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City Foresees Redevelopment of Hotel Site

Block near marina, Palisades envisioned as entertainment district

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 03, 2024
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Dom Anselmo of KU Resources holds a conceptual drawing of the redeveloped 100 block of Fifth Avenue — showing a new Penn-McKee Hotel — as McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko watches a presentation by Anna Withrow Leisher, an associate project planner from Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, Inc. (Tube City Almanac photo)

• Related story: Advocate urges city to avoid gentrification

A group of community planners hired by the city have unveiled an ambitious plan to redevelop a block of Fifth Avenue near the McKees Point Marina for entertainment, retail and restaurants in a program designed to create a destination point along the Great Allegheny Passage biking trail.

The proposal, unfortunately, includes demolition of the historic former Penn-McKee Hotel — a decision that McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko called “heartbreaking” but necessary to move the city forward.

“That’s the bad side of it,” Cherepko said. “The good side of it is that we have some very exciting plans that we believe can come to fruition on that site.”

The plans, presented Wednesday night to McKeesport city council and residents, envision redeveloping two Civil War-era houses, a former flower shop and a former Moose lodge that was later used as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

The Penn-McKee would be demolished to be replaced with a smaller, more modern hotel on the site.

“Our goal, when we started this, was to try and find any way to re-use the Penn-McKee,” said Jessica Stuck, an architect at Landmarks SGA and part of the team studying the redevelopment of the area of Fifth Avenue near the McKees Point Marina.

A previous structural analysis concluded that the southern portion of the building, along Strawberry Alley, had become unstable and needed to be demolished.

Further engineering analysis has concluded that the northern part of the building, along Fifth Avenue, could not stand on its own and rehabilitation was not feasible, she said.

Several attempts to list the hotel on the National Register of Historic Places — which would unlock development funds for historic preservation — have been rejected by state officials, Stuck said.

“The building has become a hindrance to any future development,” she said. “We are proposing the reuse of each of the structures, with the exception of a new structure at the Penn-McKee (site).”

One of the members of the team that developed the plan, Dominick Anselmo, a senior manager at KU Resources, Inc., is a McKeesport native. “My grandmother told a lot of stories about going to events at the Penn-McKee and the banquet room there,” he said.

But finding a path to saving the Penn-McKee was “not feasible,” he said.

Anna Withrow Leisher, an associate project planner from Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, Inc., shows McKeesport City Council a proposal for redeveloping the 100 block of Fifth Avenue. (Tube City Almanac photo)

The proposal presented to the city and Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh was funded through a state Department of Community & Economic Development neighborhood assistance program, or NAP.

It envisions closing Mulberry Street near the McKees Point Palisades and redeveloping the area with a courtyard that could be used by food trucks, farmer’s market stands, and other vendors. Musical acts and other entertainment could be presented, the planners said.

Those activities do not have to wait for new development and the city should push for them in the near future, Anselmo said.

“One of the initial phases we’re suggesting is ‘pop-up’ programming,” Stuck said. “We’re picturing a very activated place. You don’t need the development to come before the people do.”

Up to 100,000 people pass through McKeesport on the bike trail each year, according to the planners, and 13,000 vehicles per day use Lysle Boulevard, PennDOT traffic studies indicate.

In 2019, a marketing study concluded that up to $141 million in tourism money that could be spent in McKeesport annually is instead leaving the area because of a lack of amenities.

Angelia Christina and Jennifer Vertullo, board members of the McKees Point Development Group Inc., discuss the site plan with Anna Withrow Leisher, an associate project planner from Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, Inc. (Tube City Almanac photo)

Cherepko said the city has talked to developers who would be interested in projects on the Penn-McKee site once the building is demolished.

Anselmo said that residents should be hopeful, but not expect investment to happen overnight.

“It takes a special developer to come to a place like McKeesport, because in all honesty, it’s a bigger risk than going to someplace like Pittsburgh,” he said. “Even the ones who are willing to come into disadvantaged communities are not risk takers. They want to see a plan. This is the plan, and this is the place to start.”

Marketing the site, attracting a developer and completing a new building where the Penn-McKee now stands could take “hopefully three to four years,” Anselmo said.

City officials said money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources has been earmarked for remediating pollution and health hazards at the Penn-McKee site. That money would be used to help pay for the demolition.

The site is currently closed to the public and a fence surrounds the area. Work to clear the site is expected before the end of the year, city officials said.

Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc.

Originally published May 03, 2024.

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