When Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches moved to Stoner Way in Wilkinsburg four years ago, co-owner Katie Heldstab said they didn’t know the lot behind their building was also part of the property that they rent. For two years, it sat vacant and unkempt, accumulating trash.
They worked with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and other community partners to brainstorm ways to use the vacant lot -- which faces the high-traffic 700 block of Penn Avenue -- while also creating something that would add a bright, pleasant touch to the streetscape.
“The goal was to bring some beauty to this little patch,” she said.
Now, they grow herbs, fruits and vegetables that are used in their ice cream, including mint, strawberries and cucumbers.
“I had this vision for a fence that looked like leaves, that you could see through -- that would let light through but let plants peek out,” she said.
The project is an example of “filling in broken teeth” throughout Wilkinsburg’s business district, said Marlee Gallagher, spokesperson for the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation. The Wilkinsburg CDC was founded in 2007 and works to support residents and potential home and business owners.
“It really is all about place-making, even if it is temporary,” Gallagher said, explaining that putting in a garden or beautifying a space, even if it’s just cleaning up a vacant lot, helps both current and potential tenants imagine a property’s potential.
Pamela Macklin, borough council president, estimates there are close to 1,000 vacant properties throughout Wilkinsburg, where she has lived since 1973 and started serving on council in the late 1990s.
“It’s like a snowball, and I feel that at one point, our snowball was going uphill,” she said of efforts to revitalize the community.
The 2.3-square-mile borough is located about seven miles east of Downtown Pittsburgh and shares a border with the city along with Braddock Hills, Churchill, Edgewood, Forest Hills and Penn Hills. Between 2000 and 2016, the population in Wilkinsburg declined from 19,196 residents to 15,797, according to census data. The median age in 2016 was 39, and about 20 percent of the population was over the age of 62.
“And that is a challenge, as we have an aging community,” Macklin said, explaining that properties often fall into disrepair as elderly residents hand them down to relatives.
Allegheny County doesn’t participate in Act 152, a state law passed in 2016 that allows counties to collect a fee on deeds and mortgages to put towards a county-managed blight demolition fund, according to county spokesperson Amie Downs.
The county already operates several other grant or assistance programs intended to target blight and vacant properties, such as the Vacant Property Recovery Program, which transfers vacant properties to applicants who can get it back into use.
Organizations like the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation also work to develop blighted and vacant Wilkinsburg properties.
PHLF started working in Wilkinsburg in 2004. Since then, the organization has focused efforts on the borough’s Hamnett Place neighborhood, restoring historic residential structures like the Cresent and Wilson apartment buildings and single-family homes.
“We don’t believe that we have seen communities readily revitalize through demolition,” said Arthur Ziegler, president of PHLF.
It’s important to maintain historic buildings because they help to preserve both the aesthetic character and spirit of a community. Making sure the people who live and run businesses there are able to stay is just as important, he said.
“You’re seeing a vibrancy that’s really growing through development, through the restoration of this place,” Michael Sriprasert, vice-president at PHLF, said of Wilkinsburg’s transformation over the past decade.
One of Wilkinsburg’s newest business owners, Orissa Bey, said that she hopes to be part of that transformation moving forward.
She recently took over a vacant salon on Wood Street and hosted the grand opening for her business in July.
“I was more or less trying to see what I could make happen,” said Bey, 39, who was born and raised in Wilkinsburg. She worked at the salon that once occupied the space 13 years ago. After managing another salon for about 10 years, she was ready to take a chance on her own business.
With the help of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and the borough, Bey moved her business into the vacant space, now freshly renovated with red chairs and matching walls, with contrasting black and white accents and four stations for stylists to work.
“It feels really good to bring some positivity back into the community,” Bey said.