Planning Ahead

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Wilkinsburg is looking to the future. The Wilkinsburg Plan, an ambitious, wide-ranging effort to put the borough on the right track for the next decade and beyond, has been under way since early this year and will be taking shape for most of 2009 before its expected completion in the spring of 2010. Another plan, just completed, entitled Making Wilkinsburg Sustainable, is a community development project from Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management. That plan is available for viewing on the economic development section of Wilkinsburg’s Web site, http://www.wilkinsburgpa.gov.
Components of the Wilkinsburg Plan include a management audit, which will examine ways to optimize government services, a comprehensive plan, which is a blueprint for community development, and the most recent area to come under consideration, a plan for revitalizing the community’s business district. A weeklong design charrette, led by consultants from Delta Development Group and Burt Hill Architects, invited residents to share their thoughts on the business district’s strengths and weaknesses, and offer input for the best way to face the economic challenges of the future. Information gathered from residents, business owners and other stakeholders in a series of public meetings over the past month pointed to a need on Penn Avenue for storefront improvements, general cleanup and improved safety. Affordable housing was ranked either “very important” or “somewhat important” by about 85 percent of the participants, with a preferred redevelopment mix of renovation and new construction. Community strengths were walkability, accessibility to public transportation, historic buildings and a strong sense of community. Participants in one of the charrettes, in discussing the borough’s proximity to the city of Pittsburgh, combined with its small-town feel, described Wilkinsburg as an “urban Mayberry,” a description that Mayor John Thompson agreed with. “It is a small town,” he said. “Kids walk to school, most of us can walk to church.” The size of Wilkinsburg’s business district, encompassing Penn Avenue and the businesses on Wood Street, tops out at about 70 acres. To put that in perspective, Edgewood Towne Center is 30 acres; The Waterfront is 20 acres; South Side works is 35 acres; and Monroeville Mall is 100 acres. Some participants believed the size was a drawback, and a reconfiguration and transition of the district to include more housing and fewer businesses may be a more viable long-term strategy, one that could result in fewer vacant properties. Residents who want to learn more about the Wilkinsburg Plan, and who want to stay in the loop about the plan’s progress can call the borough office, 412-244-2900, ext.101 or send an e-mail to compplan@wilkinsburgpa.gov. Addressing vacant properties is the thrust of Making Wilkinsburg Sustainable. The study, commissioned with the idea of identifying strategies for making the borough more economically and environmentally sustainable, found that most of the challenges Wilkinsburg faces—few new residents, limited investment, poor public perception, a high property tax rate—can be traced to the high number of vacant properties in the borough. According to the 2000 US Census, 14.6 percent of Wilkinsburg’s housing units are vacant. The national average is 9 percent. A study by Temple University showed that property values of occupied homes decreased when those homes were close to an abandoned property. Some steps to reverse the trend are already being taken. Wilkinsburg’s tax base expansion ordinance includes a “willing seller program,” which will make it easier for prospective buyers to purchase abandoned and tax-delinquent buildings. The borough is in the process of compiling data on all abandoned properties, to include tax status, ownership, code violations and any report of criminal activity. Also, a pilot program with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association will attempt to maintain property values of homes adjacent to abandoned properties, by keeping vacant lots clean, providing landscaping improvements and building fences.
If you would like to weigh in on the Wilkinsburg Plan online, go to http://tiny.cc/wilkinsburgplan.

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