Forty out of the 150 buildings in Wilkinsburg’s central business district are vacant, but borough officials are hoping that a new tool will help spur development in that distressed municipality.
Some of these properties have been vacant for a decade or two, according to Tracey Evans, executive director of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC). She said on one block just one of the nine buildings is occupied.
“That’s a huge loss visually for people driving through the business district," Evans said. "It looks blighted.”
The Wilkinsburg Borough Council and the school district have approved an enhanced tax abatement plan to lure new businesses or entice current building owners to spruce up their properties. According to Evans, 100 percent of the value of improvements will be tax exempt for five years and then the tax will be phased in over the next five years.
The school district and borough are still collecting on the current assessed value, “they’re not taking a loss,” and eventually will get additional revenues from higher property values and the business, sales and income taxes those developments will generate.
Evans said overall 19 percent of all properties in the borough are vacant. She compared that with Pittsburgh’s South Side 30 years ago before the revitalization there.
“They had a 37 percent vacancy rate back in the early ‘80s,” she said.
Evans said it’s a double whammy: Wilkinsburg is not benefiting from the business that would be conducted if those buildings were occupied, but “the borough as a whole has a large amount of delinquent taxes” from vacant as well as occupied buildings.
Evans said by getting some of these buildings back on the tax rolls, it will benefit the borough and school district.
“Ideally we can get to a point where we’re lower our millage rate to be more equal to the communities around us. We do have a really high combined millage rate,” she said.
At 51.36 mils, the rate is the highest in Allegheny County.
In 2014-15, the WCDC received 260 inquiries from individuals and companies interested in leasing commercial space or developing vacant and underutilized space: many in the food industry including restaurants and caterers as well as light manufacturing and retail.
“Though the demand for space in Wilkinsburg is high, there is a lack of code compliant buildings and storefronts, which limits the opportunity for new commercial businesses,” Evans said.
Their goal is each year to have at least two to three vacant buildings renovated
“It takes time to fix up a building,” she said.
There is a strong focus on attracting small businesses.
“People are moving from the [city’s] East End,” Evans said. “We’ve had several businesses that have relocated here from East Liberty who have been able to buy a building. They don’t want to continue to get pushed around and moved around as the rents go up. Now they can own their own property.”
The tax abatement is available to any commercial or mixed use building in the borough including current businesses considering significant improvements to their buildings, “to really get the appearance of the front of the buildings to look better because that’s something people have noted,” Evans said. “You drive through, and it’s starting to look better, but it still has a long way to go.”