Allegheny County just became the biggest property owner in Braddock

A county-backed redevelopment project promises big changes in a borough already anxious about the little ones.

Blighted properties in Braddock are pictured.

Blighted properties in Braddock are pictured.

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Allegheny County is now the largest property owner in Braddock.

As of December, the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County had snatched up 10 vacant structures and 41 vacant lots in the borough for a total of roughly $137,000 — or an average of $2,686 a piece. It’s part of a plan to encourage redevelopment by purchasing dilapidated properties and then selecting buyers committed to resurrecting them in this cash-strapped and blighted municipality.

The scale of the project — a partnership between the borough and county — is unusual for the RAAC, Assistant Director for Housing and Human Services Cassandra Collinge said. It’s larger than most. It’s also being closely scrutinized by locals.

In a public meeting in January, Collinge heard from residents curious — and in some cases concerned — about how well Braddock residents would be represented in the process. This in a majority Black and impoverished borough with existing tension around Black representation in a slow but significant revitalization of the borough’s downtown economy that’s already underway.

“There’s more suspicion of change from older folks,” Braddock’s newly appointed interim Mayor Chardae Jones told The Incline. “There’s a little bit of a divide but there’s always been a divide. Some people say ‘I don’t want things to change,’ but we can’t stay under Act 47 forever.” Braddock has been in the state program for financially distressed municipalities since 1988.

The 10 vacant structures currently owned by the county are all located on Braddock Avenue, the borough’s main thoroughfare and the site of its most recent redevelopment gains.

“We very much want local folks to be part of the revitalization of Braddock,” Collinge said at January’s meeting.

But some in Braddock argue it will be hard for most locals to compete with outside developers with deeper pockets or at least ready access to deeper pockets.

The Braddock Building Community Initiative

Council President Tina Doose said some of the properties now owned by the county had accrued thousands in back taxes. Some sat vacant for 5, 10, 20 or even 50 years.

In an effort to get them cleaned up and back on the tax rolls, Doose approached the county several years ago. Together they settled on a plan that involved the county purchasing the buildings and parcels — something the borough couldn’t afford to do itself — and soliciting redevelopment proposals from interested buyers with the means to make them functional once again.

With that, the Braddock Building Community Initiative was born. (Collinge said the RAAC doesn’t work with municipalities in this fashion unless invited.)

In December, the county’s last purchase for the program was finalized.

The acquisition process prompted at least one dustup over ownership rights. But overall, Doose said, borough officials and most residents recognize the importance of removing eyesores and rebuilding the local tax base.

“To come out of Act 47, we have to find a way to grow our community,” Doose added, citing blight’s stymieing effect on revitalization efforts in Rust Belt communities like Braddock.

Doose said she’s aware of and sympathetic to concerns about local representation in the redevelopment projects the BBCI will ultimately spawn. She’s also aware of trepidation about the long-term changes those projects may help usher in.

In response to such anxiety, former Braddock mayor and current Pennsylvania Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman often described Braddock as gentrification-proof and light years away from the kind of housing squeeze seen in a place like East Liberty.

And Doose has stressed in public meeting after public meeting that borough officials are just as concerned with locals sharing in the BBCI process. She pointed to a roundtable convened last week that saw roughly 100 people, mostly Braddock residents, turn up for information on starting a small business, repairing credit, obtaining financing, launching a startup and obtaining legal support for entrepreneurs — all an attempt, as Jones describes it, “to level the playing field.” The roundtable will continue to convene on a bimonthly basis, Doose said.

Through such efforts, Braddock officials hope to encourage and perhaps more importantly enable residents to pursue redevelopment bids under the BBCI.

“I’m Black and everyday I wake up … I want this for my community,” Doose said. “I want this for people of color.”

Braddock
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The final say

It remains to be seen how applications or bids to redevelop the RAAC-held properties will be judged and on what criteria. (The request for proposals has yet to be drafted, with environmental and engineering studies of the properties being commissioned first.)

But Doose said through their partnership with the county, borough officials will push for prioritizing qualified local candidates over those from outside the municipality.

“If there’s a local person that has the capacity and has demonstrated through the submission process that they can do it, even if they don’t have the money in reserve, we’re going with a local person if they meet the criteria,” Doose told The Incline.

“We’ve wanted local people to develop on the avenue for a long time,” Doose added, “and for us not to advocate in their favor would be disingenuous on our part.”

And while RAAC has the final say in selecting the winners, Collinge said sales price won’t be the only consideration. (RAAC expects it will be ready to begin accepting proposals by the end of this year.)

“They’ll have to show they have the financing in place,” Collinge explained. “But I believe capacity and financing are factors that will be weighed more heavily than the price they’re willing to pay. (…) The county is not in this to make money.”

Doose also said the community will have a chance to vet the redevelopment proposals collected by the RAAC, which maintains final say as the owner of the properties.

A similar dynamic has been seen elsewhere around the Rust Belt, mostly with land bank programs supporters hail as necessary to reversing generational decline and which have at times been marked by property hoarding and confusion on the part of the public and prospective buyers.

In Braddock, the 51 properties now owned by the county represent an unparalleled local real estate collection.

The RAAC did something similar, though on a much smaller scale, in Wilkinsburg three years ago, purchasing six centrally located and significantly blighted properties on Penn Avenue for the same purpose.

Former Wilkinsburg council member Patrick Shattuck said the work is still ongoing, with environmental assessments of the buildings underway or in some cases completed and the bidding process for would-be developers yet to commence.

“The consensus of everyone was that this was important for the wellbeing of downtown Wilkinsburg,” Shattuck said, adding that the project continues to be viewed positively.

Braddock interim Mayor Chardae Jones is pictured in the Braddock Borough Municipal Building.

Braddock interim Mayor Chardae Jones is pictured in the Braddock Borough Municipal Building.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE

Local participation

Shattuck said Wilkinsburg officials are also focused on local participation in the bidding process and subsequent redevelopment work and explained they’ve sought ways to ensure that happens.

Possibilities include language built into the request for proposals that would incentivize or compel local hiring in construction roles, for example, and the hiring of minority candidates. (More than 60 percent of Wilkinsburg’s population is African American.)

In Braddock, local officials are also planning to push for similar measures in the RAAC’s request for redevelopment proposals there.

“For those people who say this (redevelopment) isn’t for me, we want these aspiring entrepreneurs and people running businesses out of their houses in Braddock to have these businesses flourish on Braddock Avenue. We want them to have a hand in that,” Jones said.

“Here we are partnering with Allegheny County, which is helping us acquire property that’s been on the avenue and vacant forever, and we’re going to have a say in who goes in there. We’re hoping our roundtables with all these resources will filter people back to this (Braddock Building Community Initiative). We’re trying to level the playing field for the locals.”

The RAAC’s purchases in Braddock effectively cleared the debt off the properties and the back taxes owed on them, removing two significant hurdles for future ownership, Doose explained.

Once the county’s request for proposals is finalized, prospective buyers and developers will be able submit plans under the guidelines for certain properties detailing their plans but also their ability to execute those plans.

“It’s not our goal to sell to someone unless they’re able to implement their redevelopment plan on a very specific timeline,” Collinge said. “Our vision is to ensure a legal mechanism is in place to ensure they complete the plan.” In short, the RAAC wants to be sure that properties that spent decades in disrepair don’t simply stay in disrepair under new owners.

In the meantime, the RAAC is readying to begin accepting bids for environmental and engineering studies of the properties to ensure they’re safe.

“Our goal is revitalization,” Collinge added in a phone call with The Incline. “Our goal is to help Braddock.”