Buildings must fall so a city may rise.

That, in a nutshell, is McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko’s oft-repeated message, as his administration prepares for hundreds of demolitions this year in the city of 17,727.

“It’s amazing what happens when you tear down a blighted home or two on the block, and all of a sudden you start to see other people taking a little more pride in their place,” Cherepko said at the February meeting of McKeesport City Council. He touted coming house demolitions and the impending destruction of “just about every vacant building on Fifth Avenue” in the dowdy downtown.

Branded as McKeesport Rising, the mayor’s revitalization strategy is entering its fifth year and has the city “this close, right now” to a turnaround, Cherepko said in an interview. If his administration can assemble enough developable land and attract just one anchor business, he said, “I think it’s just going to go crazy. I truly believe that.”

Read more: Saving McKeesport’s Penn McKee Hotel would cost millions, but the mayor wants to give it a try

Some in the city have argued for less demolition and more preservation. That tension could come to a head this week at a public hearing about the fate of a former community centerpiece.

McKeesport’s 96-year-old Penn McKee Hotel hosted an early encounter between future presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. It was the meeting place of choice for visitors and local businessmen during the city’s heyday. For families of mill workers, its crystal chandeliers and glass ceilings offered an occasional taste of luxury.

“It was really a pretty hotel in those days,” said Debbie McClinton, a vocal McKeesport resident whose mill-worker father often took the family to Sunday brunch at the Penn McKee. “It was just something awesome you could go to see. And you didn’t have to go to Pittsburgh to see it.”

The Penn McKee Hotel building, on Fifth Avenue in McKeesport. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

It’s been empty, though, for 30 years, and the city must decide whether to demolish or save it. At a 10 a.m. Feb. 15 hearing in McKeesport Council Chambers, the city’s redevelopment arm will present a new engineering report on the hotel and take public comment before further considering the building’s future.

“We want to save whatever we can save,” Cherepko told PublicSource in an interview. “The Penn McKee is one that we’re kind of doing some things and trying to see, is it worth saving?”

Sewer sales and sticky notes

In the Penn McKee’s early decades, industrial-era McKeesport’s population exceeded 55,000. The city’s decline to one-third of that population drove municipal leaders to fire sale strategies.

“We depended on one-time sale of assets for a very long time to keep us afloat,” said Cherepko, a former teacher and council member who has been mayor since 2012.

In 2017, his administration sold the city’s sewerage system to Pennsylvania American Water for $161 million, which covered debts and left around $50 million for reinvestment in infrastructure, redevelopment and public safety. He and his staff brainstormed the name McKeesport Rising to describe the thrust of the investment strategy.

With roughly half of the water system windfall spent, the administration says the results include some 20 businesses, from grocer Aldi to marijuana grower Trulieve, that have since moved to or expanded in the city.

McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“Working with the city of McKeesport is a lot simpler than, say, working with the city of Pittsburgh,” explained Keith Colecchi, owner of Hi Eatery, a food truck that parks daily on a parcel he bought last year from the Redevelopment Authority of the City of McKeesport. “I’m never moving,” he said, adding that he might try to develop a sit-down restaurant.

Cherepko said business owners are now calling him.

“Right here,” Cherepoko said, picking up a sticky note from his desk. “Wants 3 to 5 acres. There’s another one right here. He needs 2 to 3. They want to move their businesses into town, and we just don’t have property.”

Demolishing vs. rehabilitating

There are already some 4,500 vacant parcels in McKeesport, according to Allegheny County property records. The Census Bureau estimates that there may also be some 2,000 vacant housing units.

In a report submitted to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD], the city reported that a 2018 study of a quarter of its land area found 929 vacant buildings, most of which could not be rehabilitated. “This is a large quantity of structures that the City will need to demolish in the future,” the city reported to HUD.

Some of those demolitions, like the recent razing of houses near Walnut Street, could clear land for businesses, the mayor said. It’s not entirely clear, though, how much progress the city has made.

The city provided PublicSource with a partial list of 39 properties for which demolition contracts were issued last year. The lists did not include emergency demolitions, for which the city had no tally. PublicSource requested, but the city could not provide, complete tallies of vacant properties and completed demolitions.

A demolition site on McKeesport’s Fifth Avenue, in November 2021. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

There is also no written process for deciding what to demolish.

Cherepko said the administration spends untold hours trying to ensure that buildings posing public safety risks are prioritized, that every ward sees some demolition and that contractors maximize economies of scale by taking down multiple buildings in the same area. Another factor: citizen complaints. “They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” he said.

The lack of formal process makes it hard for citizens to have input, said a former mayoral rival.

“No one knows how to get anything on this imaginary demolition list. There’s no process for it,” said Fawn Walker-Montgomery, a former city council member who lost to Cherepko in the 2019 mayor’s race. “They literally do what they want to do.”

Walker-Montgomery, who now heads the anti-violence and anti-racism nonprofit Take Action Mon Valley, said the city should strive to rehabilitate most of its vacant houses. “If you tear it down, it’s just an empty lot,” she said.

Cherepko believes that empty lots can become development opportunities.

In October, at his urging, council voted to pay a contractor $644,000 to demolish most of the 500 block of Fifth Avenue, across from City Hall. This month, the mayor told council that  he hopes to introduce resolutions by July that would unleash demolition contractors on some 300 houses and other buildings. 

