Wilkinsburg restaurant owner uses lien-clearing option to build his business

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Al's Fish & Chicken opened on Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg in 2008 with space for two cars in a short driveway in back. Next to the driveway, a derelict house had become a home to rats and raccoons.

Alaa Aqra, owner of the take-out restaurant, said he believes it hasn't been a home to people since at least 2007.

Within a few months, he expects to buy that house because the liens were cleared by the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County's Vacant Property Recovery Program.

Spending thousands to pay old debt on properties inhibits individuals from taking on these projects. As it is, Mr. Aqra has spent about $3,700 on the process, including the price of the house, and he expects to spend about $7,000 demolishing it. He has to complete the demolition within six months of the title transfer as a condition of the program.

The empty lot will become a seven-car parking lot.

"I will have lights and cameras and bushes and maybe flowers," he said. He also plans to upgrade the restaurant's facade with an awning.

The empty lot "will become an asset to me," he said. "I can raise the value of my property by removing blight and providing an amenity."

Mr. Aqra learned about the program in 2012 at a monthly meeting of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp. There, business owners and safety officials discuss issues and improvement efforts in the business district.

"The program was mentioned at one of the meetings, and I asked about it" specifically with the derelict house in mind, he said.

He completed his paperwork for the county and submitted it a year ago. He had to show proof of insurance, provide estimates of the cost of demolition and proof of his ability to pay for the transaction and the proposed project.

"I have saved money up for this reason," he said. "The business is doing good enough. It is growing slowly."

Mr. Aqra, who said the process was "fairly easy," is the only retailer on Penn Avenue to make use of the county's program so far and only the second business in Wilkinsburg to do so.

Mindy Schwartz was one of the first applicants in the borough when she began assembling lots on Holland Avenue to expand her urban farm and nursery, Garden Dreams. It was more than 10 years ago when the process took much longer.

Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corp., said the agency's strategic plan "is very focused on the business district. Our priority was to improve Penn Avenue."

The CDC was founded in 2008 as a volunteer nonprofit in the hope of infusing the borough with Main Street money from the state, but the state did not fund the program that year. The organization now relies on funding through the state's Neighborhood Partnership Program, with Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation as its partner. The CDC's skeleton staff includes an intern.

"It's not easy to get money to take buildings down and it's not easy to get money to fix buildings up," Ms. Evans said. "We hope more businesses will take advantage [of the county's program]."

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