OPHELIA “COOKIE” COLEMAN
Wilkinsburg police chief
by Christian Morrow
Courier Staff Writer
Over the years, Wilkinsburg, the little borough bordering Pittsburgh to the east, has seen its tax base eroded as homeowners aged, or moved away; as crime inched up and schools consolidated. But the City of Churches, as it is still sometimes called, is making a comeback with a master plan focusing on business and residential property development, an intermodal transit hub, and public safety.
One thing that will make some of these initiatives easier than in years past has been the formation of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, headed as it has been since its formation in 2008 by Tracy Evans, one of five African-Americans serving on the borough council.
“What we’re focusing on now is revitalizing the business district, centering on Penn Avenue and Wood Street,” she said. “We have recently filled 10 vacant storefronts, and we’re pushing a new marketing initiative.
“We have two other businesses that will be moving in; Fifth Third Bank is moving into the old Standard Bank building, and we have Pittsburgh Natural Chef, a catering business moving in on Penn Avenue. So we have a lot of property under agreement, but it’s not easy.”
One of the difficulties impeding the CDC’s marketing efforts, Evans said, is that some property owners are reluctant to spend money renovating their street-level retail space, when they only have to make minimal investments in the upstairs rental units. To counter that, the borough now has two matching grants available for building facade and storefront renovation. The borough also offers a 10-year tax abatement program for commercial properties.
Through partnerships with Penn State and Carnegie Mellon University, the CDC also plans for sustainable development and renovated, and new park space. But the “big projects” that will be visible beyond Wilkinsburg and spur interest remain the renovation of the former train station and the fate of the gargantuan Penn Lincoln Hotel.
Both, however, remain in limbo, said Evans.
“We have funding for environmental remediation on the hotel site through Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, but on that end of Penn we’re looking at mostly blight removal. We might put an office center on that site,” she said. “We still want a civic center for the train station, but we have to replace the roof, stabilization first.”
Then there’s the residential development. While the borough has had recent successes like the $8 million Hamnett Street project that restored the Crescent Apartment Building and Wilson House into 27 rental units, and put three renovated single-family homes back on the tax rolls in 2011, it required the combined efforts of the borough, PHLF, Allegheny County, two banks and the state Housing Finance Agency.
The problem is Wilkinsburg has 731 vacant properties, most tax-delinquent, available for reuse or demolition. But almost all are privately owned. Evans said Allegheny County and the borough have incentives to allow new owners to take and develop these properties.
Wilkinsburg is one of 28 municipalities eligible for the county’s Vacant Property Recovery Program, which allows qualified applicants to acquire properties for side yards, for renovation or for larger scale housing development. The cost per property would be around $4,500, regardless of its assessed value or the delinquent tax bill.
Evans said there is another idea that might spur interest in both new business and housing, allowing liquor sales. Wilkinsburg has always been a “dry town,” but the will be a petition drive to put a referendum on liquor sales on the May Primary Election ballot. Supporters would need 2,010 signatures to do so.
But even if all of these plans go swimmingly, Wilkinsburg Police Chief Ophelia “Cookie” Coleman said people have to know the community is safe, and that’s where she comes in.
“You can have all the beautiful houses and storefronts you want, but if the public doesn’t believe it’s safe, they won’t come,” she said. “We’ve been making progress here and have a great partnership with the district attorney and the county sheriff.”
Coleman has instituted a citizens’ police academy program for the public and a sanctuary project with local clergy, and recently began a series of public safety forums, the latest one was held Feb. 7 at the Eastridge Branch of the Wilkinsburg Library.
“They have been very well received. I’ve always advocated community policing,” she said. “Effective policing takes consistency. And we are reaping the rewards of our labor and focusing on this for four years. I see the light at the end of the tunnel. We have people jogging at night, yeah really—not running from something. We have people that moved here from Ohio, from New York, and they are finding out Wilkinsburg is not as bad as they had been told.”
Coleman also said she will shortly launch a monthly newsletter called Community and Officers with Public Safety, COPS.
“There is no excuse for (her department) to be out of touch with the community and vise versa,” she said. “But we are getting a great response to our work so far. I can see the change.”