New Kensington targets condemned structures in hope of attracting new businesses
New Kensington's most recent push to tear down blighted buildings couldn't come at a better time, business owner Mary Bode said.
Bode and her husband, Kevin, own the 7-month-old Knead Community Cafe in the city's downtown — a mix of businesses, vacant buildings and occasional grassy spaces where structures once stood.
“It is going to take a collective effort and people willing to take risks and be creative with new ventures that will turn things around and give a fresh start to the city,” Bode said. “Removal of blighted properties and city-wide cleanup is the first major step.”
Efforts by the city and Penn State New Kensington to revitalize downtown are making a difference, Bode said, but the blight must go for the Corridor of Innovation campaign along Fifth Avenue and other improvements to really work.
New Kensington officials say the city is close to tearing down four condemned structures that house 405 through 419 10th St., close to Fifth Avenue. A fire damaged those buildings three years ago and, after another fire in March damaged 405 and 411 10th St., those structures were labeled a priority for demolition.
The city already owned the building housing 417 and 419 10th St. and this month bought the buildings housing 405 and 415 from the county.
411 10th St. is owned by David Renwick, who could not be reached for comment. Anthony Bruni, with the city's code enforcement office, said Renwick did not file an appeal when notified that the building would be demolished and, therefore, waived his right to prevent its razing.
The fifth building on the block, addressed 421 and 423 10th St., will not be demolished and is occupied and well maintained, according to the city's code enforcement office.
The city will begin the process of getting quotes for demolition of the four fire damaged buildings soon, Mayor Tom Guzzo said.
In all, about 50 blighted properties need to come down, Guzzo said, and about 12 to 15 of the most dangerous structures are expected to be razed by the end of this year. New Kensington has demolished 59 blighted structures since 2007.
Guzzo said a city board of health meeting has occurred, a required step toward tearing down the first blighted structures, and the city is checking for any other legal steps to be taken prior to demolition.
Money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program will be used for the demolitions.
The spread of blight in New Kensington commenced with the departure of the city's founding industries, and Alcoa's exit decades ago and other factors shrank the city's population, which topped 25,000 in 1950 and was an estimated 12,592 in 2016, according to U.S. census data.
However, things may be turning around for the place once known as “Little Chicago.”
Chad Amond, CEO of the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce, said he's heard a number of business leaders in the county talk about how New Kensington is changing, and about potential opportunities there.
“When you get that kind of buzz among economic leaders, in my mind that's a sign things are going in the right direction,” Amond said.
Guzzo said interested parties already have approached city leaders about buying the 10th Street properties, once the buildings are demolished.
New Kensington kicked off its Corridor of Innovation effort in February on the stretch of Fifth Avenue between the 700 and the 1100 blocks. Bookending the corridor are Westmoreland County Community College and Penn State's entrepreneurial center, a shared work space facility that tentatively is scheduled to open in December.
Building facades and murals have been painted in the Corridor of Innovation area, a small park known as the Corner Courtyard has opened where an unused bocce ball court had been and benches and bike racks have been added to the area. Last weekend, a Corridor of Innovation festival was held along Fifth Avenue.
Joe Schilling, a senior researcher with the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, said a major part of starting a revitalization effort is improving image. The institute is an economic and social policy research organization.
“Revitalization doesn't happen overnight,” Schilling said. “Part of the goal can be accomplished by demolishing buildings that are beyond repair, and/or putting up displays in storefronts as a stabilization strategy.”
Like Bode, other New Kensington business owners are looking forward to changes downtown.
Phillipene Orr, owner of Salon PO and Fish King on Fifth Avenue, said, while blighted properties don't do business owners any favors, tearing them down and leaving empty lots would be just as bad.
“Look at how many empty lots there are in this city already,” Orr said. “I think it would be better if they fixed what they can, but to just tear things down and leave an empty lot doesn't help either.”
Autumn Walker, owner of the Apothecary Soap Co. on Fifth Avenue, said she tries to put herself in visitors' shoes.
“I just try to see it from the customer's point of view,” Walker said. “I wouldn't want to shop in New Kensington if I saw those buildings first.”