Contact: Patrick Shattuck, Council Pres.
or Donn Henderson, Borough Mgr. 412-244-2969
Borough Statement on Demolitions and Blight 1/3/17
Last week, multiple news channels have chosen to focus on recent emergency demolition projects in Wilkinsburg. While dealing with blight in the Borough can seem overwhelming at times, we would like to update taxpayers on the ongoing and pro-active efforts being undertaken by Council to deal with this daunting task.
In 2016, the Borough completed 20 demolitions and have awarded contracts for another 29 demolitions which will begin shortly. Council’s goal has been to address demolition needs proactively, receiving grant sources for demolition even with continued reductions in funding available for this purpose from traditional sources such as HUD and their Community Block Grant Program. With excellent support from Senator Jay Costa, Rep. Ed Gainey and our partners at Allegheny County, we have been successful in receiving $250,000 in Community Infrastructure and Tourism Funding for demolition purposes along with $150,000 from Allegheny County Economic Development to address our most pressing demolition projects. Too, the Borough has used strategic planning, adopting an Official Municipal Map, to allow us to use tax exempt bond funding for demolition in high visibility areas where we anticipate major municipal improvement projects in the upcoming years; the Borough has committed $500,000 of our municipal funds to deal with this issue. Over the next three to four months we will put out another 39 properties for demolition in three bid packages; those demolitions should all be complete by mid-year 2017.
Even with comprehensive planning and excellent support, there are numerous requirements which the Borough must address before tearing down a blighted property under typical circumstances. The fact is, even though a house may be abandoned, it is not owned by the Borough and any actions require substantial process to insure the rights and due process of the private owners of these properties. This results in countless notification requirements and regulations, title searches, property posting and advertisement prior to a public hearing to declare the property a health and safety hazard and “condemned” which much also be followed by asbestos testing to protect the interest and well-being of the public as these properties are demolished. While the Borough will see a great reduction in the number of vacant properties in 2017, our task will certainly not be complete and we will continue to work to eliminate blight while working with our partners to identify new users for buildings and homes which can be renovated or repurposed.
Last week, the Borough was forced to complete two “Emergency Demolitions” or demolitions ordered by the Director of Code Enforcement with consultation of the Borough Engineer where there were immediate and severe threats to public safety and other private property due to actively collapsing structures. In these cases, the normal lengthy process of notifications and hearings is not legally required due to the immediate safety issues. We did try to have contractors exercise common courtesy and notify adjacent property owners when they could be reached. Our contractors are instructed to use utmost caution while moving quickly to stabilize the situation to avoid any further damage. Unfortunately, these sites are very unpredictable. Regrettably an accident in a demolition did occur at the Penn Ave. site and we are all grateful no one was injured and the damaged property was repaired by the demolition contractor within a number of hours.
The Borough does not want to have to complete “Emergency Demolitions”. These can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $60,000 for a typical structure; the cost is significantly higher than a standard demolition because of the increased liability the contractor assumes as well as the need to treat all material as asbestos containing and dispose of it accordingly. These demolitions are not anticipated and while the Borough budget includes a line item for demolition, emergency demolitions are usually paid for using direct local tax dollars. This is general fund money traditionally used for other things like street repair, police and improvements to our parks and facilities.
Your Wilkinsburg Borough Council is committed to continuing to tackle our blight issue and is also pursuing some exciting initiatives to promote revitalization and improvements across the Borough.
Working with the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County, preservation techniques are underway to stabilize structures on the even side of the 800 block of Penn Avenue. Proposals for stabilization design are being reviewed and it is expected that the RAAC will award a contract for the design work early in 2017.
Not overlooking residential areas, the Borough has submitted a grant application proposing a pilot program where the Borough would help keep long-time residents in their homes by offering renovation assistance in exchange for affordability restrictions on their homes. With this, the Borough seeks to address two issues simultaneously: to help our vulnerable elderly residents have safe housing and to insure future affordability within the Borough as we see increasing market pressure and values and anticipate more to come.
Ultimately Wilkinsburg will not grow without more investment and new residents to help pay for services. The removal of blight and strong, vibrant and diverse neighborhoods are key to that. Borough Council is working hard to deal with these issues in a manner that is responsible and meets the long-term needs of our residents. We thank you for your patience in dealing with this enormous problem and we are hopeful these and other steps will help make a better Wilkinsburg for all.