When Tracey Evans looks at the Wilkinsburg Train Station, she doesn’t see it in its current, dilapidated state. She pictures what once was, and what soon will be.
Like much of the borough, this 104-year-old building is being restored to its former glory. When the $6.5 million construction project wraps up at the end of the year, the Beaux-Arts landmark will boast terrazzo and mosaic tile floors, polished stone pilasters and panels, a clock tower, all new utilities and restrooms, and 8,400 square feet of leasable space.
“It’s been vacant since 1965,” says Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation. “The WCDC has always considered its restoration a key goal for our Main Street revitalization.”
That revitalization is well underway.
The WCDC is actively seeking two tenants to occupy the renovated station building, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and located at the corner of Hay St. and Ross Ave.
Evans says the spot is perfect for a high-end restaurant or a brewery. (The formerly dry borough updated its antiquated liquor laws in 2015.) Both floors will be move-in ready by early 2020. (Business owners interested in a tour can contact Cameron Conroy of Avison Young.)
Funding for the project started with a $1 million contribution from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, followed by a grassroots capital campaign that raised more than $5 million — a sum that was $2 million over its initial goal. In just six months, the campaign received $175,000 in individual donations. An elderly man currently living in Arizona sends a $30 check every month to support his hometown.
And there are many other sparks of revitalization throughout the 2.2-square-mile community, mostly centered in its business district on Wood Street. Evans, who has lived in Wilkinsburg since 1987 and served on borough council for eight years, now walks proudly down the tree-lined streets, past construction vehicles and workers in hard hats wielding power tools.
Thanks to affordable rental rates and a convenient location on the East Busway, many businesses have opened since Wilkinsburg released its comprehensive plan and the WCDC was formed in 2010.
In 2015, Wilkinsburg was accepted into the Pennsylvania Downtown Center Main Street Program run by the PA Department of Community and Economic Development. The designation makes the town eligible for a broad range of state-funded programs, including facade improvement grants and property tax credits.
Located less than three miles from the fully-leased Bakery Square and within walking distance from the Wilkinsburg Train Station and Regent Square, the renovated Lohr Building will provide future tenants with distinctive office space featuring 11- to 13-foot high ceilings, arched windows offering abundant natural light, ample parking and rents that are roughly one-third of East Liberty’s properties.
At the end of the month, the WCDC will move into a new office inside the historic Lohr Building on Wood St., becoming the first tenant at the newly renovated, 130-year-old structure. To make access even easier, local officials are petitioning PennDOT to turn Wood St. into a two-way road.
Just a few blocks away, another older structure is getting new life at 1009 Wood Street. Brian Sieffert of Artemis Construction & Design, is redeveloping the building, which has 10 small storefronts and ample second-floor office space.
Tenants there will include Jae Co Studio, a commercial commissary kitchen accessible to private chefs and caterers. Owner Jasmine Smith, a personal chef and caterer for high-profile clients such as Ryan Shazier and Javon Hargrave of the Pittsburgh Steelers, will also offer a full-service venue with elegant décor where customers can host events.
Another new tenant at 1009 Wood is Casey Renee who will create products for her wholesale business, Confections. The space will serve as a pickup location for online orders as well as a meeting space for wedding consultations.
And lifelong Wilkinsburg resident Kayla Lee is moving her salon, Tiffany’s On Wood, to a larger site on Wood St. to accommodate her growing clientele.
Sieffert says he was inspired to invest in the business district because of the WCDC’s work. He’s hoping to see a few restaurants and a maker space occupy the Wood St. building by the end of 2020.
Two years ago, Sieffert purchased the Yingling Mansion, which was built in 1905. Known as The Sleeping Octopus, the Georgian Revival-style home overlooks the town’s business district. It is a symbol of Wilkinsburg’s past — in the 1950s and ’60s, this was considered the wealthiest borough in Allegheny County.
When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, people moved out to build more cost-efficient homes in the suburbs. Over time, rising crime rates kept them away.
Today, with a re-emerging business district and the historic train station nearly ready to begin a new life, Sieffert and Evans think it’s time for people to come back.