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City Coming to Grips With Blight, Vacancies in Downtown Area

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
October 01, 2019
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

McKeesport officials are pressuring owners of vacant commercial properties like this one across from city hall to "either pay the fines and fix the building up, or sell it," Mayor Michael Cherepko says. (Tube City Almanac photo)

In 1960, McKeesport was the second-largest retail center in Allegheny County, with more than 700 stores doing $100 million in sales --- adjusted for inflation, about $857 million today.

Fifty years later, there were only 81 retail businesses in the city, doing about $300 million in business.

Vacant storefronts fill entire blocks of Fifth Avenue, once the city's main commercial street. But over the past year, something new has been showing up on otherwise empty store windows --- condemnation notices.

"As we continue to market our city and try to attract new businesses in addition to new residents, one of the biggest obstacles we face is blight in our commercial district," McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko says. "Over the last year or so, we’ve really gotten aggressive in addressing issues in the Downtown area."

McKeesport officials are moving on blighted commercial properties on a number of fronts.

Code enforcement has become more aggressive, and the city is pursuing new regulations to crack down on vacant buildings, including an ordinance that will be debated at Wednesday's council meeting.

Several months ago, McKeesport adopted an ordinance that denies building and occupancy permits --- effectively halting the sale of a property --- to anyone who owes fines, fees or back taxes on other properties in the city.

The rule is designed to stop what A.J. Tedesco, McKeesport's community development director, calls "property hoarders."

"I’m fed up with people taking advantage of our city, whether that’s tenants or landlords, whether it’s letting a building sit or taking the attitude 'we don’t need a building permit,'" Cherepko says.

"We’re trying to change the perception," he says. "Either pay the fines and fix the building up, or sell it."

Some of the city's tougher code enforcement measures will be challenged and tested by landlords, predicts J. Jason Elash, McKeesport's solicitor.

And, he cautions, the increased code enforcement effort comes at a cost. "You don’t recover a lot of the money," Elash says. "Some of it is the price you pay for development."

Still, Cherepko and others say the new approach is beginning to yield results. Pressure from the city led the owners of the long-vacant People's Bank Building to sell it to Jonathan Stark of White Oak, who is renovating and marketing the historic property.

The former Jaison's Department Store, most recently used as a bingo hall, is slated for demolition.

"The bottom line is, without these efforts," none of that happens, Cherepko says.

McKeesport's Downtown shopping district in the 1950s. (Tube City Online collection)

The decline of McKeesport's population from 55,000 to 19,000 left hundreds of abandoned houses throughout the city, about 300 of which were targeted by the city for demolition this year.

But statistics indicate the decline of its Downtown shopping district has been just as drastic.

Adjusted for inflation, retail sales in McKeesport dropped by 65 percent between 1960 to 2012, the most recent year for which an estimate is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Commercial activity, once centered Downtown, has moved to the city's 11th and 12th wards and East End.

People who grew up in McKeesport in the 1950s can remember when Fifth Avenue boasted national stores like Sears and J.C. Penney, locally owned stores like Cox's, Jaison's and Immels, variety stores like G.C. Murphy Co., F.W. Woolworth and H.L. Green, and dozens and dozens of speciality stores selling clothing, toys, jewelry, shoes, accessories, books, musical instruments, appliances, hardware and furniture.

A combination of factors -- the opening of suburban shopping malls, population decline, the collapse of the city's industrial base --- hollowed out Downtown McKeesport by the mid-1990s.

Today, long stretches of Fifth Avenue and Walnut Street in the Downtown area are vacant --- notably the entire block of Fifth Avenue between Sinclair Street and Sheridan Alley, across from McKeesport City Hall.

That block once housed Goodman's Jewelers, David Israel men's clothes, Helmstadter's Department Store, Photographics Supply, a veteran's club, an Armed Forces Recruiting Center, a branch of the McKeesport post office and the headquarters of the McKeesport-based G.C. Murphy Co. retail chain.

Every building is vacant.

But addressing code violations with commercial properties can be more difficult than with single-family homes, Cherepko says, and not just because they tend to be larger structures.

"Usually when you're dealing with a commercial building, someone has more of a financial interest in it than with a single-family house that someone has walked away from," he says.