“We think that will be a very, very large dent into the issue,” he said.

Mirrored, but moldy

The Penn McKee Hotel’s claim to fame is that it hosted a 1947 debate between Kennedy and Nixon, both then new to Congress, regarding labor legislation called the Taft-Hartley Bill.  

The argument for the hotel’s preservation, though, goes well beyond that event.

Its construction was financed through an early example of crowdfunding in which some 660 residents bought 7,000 shares to fund $700,000 in costs, according to a history compiled by journalist Jason Togyer for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation in 2010. Born from civic spirit, the hotel became a pillar of city life.

Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, talks with McKeesport resident Debbie McClinton about the potential for redevelopment around the vacant Penn McKee Hotel building. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“The Penn McKee was the meeting spot for the community,” said Matthew Craig, executive director of the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh [YPA]. “It can be easily likened to the William Penn Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh.” He noted that the two hotels were even designed by the same architect, Benno Janssen.

The last tenant, a state representative’s office, left in 1992, according to Togyer’s history. The city filed to condemn the building in 2010, took ownership in 2014 and transferred the title to the Redevelopment Authority in 2019.

Craig noted that the building’s prospects are helped by its location, a block from the McKeesport Palisades event center, the McKee’s Point Marina and the Great Allegheny Passage trail.

He said YPA has lined up two grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Industrial Sites Reuse Program, totaling $980,000 that could go toward removing asbestos and mold from the building.

There’s more money available. In 2019, a nonprofit called the McKees Point Development Group, led by a board of McKeesport advocates and city government employees, worked with the state and four area employers to raise pledges of $2.7 million for housing rehabilitation, demolition and preservation, over six years. That includes $300,000 earmarked for the hotel.

The cost of repurposing the building, though, would likely exceed $10 million, Craig said.

“Given that the building has been vacant for as long as it has, it’s sort of like a patient going into the emergency room,” said Craig. “There’s so much that needs to be done to stop the bleeding that it’s difficult to imagine the future.”

The rear of the Penn McKee Hotel building. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

That hasn’t prevented some from dreaming about the potential future of the building.

“I would prefer something that would bring people, maybe some retail on the first floor, little shops, and maybe a small, artsy hotel with maybe 10, 12 rooms, where people on the bike trail could stop,” said Angelia Christina, a Clairton resident who works for the McKeesport Housing Authority and sits on the board of the McKees Point Development Group. In addition to cyclists, a small hotel could host people attending events or visiting relatives at the nearby Kane Community Living Center or UPMC McKeesport.

An artists conception of a potentially redeveloped Penn McKee Hotel provided by the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh.

“They could walk in and it would be like a little museum,” said McClinton. “And then you’d have a coffee shop, and a restaurant of course and souvenirs. … And then rooms for the bikers to stay. And people could live there!”

McClinton has no formal role in civic life, but has shared her ideas with local leaders. “If they can reuse it,” she said, “they should reuse it.”

A precedent for preservation

One developer is trying to use history as an asset in McKeesport.

In 2019, Jonathan Stark bought the People’s Bank Building, roughly halfway between the Penn McKee and the doomed 500 block of Fifth Avenue. He applied to the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board for historic designation. He now awaits a decision that could, he said, help to unlock tax credits to fund redevelopment.

Stark said the 90,000-square-foot building has “tons of deferred maintenance,” but also intact fixtures of granite, marble, brass and mahogany. He said the building could attract artistic tenants or nonprofits.

The People’s Bank Building in McKeesport is owned by Jonathan Stark, who hopes its grandeur will attract office tenants. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

Stark, who is not currently involved with the Penn McKee discussion, said McKeesport’s low property costs and proximity to Pittsburgh allow it to compete for tenants. “If we can offer affordable office space, there should always be a demand,” he said. “I’m extremely optimistic.”

So is Cherepko.

“I think the People’s Building is really a spot where you could put a nice restaurant or something in on that first floor with the beautiful architecture, the marble and everything that’s in there,” the mayor said, adding that such an attraction could bring in visitors who would then look for other things to do downtown.

Could the same apply to the Penn McKee?

A historical marker outside of the Penn McKee Hotel building commemorates the 1947 encounter there between two young members of Congress who would later become presidents. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

Cherepko said it may be possible to win grants to restore the Penn McKee, but “you have to be realistic” about preservation given financial constraints.

Last year, the city was awarded $24.7 million in federal money through the American Rescue Plan Act. So far, Cherepko plans to tap that to fill holes in the budget, make a few new hires, fix roofs, repair sidewalks and transfer vacant lots to residents.

Fixing the Penn McKee “will, in fact, not be easy,” said Craig. But in a time of unprecedented funding for local governments, he said, there’s hope. “There’s a lot of competition, but there is so much money in the system right now that now is the time to try to be able to do something.”

Rich Lord is PublicSource’s economic development reporter. He can be reached at rich@publicsource.org or on Twitter @richelord.

This story was fact-checked by Dalia Maeroff.

This story was made possible with financial support through the American Press Institute.

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Rich is the managing editor of PublicSource. He joined the team in 2020, serving as a reporter focused on housing and economic development and an assistant editor. He reported for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette...