This week our Preservation Month celebration of the 2021 Community Initiative Award winners takes us west to Allegheny County – specifically, the Borough of Wilkinsburg.
The Wilkinsburg Train Station Restoration Project, led by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation (WCDC), received one of PA SHPO’s 2021 Community Initiative Awards for bringing a community landmark back to life.
Can you tell us a little bit about your organization?
In 2007, the WCDC was founded by a group of volunteers and residents who wanted to reverse decades of decline and disinvestment in the Wilkinsburg community – an independent borough just outside of the City of Pittsburgh. We were officially incorporated as a nonprofit in June 2008.
Over the past 15 years, we have evolved and grown but our work to revitalize Wilkinsburg continues. Today, our mission is to drive economic development in Wilkinsburg with an emphasis on strengthening the Central Business District. We envision Wilkinsburg will be a prosperous, healthy, and inclusive community regarded for its strong business district and neighborhoods, historic charm, convenient location, desirable quality of life, and community pride. Our work is defined by community input, fact-based solutions, and an ongoing commitment to addressing structural barriers to economic opportunity for marginalized residents.
Our current programs and activities include real estate development, small business support, vacant property assistance, youth and education support, and community promotion, including events, small business marketing, and opportunities to engage community members in our work.
The Wilkinsburg train station was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1916 and its Beaux Arts-style reflected the strength and popularity of rail transportation at that time. After the building was vacated in 1975, it sat empty for over forty years. What inspired the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation to undertake the rehabilitation of the building?
The Wilkinsburg Train Station is easily the most iconic building in Wilkinsburg. The station clock has been used in both our main street branding initiatives and in Wilkinsburg Borough’s branding because it is so representative of the community. The building is visible from Penn Avenue and the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, which together bring about 50,000 people through Wilkinsburg on an average weekday.
Throughout its history, the Train Station has been a symbol, representing Wilkinsburg’s highs and lows. When the building opened in 1916, it represented both the community’s affluency and a new era of safe, pedestrian-friendly railroad infrastructure following decades of dangerous railroad crossings and fatalities in the borough.
During the first half of the 20th Century, the Train Station was a critical connector for the Wilkinsburg community. Many supporters of our restoration project recalled coming to the Train Station to pick up visiting family members, to see a husband or brother off to war, or to head in to work in nearby Pittsburgh. The Train Station and the railroad system allowed Wilkinsburg to grow and become a regional destination.
During the latter half of the 20th Century, however, the building came to represent the decline of Wilkinsburg and the rising vacancy rate following decades of industrial collapse and population shifts in our region. In more recent years, plans for the building’s reuse were proposed and momentum started to build around a shared vision for the space. The Train Station then became a symbol for Wilkinsburg’s future as a prosperous, healthy, and inclusive community.
In 2015, we submitted a grant to the Richard King Mellon Foundation to kick off what would become the Wilkinsburg Train Station Restoration Project – a seven-year effort to fundraise $7 million to complete a full, historically accurate restoration of the building. Hundreds of current and former residents contributed to our crowdfunding campaign, showing that the community wanted to invest in the space and see it brought back to life.
What part of the project was the most meaningful to you, and why?
The community participation in the Wilkinsburg Train Station Restoration Project was remarkable. We received an outpouring of support from hundreds of people locally and from all across the United States. We received donations from people in nearly every state, many of them sharing their Wilkinsburg and Train Station memories.
These stories added so much value to our campaign and made us realize just how much this building meant to the community. Many project supporters became sustaining WCDC donors, helping us increase our overall organizational capacity and our ability to take on new development projects in Wilkinsburg.
#PreservationHappensHere is the idea that great preservation activities are happening every day across Pennsylvania. The PA SHPO noticed that the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation used the hashtag in social media posts while rehabilitation of the station was underway. Why was ‘preservation’ an important part of your message while adapting this local landmark for a new community use?
Preserving the historic integrity of the Train Station was a key part of the restoration effort. Our project team preserved as much of the original building’s features as possible.
Where pieces of plaster or other building materials were too damaged, they were replicated and made to look as close to the original as possible. In fact, the project team went as far as to Italy to purchase pieces of replacement marble from the same quarry where the original pieces came from!
Preservation was important to our overall project messaging, which was really to honor Wilkinsburg’s past while moving toward an even more vibrant future for all in our community.
What advice do you have for other communities struggling to preserve an important and iconic building in their downtowns?
Engage the community – for us, this was key to both ensuring equitable development and securing larger foundation grants from funders who wanted us to show local investment.
Be creative and open-minded when it comes to fundraising – One of our board members, a Wilkinsburg High School alumnus, was able to help us tap into a much larger network of thousands of Wilkinsburg alumni. While we were not sure what the outcome of engaging this group would be, or how they would respond to us, we worked with our board member and a small committee to create a specialized campaign to reach out to this network with information and opportunities to support the project. The result was hundreds of alumni reaching out to donate, share stories, share artifacts, and reconnect to their community through this special project.
Forge partnerships – We would not have been able to complete this project without the leadership and support of our many project partners and team members.
Are there other organizations, people, or companies you’d like to acknowledge for their contributions to the project?
Yes, our project partners, team, and financial partners: Allegheny County Economic Development, Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny Co, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, PA Dept. of Community & Economic Development, PA Historical and Museum Commission, Wilkinsburg Borough, Grand View Development Company, Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, WCDC Holding Company, MCF Architecture, Sota Construction, and the many contractors and subcontractors who contributed their specialized skills to the restoration.
And our major donors: Richard King Mellon Foundation, Allegheny Foundation, Hillman Foundation, UPMC, Wilkinsburg High School Alumni, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Committee, TriState Capital Bank, Bridgeway Capital, FNB Corporation, PNC Bank, Bud & Barb Wise, Wilkinsburg Historical Society, and hundreds of current and former community members.
What’s next for the train station and the WCDC?
WCDC is currently looking for tenants for the space. We heard from the community that they didn’t want an event space and residents identified a need for more sit-down restaurants in the borough (currently there is only one sit-down restaurant in Wilkinsburg).
We are planning a series of free community gatherings with the Equity Impact Center at the Wilkinsburg Train Station featuring local artists and organizations. These events are scheduled on May 21, June 25, July 16, and August 27.
As for a next project, WCDC has recently begun the community engagement and Request for Proposal process for the vacant Wilkinsburg High School.
What else would you like to share with us?
Thank you so much for selecting our project for this award – this is a great opportunity for us to promote the project and our work in community development and historic preservation in Wilkinsburg!