrian tunnels, and the architecturally rich, long-abandoned Wilkinsburg Train Station. All of the designs can be viewed on the WCDC website.

Neighborhood participation is a key part of the revitalization process. For example, young participants in FUSE, a local group that works to involve urban teens in the arts and other learning experiences, had the opportunity to join the Penn State students and the WCDC to contribute to the design process. “The kids and young adults were able to visualize their community in more functional, green and aesthetically pleasing ways,” says Christine Carnevali, co-founder of FUSE. “It brought them more in touch with their community and provided them with confidence.”

In the future, local residents of all ages will continue to have opportunities to review the projects and provide input at public meetings hosted by the Art and Design Committee of the WCDC. Many neighbors share the common goal of making Wilkinsburg a greener, more inviting place to live, according to Borough Manager Marla Marcinko. “There is tremendous interest and enthusiasm among the residents of our community for increased green space, community gardens and public art projects in Wilkinsburg.”

Community Garden is Model for Growth

The Hamnett Place Community Garden is a model for what can be accomplished on a reclaimed city lot.

It is growing in the neighborhood of Hamnett Place on the site of the once beautiful Regency Apartments building, which was demolished in 2008 after the collapsing structure and its falling bricks posed dangers to the neighborhood. Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF), which had acquired and restored properties along Jeanette, Holland and Rebecca, surveyed local residents about potential uses for the lot previously occupied by the Regency and learned that they wanted more green space. At the same time, Hamnett Place neighbors were organizing to create a community garden. Although interest was strong, the group was unable to find a suitable lot.

Creating a Garden Spot

In 2010, PHLF connected with the Hamnett Place Community Garden group, as well as biofuels nonprofit GTECH Strategies (which was working to remediate the soil), and together the two organizations applied for an Allegheny Grows Grant. A collaboration of the county, Grow Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, the grant provided materials, plants and technical support for the new garden for two years. Ground was broken on the garden in the spring of 2011. Sixteen plots were leased to Hamnett Place residents. Plants were supplied by Allegheny Grows and nearby urban farm Garden Dreams. In the 2012 growing season, the garden increased in size to 20 beds and added community beds for berry bushes and herbs.

PHLF and the garden group also initiated a landscaping plan called Piano Place for the remainder of the lot. Planted with berries and fruit trees, it is a quiet place for community members to gather and for neighbors to enjoy, with the community garden at its center. There are also several spots designed especially for kids, including musical instruments and a bamboo tunnel.

A Community Comes Together

“We have a board that is very active and we have many active volunteer gardeners,” says Rachel Courtney, founding member and former president of Hamnett Place Community Garden Association.  For example, “when we had our first big build day, many, many people from the neighborhood came out to participate. Even people who weren’t gardeners and didn’t have plots to plant came because they wanted to help out. There was a huge outpouring of support and it was a really reassuring moment.”“For this neighborhood to have this kind of place has been very important,” says Courtney. “There is so much positive development in our neighborhood now. There’s a lot of diversity here – ethnically, racially and economically – and people are working together with a common goal of improving the neighborhood.”

Restoring Historic Homes

Pittsburgh Housing and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) and ACTION-Housing have restored a number of historic homes stimulating once vacant and blighted neighborhoods.

Peebles Square

Located on the west side of Wilkinsburg adjacent to the city neighborhood of Point Breeze, Peebles Square is a 20 unit development comprised of 6 rehabilitated townhouses, 1 single family rehabilitation, and up to 12 new single family housing units. ACTION-Housing’s $5.5 million budget for the project has been obtained primarily through state and Allegheny County agencies. To date, the 7 renovations and 8 new houses have been completed and sold.

Hamnett Place Neighborhood

Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation acquired these historic homes through the Vacant Property Recovery Program and fixed them up for resale to homeowners.

Beginning in 2005, PHLF partnered with Allegheny County Economic Development (ACED) and the Borough of Wilkinsburg to renovate vacant and blighted vacant homes in the Hamnett Place neighborhood, directly adjacent to the MLK East Busway. Seven previously vacant properties have been renovated and four houses have been sold.

The Crescent Apartments

The Crescent and the Wilson House renovation projects in the Hamnett Place neighborhood of Wilkinsburg represent one of the largest restoration projects in Wilkinsburg to date with a total renovation of $8.6 million. This also represents the second largest development project undertaken by PHLF since they undertook the revitalization of Station Square.

The restoration of these two buildings brought 27 units of affordable housing back to Wilkinsburg, with 23 units in the Crescent Apartments and four units in the Wilson House. These buildings were highlighted as essential components of the rejuvenation of the Borough in the Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (WNTI) a planning document which had significant input from local residents, Wilkinsburg stakeholders, borough government, and PHLF.

Coming soon — Falconhurst Neighborhood Development Program!