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Board Faces Hard Choices on Penn-McKee

Engineers: Saving part of building is ‘complicated’ but possible; demolition is cheaper

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
February 15, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

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

An engineering report has concluded that only the front part of the former Penn-McKee Hotel, shown here, can be salvaged. McKeesport’s redevelopment authority will make a decision later this year on whether to demolish the entire structure, or try to save a portion of it for reuse. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Matthew Craig was late to the McKeesport Redevelopment Authority meeting on Tuesday, but for a good reason: He stopped to buy a box of Eat’n Park Smiley cookies.

“Because you can’t be sad if you’re eating a cookie,” he said, offering them to the board members.

Although board members didn’t say whether they were sad, they do have some tough decisions to make regarding the historic Penn-McKee Hotel on Fifth Avenue, Downtown.

An engineer’s report presented at Tuesday’s meeting concluded that although part of the building could be saved for reuse, a large portion of it should be demolished — and the cheapest option would be to tear down the entire structure.

Craig, whose group has been working with the city to find a path to reusing the Penn-McKee, said his group will be satisfied with whatever McKeesport officials decide.

Although raising the money to repurpose the building would be “complicated,” Craig said there are enough people now focused on the building that “between all of us here, we know every single expert in the region.”

On the other hand, he said, if the authority decides “it’s too much, it’s too risky, it’s too dangerous — I would understand.”

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko urged the authority to find a way to preserve at least part of the hotel, which closed in 1985 and has suffered vandalism and fires since then. The building was the site of a 1947 debate between future presidents Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy as well as many other notable events in local history.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who have lived in McKeesport can relate to something that happened at the Penn-McKee,” he said. “There are not too many things that can have a bigger impact on McKeesport than restoring that building.”

If we “close the book on the Penn-McKee,” Cherepko said, “if we get to the point that the only option is to tear it down, we need to be able to tell people we did everything we possibly could.”

A.J. Tedesco, who serves as the city’s community development director and as executive director of the redevelopment authority, said the board will take public comment on the hotel for 30 days. He expects the board to decide on a strategy as soon as possible.

Nearly $1 million in federal and state money has been raised to remove environmental hazards from the site. Before the federal money is spent, the redevelopment authority must hear public input on the options, Tedesco said.

Comments may be sent to Melissa Ernst, community development secretary, at melissa.ernst@mckeesport-pa.gov, or via U.S. mail at 500 Fifth Ave., McKeesport, PA 15132.

According to the report, prepared by Reliable Structural Engineers of Pittsburgh and KU Resources of Duquesne, the Penn-McKee has significantly deteriorated since the last engineering inspection, which was done before the redevelopment authority acquired the property.

“I understand what the Penn-McKee means to McKeesport’s past as well as its future,’” said Dom Anselmo, senior project manager for KU Resources Inc. He compared the report to a home inspection.

The south wing of the building — the portion along Strawberry Way — and the ballroom at the rear of the building are unstable and must be demolished, he said.

Although the building is constructed of concrete over steel beams, Anselmo said the internal gutters on the roof have failed, allowing water to corrode the internal structure.

Parts of the floors have collapsed and that portion of the building is unsafe for anyone except demolition crews, Anselmo said. The brick outer walls also are beginning to fail, he said.

The back of the building “is functionally obsolete and it is economically unfeasible to salvage it,” he said. “It is too far gone.”

The north wing, along Fifth Avenue, could be salvaged and tied into a new building, Anselmo said. However, that portion of the building will not be able stand on its own after the rest of the building is torn down, and it will need additional steel bracing to support it.

He estimated that reinforcing the north wing, tearing down the south wing and remediating the environmental hazards — which include asbestos and lead paint — would cost approximately $2.5 million.

Tearing down the entire structure would cost approximately $1 million, Anselmo said. Doing nothing, he cautioned, is not an option, because the south wing of the building has become a health and safety hazard.

Regardless of whether the building is preserved, Cherepko said, the asbestos and lead at the site have to be removed before any other work can proceed.

“Even if the building must be demolished, the environmental remediation still needs to take place,” he said, adding, “it is my hope that we are able to restore this building.”

Three other people spoke at Tuesday’s hearing, including Michele Matuch, former executive director of the McKeesport Hospital Foundation; Robert Baum, owner of Wilson Baum Agency; and city resident Betty McClinton.

Matuch currently serves as president of the non-profit McKees Point Development Group, which is administering a six-year program, funded through state authorized tax-credits, to remediate blight in the Downtown business area and stabilize residential neighborhoods.

Both Matuch and McClinton urged the authority to find some way to salvage part of the Penn-McKee.

If that is unfeasible, Matuch suggested, there should be an effort to erect a new building that pays homage to the old one.

Baum, a real-estate agent and longtime member of the McKeesport Trail Commission, said the city is in dire need of a hotel to serve UPMC McKeesport, Penn State Greater Allegheny, the marina and other destinations.

“As for the Penn-McKee, I hate to see it go, but I understand if it’s a money issue and a safety issue,” he said.

Conflict of Interest Note: Jason Togyer, the writer of this story, is an unpaid volunteer on the board of 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 February 15, 2022.

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