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Advocate Urges City: Avoid Gentrification

Social worker warns McKeesport against displacing longtime residents

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

An architect’s rendering shows what the 100 block of Fifth Avenue, Downtown, could look like once the former Penn-McKee Hotel is demolished and replaced with a new structure. (Courtesy Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, Inc.)

Related story: City Foresees Redevelopment of Hotel Site

A community advocate who works with local residents re-entering the workforce cautioned McKeesport city officials not to repeat the mistakes made in Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as East Liberty and Point Breeze.

Keenon Mikell, executive director of First Step Recovery Homes and founder of BuildNBlock Community Advocacy, told council that plans to redevelop the area around the former Penn-McKee Hotel must be careful not to leave current McKeesport residents behind.

“I don’t want to minimize the effort,” Mikell said. “McKeesport needs that boost to the economy ... But what I’m hearing from the presentation petrifies me, because what I’m seeing is what we’ve seen in East Liberty, which is gentrification.”

A proposal presented to McKeesport city council this week calls for the redevelopment of the block of Fifth Avenue nearest to McKees Point Marina and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail. (Courtesy Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates, Inc.)

On Wednesday, architects unveiled the official proposal for redeveloping the 100 block of Fifth Avenue to include restaurants, retail and entertainment destinations.

The businesses would be geared to people using the McKees Point Marina, the Palisades Ballroom, and the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail.

“What’s great about the Penn-McKee is its location by the marina, near the bike trail — between 80,000 and 100,000 people per year ride that trail through McKeesport. We don’t need to go out and find those people — we just need to get them to stop,” said Dom Anselmo of KU Resources, one of the members of the team that developed the proposal.

Downtown McKeesport, he said, could be the next Lawrenceville — a Pittsburgh neighborhood that was once riddled with vacant and abandoned buildings, but which is now bustling.

“McKeesport is in the absolute best position it’s been in for a very long time, considering the real estate market, considering the amount of money available from the federal government,” Anselmo said. “Property values are low. There is a lot of value for money here ... this is really our time.”

Anselmo said planners envision small seasonal businesses, such as ice-cream shops, as well as year-round businesses such as restaurants, coffee shops and art galleries that would help support programming at the marina and the Palisades.

“We’re trying to create a destination for people on the bike trail,” Anselmo said. “This was a good community gathering space. It can be again.”

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said that although developers have not yet committed to the proposal, it is “highly realistic” in scope.

“We want to get this going and then move right down Fifth Avenue,” he said. “Think of all of the vacant property we have right now down Market Street. There is a lot of potential here.”

But during the citizens’ comment portion of the meeting, Mikell noted that the rapid rise of property values in Lawrenceville, East Liberty and other redeveloped neighborhoods of Pittsburgh also caused property taxes to rise rapidly, forcing many homeowners on fixed incomes to leave.

Renters also were displaced as landlords sold the buildings where they lived, or raised the rents.

“A lot of people were priced out of the area,” Mikell said. “That’s the side of the story that’s not necessarily told — although it looks great from the outside, and it lowered the crime in those neighborhoods as well, it was horrible for the people in the community.”

He also noted that many of the businesses that have moved into Lawrenceville and East Liberty are national chains that displaced locally owned stores and restaurants.

Mikell called on city officials to commit to supporting community-owned, local businesses in any redevelopment plans, and including local residents as part of the workforce.

“Allow the community to stay involved,” Mikell said. “That way, this can be more than just a lot of outside investors who take money out the community and then go home.”

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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