If you're driving along busy Penn Avenue from East Liberty into Wilkinsburg, you'll go under a railroad trestle at the city border. Soon, you'll notice a discouraging change in buildings, especially when you reach the 800 block of Penn Avenue, where many structures are vacant.
"Several developers are interested [in renovating Penn Avenue buildings], but additional actions are still needed to follow through with the projects," the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. told representatives of a group of Pittsburgh corporations called the Allegheny Conference.
But things are looking up. Wilkinsburg was one of five Western Pennsylvania communities whose application for financial help -- through state-approved corporate tax credits -- was included in the conference's Strategic Communities Partnership. The others are McKees Rocks, Washington, Connellsville and a stretch along Route 51 that includes areas in Brentwood, Mount Oliver and the city neighborhoods of Carrick and Overbrook.
Wilkinsburg officials' plan for rejuvenating the ailing Penn Avenue-Wood Street commercial area found favor with the conference.
The renewal plan will total $3 million and last for six years. The funding is to come through corporate tax credits from three local companies -- $1.65 million over the six years from TriState Capital Bank, $900,000 from Highmark-Keystone Health Plan West, and $450,000 from Dollar Bank, said Tracey Evans, director of the 5-year-old Wilkinsburg CDC.
"Wilkinsburg was selected because of its demonstrable need, strong redevelopment plan and unified community leadership," according to the Allegheny Conference.
Four sites are to undergo major renewal:
• Old Wilkinsburg train station. The project will involve "reuse of the station that re-establishes its connection to the [nearby Port Authority] busway and ... reopens the pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks," the CDC said.
• Penn-Lincoln Hotel site. The CDC told the conference, "Environmental remediation is needed following the demolition of the Penn-Lincoln Hotel. After demolition, a new building will be constructed on the scale of existing buildings along Penn Avenue."
• 1001 block of Wood Street. Housing and commercial development there will create 74 housing units and 15 units of commercial storefronts.
• 800 block of Penn Avenue. The block has a vacancy rate of 98 percent, the conference said.
Upgrading buildings along Penn is important, Ms. Evans said, because the street gets a lot of traffic -- 27,000 cars a day plus 24,000 commuters each workday on the East Busway.
In February, the Allegheny Conference sought economic development proposals from 20 Western Pennsylvania communities and ultimately chose five plans for tax-credit aid under a state program called the Neighborhood Partnership Program. It's run by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
Private companies that agree to provide aid to struggling communities are rewarded with credits of up to 80 percent on their state corporate tax.
Ms. Evans was grateful for the financial aid from the Allegheny Conference and the three member corporations, which will also allow the CDC to double its two-person staff.
"It's a lifesaver," she said. "We couldn't exist without this support."
Of the 127 storefronts in the Wilkinsburg business district, 43 were vacant in 2008, the year the CDC began operations. Ms. Evans said 38 are still vacant along Penn Avenue and Wood.
But things are turning around. In July, she said, a grand opening was held for a new branch of Fifth Third Bank at 732 Penn Ave. Also, four properties -- 831 Penn, 732 Penn, 827 Penn and 1001 Mill St. -- were acquired, and three vacant storefronts were filled, two on Penn and one on Wood.
Since 2010, she added, "Twelve businesses have entered Wilkinsburg's central business district, each located in a storefront that was previously vacant."
Wilkinsburg also plans to hold its first house and garden tour. The western section of the town borders Pittsburgh and is near Frick Park and the universities.
"We have wonderful old historic homes, large houses with beautiful woodwork and beautiful gardens," she said.
Smaller street improvements are also planned, such as sidewalk work and planting trees.
More of the progress being made, she said, can be seen at the development group's website, www.wilkinsburgCDC.org.neigh_east
Tom Barnes: firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-717-623-1238.