From facilitating the expansion of restaurants and other small businesses, to providing creative space for artists and community gardeners, the Allegheny County Vacant Property Recovery Program (VPRP) is proving to be a vital tool for community renewal in the Borough of Wilkinsburg.
Expanding a Small Business
Alaa Aqra, owner of Al’s Fish and Chicken, recently utilized the VPRP to acquire a derelict house on the lot adjacent to his restaurant at Penn Ave. and Coal St. He plans to demolish the house and gain needed space to provide safe, well-lit off-street parking for his customers. Aqra, an immigrant from Palestine who also works as a court interpreter, runs a translation service, and is completing his MBA at Point Park University, learned about the VPRP through the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation. He says the program offers many opportunities to residents and small business owners in Wilkinsburg. “I hope more residents and businesses take advantage of this program,” Aqra adds. “Wilkinsburg is a great place to live and work, and I want it to grow and improve.”
From Vacant Space to Artist Space
When sculptor 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 same could not be said, however, for several adjacent vacant lots and a neglected house nearby. Part of the triangle-shaped area behind the firehouse, a former car lot, featured crumbling concrete surfaces along with brush and debris. The house next door showed years of neglect. Interested in eliminating blight and gaining additional space, Briggs was eventually able to purchase four of the properties from a single owner. But a fifth lot – in the middle of the space – had murky ownership and records showed years of tax delinquency. Briggs sought assistance from the VPRP and Wilkinsburg community leaders to achieve her goals of acquiring the fifth lot and derelict house.
Community Gardens, an Urban Farm and More
The county’s VPRP also is being utilized to transform other vacant lots and derelict properties into places of growth and community involvement in Wilkinsburg. From the thriving Hamnett Place Community Garden, situated on the former site of a crumbling apartment building, to Garden Dreams Urban Farm, which grew from two vacant urban lots on the borough’s Holland Ave., many formerly derelict properties are sprouting new life. In the business district, plans are underway to create a public parklet in a vacant lot on Penn Ave. Designed by Pittsburgh-based mossArchitects, the new parklet will bring much-needed green space to this busy commercial corridor.
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,” Marcinko says.
For more information about these and other projects, visit www.wilkinsburgcdc.org/vprp.
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation was formed in June of 2008 with a mission to revitalize Wilkinsburg and surrounding areas through business and residential development, organizational and individual civic leadership, and cultural enrichment.