This entire block of Fifth Avenue --- once home to the G.C. Murphy Co. home office, Helmstadter's Department Store and several other retailers and offices --- is now vacant. (Tube City Almanac photo)

People with financial interests in commercial properties are more willing and able to challenge the city in court. The city's battle to acquire the former Penn-McKee Hotel took seven years and spanned three mayoral administrations.

Other commercial buildings were picked up by investors and speculators, Cherepko says.

"I think many times people were trying to ride out things when McKeesport was on the downfall, and figured they would just wait for things to pick up," he says. "I think some of the owners of these properties are waiting to hit the lottery."

"I’ve been here for several administrations and it was the kind of a problem where it was hard to figure out where to start," Elash says. "You had to pick out a strategy, and we decided, we're going to start in the neighborhoods," with vacant houses, he says.

Addressing blighted commercial properties was the next logical step, especially as the city tries to attract new business, he says.

"It's much easier for an investor to use all of the tools we have --- the economic incentives, the tax incentives --- if the building next to you isn’t boarded up," Elash says.

The sale of the city's sewerage authority at the end of 2017 created a reserve fund for McKeesport, and gave officials some flexibility to tackle abandoned and vacant commercial properties, Elash says.

Several incidents underscored the urgency of the problem. In January 2018, part of the facade fell off of the Executive Building, a four-story 1970s office building at the corner of Fifth and Locust streets.

The city hired an emergency wrecking crew to tear away loose bricks, but the building remains vacant and the sidewalk remains closed.

In May 2018, McKeesport tore down a three-store office building next to city hall on Sinclair Street after debris began falling from the roof. A few months later, another emergency demolition was needed at the old Highland Grove school --- formerly an upholstery shop --- when a wall started to collapse.

In June of that year, the city contracted with Building Inspection Underwriters of Pennsylvania to take over building inspection and code-enforcement services. The company serves municipalities across Pennsylvania and Delaware and has local offices in Kilbuck Twp. and Jeannette.

"We have a more extensive code enforcement team now," Elash says. "We’re trying to get to these buildings quicker now --- before the facade falls off."

Broken windows at the former Amvets on Fifth Avenue. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Joe Motznik, a building inspector with BIU who works in McKeesport, says the company uses the standards of the International Property Maintenance Code when trying to evaluate whether a structure is unsafe and needs to be condemned.

"Obviously, first and foremost, safety is our concern," Motznik says. Citations and sanctions can be applied for a variety of deficiencies, ranging from broken windows, accumulated garbage, lack of water or a proper sewerage connection, to the overall stability of the structure, he says.

"They have been a great resource for us to help us address these concerns much more quickly and aggressively," Cherepko says.

There have been a few complaints that the city's approach still isn't aggressive enough. In September, a group of business owners from the 900 and 1000 blocks of Fifth Avenue came to city council to complain about vacant buildings, vagrants and drug use along the street.

But there also are signs of life in the Downtown business district.

Stark, who is renovating the People's Building, is developing a new commercial building to be constructed at the corner of Fifth and Market, on the site of the former Memorial Theater.

The former G.C. Murphy Co. store at 315-321 Fifth Ave. --- most recently a blood-plasma donation center --- has been purchased by the owners of Garland Insurance Agency in White Oak.

McKeesport is next turning its attention to Fifth Avenue between Sinclair and Sheridan. The former G.C. Murphy Co. home office complex was donated in September to the city's redevelopment authority by the owners of Don Farr Moving & Storage, who were using it as a warehouse.

"That block could be something special," Cherepko says, noting that Port Authority is about to expand the McKeesport Transportation Center across the street, and that the state has allocated funding to renovate and re-open the nearby Lysle Boulevard parking garage.

(Tube City Almanac file photo)

The city also would like to see the Executive Building (above) in the hands of a developer who can use it, Cherepko says. The building is currently owned by a corporation whose principal investor is under indictment in New Jersey, accused of stock market fraud.

"We don’t want it, but I think there are people who might be interested at the right price," Cherepko says.

In fact, he says, if there's a vacant commercial property that McKeesport can get into the hands of a responsible developer, city officials want to know.

Compared to tearing down vacant houses, there are higher degrees of difficulty in redeveloping commercial properties, Cherepko says --- “but there’s more opportunity, too.”

Jason Togyer is the editor of The Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at jtogyer@gmail.com.

Originally published October 01, 2019.

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