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Empty Buildings Part 1: Flagging economy left vacancies all over city

| Saturday, April 24, 2010

Since a devastating fire in 1976 and the shutdown of U.S. Steel's National Works in 1987, McKeesport's main business district has become a shell of its former self.

Further signs of decline include a "for sale" sign at a former department store whose recent role was as a bingo hall, and Dish Network closing a call center in the old millsite.

There are "for sale" online for five nearby locations, including the former home of Sam's hot dogs, most recently a sports bar called The Enzone. However, there's also a lighted "for lease" sign gracing its exterior though its letters were scrambled by a recent windstorm.

Even 321 Fifth Ave. where G.C. Murphy opened his first store again is vacant. PlasmaCare shut a 14-year-old center there Nov. 6.

Its phone still worked in March and a PlasmaCare official has an office there for now, as PlasmaCare's lease still hasn't expired, but those who access the company's website are directed to a donation center in Pittsburgh's Uptown.

"Generally, the phenomena mirrors the declining population in the Mon Valley," former Regional Chamber Alliance CEO Howard Carpenter said. "Losing some 8 to 10 percent of population every census is likely to be accompanied by building vacancies.

"If the population declines, then property values are likely to decline as well, making it more difficult for property owners to harvest or utilize profitably," Carpenter continued. "Taxes, cleanup costs, debt/asset ratio, etc., all influence as well."

Mayor James Brewster said the overall economy also is a factor.

"Whatever we want to do with these buildings is driven by the economy," the mayor said. "It is driven by competitiveness. If someone thinks all the empty buildings in Western Pennsylvania are going to be filled any time soon, it is not going to happen."

Brewster recently said he is excited about possibilities and cautiously optimistic about a long list of buildings in and around downtown, though he also cautioned that all discussions are in preliminary stages.

Four empty buildings are at or near the juncture of Lysle Boulevard, Fifth Avenue and Walnut and Market streets, just east of the Jerome Bridge, where most traffic goes in the downtown area.

One is the former Jaison's Department Store at 215 Fifth Ave. From there, as hockey's Mike Lange might put it, "Grandma, the bingo game has moved to Christy Park," to 310 Thirty-Second Ave., where numbers are called out Wednesdays.

Another is the old First National Bank building along Fifth Avenue at Walnut Street, which most recently was a National City branch. It was closed and accounts moved to a smaller PNC Bank branch office along Lysle Boulevard.

The third is the former Enzone at 310 Lysle Blvd., which Coldwell Banker put on the block more than six months ago for $95,900 nearly twice the $51,100 market value listed for the building on the Allegheny County real estate Web site, and approximately 50 percent more than the $64,500 Raymond E. and Jaime S. Mays paid Philip K. Haughey in 2006.

More recently, that "for lease" sign was posted by Raymond Mays' CSM Construction Inc.

Most prominent is the 86,270-square-foot, eight-story Peoples Building, the one-time bank headquarters whose recent owners have been the city, four different West Coast concerns and a New York City couple.

The new name for the building, Lums Tech Center LLC, is found on typed-up door signs. Lin and Lily Lum bought the former Peoples Union Bank & Trust Co. for $450,000 in June 2008. Lily Lum's enthusiasm is no different from that stated by her husband after they bought it.

"We like the building," Lily Lum said. "We like the potential."

However, with jobs in New York and children ages 15, 12 and 10, Lily Lum said, "we just don't have the time," though it is possible they'll come here on vacation later this year.

That $450,000 price tag, in a "quiet auction" done by Inner Broker Marketing of Riverside, Calif., is down from an asking price of $595,000. That was just under what was paid to the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport by a company fronting for Santa Monica, Calif., investor Regis Possino.

Possino then bought it, allegedly for $2 million. A Seattle firm bought it at an Allegheny County sheriff's sale for $1.2 million, then folded. A mortgage investment firm then put it back on the market.

"Everything is good," Lily Lum said. "It just needs a little bit fixed."

Things that need fixed include a window recently replaced with a large board of plywood along the Walnut Street side of the building.

Also, as noted two years ago online in advance of that auction, "Water leaking in the past has made a mess but it's all fixable!"

Lily Lum said the couple did talk to a potential tenant, but have yet to advertise beyond those door signs.

"Some people want $400 to $500 a month," she said. "You cannot rent a building like that."

She said costs in McKeesport, such as those to buy a house, are lower than in New York. She also is aware of other developments, such as the Dish shutdown.

There were two tenants in her building in recent years. One was the city, which long ago moved its treasurer's office to the new city hall at 500 Fifth Ave. The other was Lydia Hale's American Indian Center.

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