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Fate of Vacant Penn-McKee Awaits Report

Almost $1M available for cleanup, engineer will determine safety of building

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
January 02, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Editor’s Note: The writer of this story has a conflict of interest. See note at the end of this story.

(Tube City Almanac photo)

The fate of McKeesport’s long-vacant Penn-McKee Hotel likely depends on an engineer’s report due later this month.

The in-depth study, being completed by KU Resources on behalf of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, will help advise city redevelopment officials on whether the historic structure near the McKees Point Marina can be stabilized for re-use, or must be torn down.

“Right now, we are gathering all of the facts so that we are able make a responsible, educated decision on the future of the Penn-McKee,” McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said.

Nearly $1 million has been set aside for environmental remediation of the structure, said Matthew Craig, executive director of the YPA. The organization was retained in 2018 to study the history of the area around the Penn-McKee, as well as possible re-uses for the building.

Located on Fifth Avenue at Strawberry Way, the Penn-McKee is like a person who has abused drugs and alcohol for decades “and then they go to the doctor and hope they can erase all of their bad choices,” Craig said. “It has sat vacant for too long.”

YPA has raised $980,000 — $500,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and $480,000 from a state program — to remove asbestos, mold, lead paint and pipes and other hazards from the site.

Another $75,000 toward stabilizing the building has been set aside by Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, Craig said.

If the engineer’s report determines the building is no longer salvagable, the money can be repurposed for demolition, Craig said.

However, if that’s the case, the YPA will step out of the process and let the city proceed, he said.

“We are not the ‘Young Demolitionists,’” he said, adding, “But let’s get the experts to weigh in before we make any grand pronouncements.”

“I am hopeful that we are on the right path with the Penn-McKee,” Cherepko said. “All of the steps we have been taking — from acquiring ownership and getting the building into the hands of our redevelopment authority, to raising awareness of this building’s potential along our waterfront, to researching funding and development opportunities — are necessary regardless of the building’s fate.”

Designed by Pittsburgh architect Benno Jannsen, who also was responsible for the William Penn Hotel, and constructed in 1926 with funds raised by McKeesport residents, the hotel was the site of a historic 1947 debate between then-Congressmen John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, who were both later elected president.

In later years, the hotel also housed Community College of Allegheny County and became a senior-citizen residence, but it fell into disrepair and disrepute before closing for good in 1985.

The Penn-McKee was voted the “number one preservation opportunity” in Western Pennsylvania by the YPA in 2018.

The YPA’s study, completed in 2019, concluded the hotel was ideally located near the marina, the Palisades, the Great Allegheny Passage biking-hiking trail and other regional amenities, including UPMC McKeesport.

Up to $141 million in tourism money is bypassing McKeesport each year, the study reported, and some of that money would stay in the city if the hotel could be repurposed for commercial or entertainment uses.

The engineer’s report will be presented to the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport, which took ownership of the hotel after a lengthy legal process that began more than a decade ago.

An in-depth engineering report on the structure has never been completed until now, said a spokesperson for the redevelopment authority.

“We had a cursory examination, but we never had a thorough evaluation that could lead to a plan, because the money wasn’t there,” the spokesperson said. “We must determine the structural integrity of the building prior to completing the environmental evaluation, and prior to sending a contractor in.”

Any planned re-use of the building “hinges on the integrity of the building,” the RACM spokesperson said.

The Young Preservationists’ home page includes an architect’s rendering of what the building might look like, rehabilitated and reopened. (Courtesy Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh)

Besides the money already set aside, another $2 million has been authorized for the building’s reconstruction from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program with the help of state Rep. Austin Davis of McKeesport, Craig said.

“As optimistic as I am about having these resources to really create some positive movement for the Penn-McKee, we do need to make sure that the old building can support anything that’s going to come along,” Craig said. “I’m actually hopeful — reasonably confident — that can be so.”

If the building wasn’t located so close to the Palisades, the bike trail and the marina, it is unlikely that it could or would be re-used, Craig said.

“If we can tap into those economic drivers, in concert, working together, that’s going to give it the best chance that it could possibly have as a utility to the community of McKeesport,” he said. “Because if you are at the marina, if you’re on the bike trail, wouldn’t it be so nice to have some place to go, before you went home, to have dinner?”

Craig said the worst-case scenario isn’t the demolition of the Penn-McKee.

“The worst-case scenario is that we all watch the thing just collapse from neglect,” he said. “The next worst-case scenario is a vacant lot.”

Craig said that he, and the YPA, remain hopeful that won’t be the case.

“We can’t just save it because we want to have it be a little trophy,” he said. “It really needs to be a workable building. (With) these resources, we’re hoping that can take us very far down that path to return it to a viable building.”

Conflict of Interest Note: Jason Togyer, the writer of this story, is an unpaid volunteer on the McKees Point Development Group Inc., a tax-exempt non-profit that is helping to oversee a neighborhood assistance program for the City of McKeesport, which includes the Penn-McKee Hotel remediation. Due to a lack of available freelance contributors, no other writers were available to cover this story. City officials do not exercise any editorial control over Tube City Community Media Inc., which is overseen by an independent volunteer board of directors and does not include any elected McKeesport officials. Complaints about coverage may be addressed to Mary Beth Wyko, chair of the board of directors, at marybethwyko@gmail.com.

Originally published January 02, 2022.

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