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Wilkinsburg tour to highlight blight in hopes of spurring redevelopment

| Sunday, April 12, 2015, 10:21 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation will host its first Vacant Home Tour in May. A map of the houses is shown in the CDC offices on Wednesday April 8, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation will host its first Vacant Home Tour in May. One of the houses, 1329 Singer Place, is shown on Wednesday April 8, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation will host its first Vacant Home Tour in May. A house on the tour, 740 Hill Ave., is shown on Wednesday April 8, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation will host its first Vacant Home Tour in May. One of the houses, 816 South Ave., is shown on Wednesday April 8, 2015.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation will host its first Vacant Home Tour in May. Here, 831 Rebecca St. is shown on Wednesday April 8, 2015.

It's a home tour visitors don't typically take: overgrown gardens leading to homes with boarded-up windows, peeling paint and broken stairs.

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and a group of Carnegie Mellon University students hope to highlight hidden beauty in the borough and reframe how people see vacant properties. The students conceived the idea for a Vacant Home Tour on May 9 as a way to address blight.

They'll walk people through the history of five vacant properties in Wilkinsburg that could be prime candidates for restoration.

At each house, volunteer docents from the neighborhood, who researched the homes' histories and owners, will present old photos or documents to show the houses in their heydays, said Marlee Gallagher, communications and outreach coordinator for the CDC.

At the end of the tour, representatives from Allegheny County and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation will hold workshops to talk about programs and financing options available to people who buy and restore vacant properties.

“It wasn't an issue of lack of tools but a lack of awareness, a lack of engagement with the community,” said Kenneth Chu, one of the grad students from the School of Public Policy and Management at Heinz College.

“As we researched, we started falling in love with these houses, the people who lived there and the impact they've had on the community, Pittsburgh and nationally,” Chu said.

Volunteers were surprised to learn that a house on South Avenue once belonged to Vernon Covell, chief engineer of the “Three Sisters” bridges connecting Downtown to the North Shore, Chu said. Another home, on Hill Street, was owned by John W. Beatty, an artist and early director of the Carnegie Museums, possibly appointed by Andrew Carnegie.

Organizers are seeking more information to flesh out the presentations, Gallagher said.

“One element will be called ‘through the looking glass,' where we'll have transparencies with old photos of the homes people can look through to see what they looked like on top of their current state,” Chu said.

He hopes people will see the past and potential future of the homes.

Recounting the history of properties to remind people of their potential is similar to what artist Dee Briggs did with a vacant Wilkinsburg property for her “House of Gold” project. Briggs' work was an inspiration for the tour, Chu said, and she met early on with the organizers.

“I hadn't imagined the stories of houses as a real estate development tool, but it could be an important one,” said Briggs, whose website, house-of-gold.com, told the story of 1404 Swissvale Ave. in the “voice” of the house recalling its history and value before its deconstruction in late 2014.

“Wilkinsburg is often described in negative terms ... but it's really a wonderful community,” Briggs said. “Each house has had generations of wonderful people living in it.”

Chu said as more millennials seek to buy homes in urban areas without taking on large mortgages, communities such as Wilkinsburg could capitalize on the opportunity by providing properties to rehabilitate. That would help rebuild the borough's tax base.

Wilkinsburg and its school district have a combined property tax rate of 50.23 mills, or $5,023 on every $100,000 of a home's assessed value, but the median value of properties in the borough is just $33,500, county records show.

Councilman Patrick Shattuck, who heads the Wilkinsburg planning commission, said the borough and school district are working to attract residents with revamped public playgrounds; tax abatement programs for buyers of delinquent properties; and zoning changes to encourage redevelopment and re-use of vacant churches and schools.

The borough is one of 53 municipalities participating in the county's Vacant Property Recovery Program — one of the options for buying homes that organizers will explain after the tour.

Under the program, eligible residents, businesses or nonprofits can apply to acquire properties that are vacant and tax-delinquent for at least three years, said Cassandra Collinge, manager of housing development for the Allegheny County Redevelopment Authority. Once an applicant submits a plan for re-use or rehabilitation of the property, the county starts a legal process to take it from the tax-delinquent owner and sell it for its assessed value plus some portion of the legal fees.

Allegheny County closes on more than 100 properties a year through the program, Collinge said. There have been applications for 51 properties in Wilkinsburg, 28 of which have completed the process and been turned over to new owners.

Organizers are paying for the tour with about $15,000 in grants.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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