Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Pittsburgh

#31 Wilkinsburg

Pittsburgh’s Best Neighborhoods

Wilkinsburg Map Pittsburgh
Wilkinsburg is still well within metro Pittsburgh’s urbanized area.

Wilkinsburg Neighborhood Description

Wilkinsburg is an independent borough adjacent to Pittsburgh proper that’s in a state of transition. Once a high growth neighborhood on the east side of Pittsburgh, Wilkinsburg has experienced population decline since the 1960 Census. Today, however, the city is on the edge of revitalized neighborhoods and the market is now lustfully looking at Wilkinsburg as the next destination to purchase properties at a wholesale rate and flip them into hipster housing. There are many factors that contribute to neighborhood revitalization, but among the most significant is the resident artist population. Taking a vow of poverty, being a professional artist is generally not a prosperous profession, and they need affordable housing (among other things) to successfully ply their craft. Priced out of neighboring areas, the artists have discovered Wilkinsburg as their new, authentic destination to cluster within metro Pittsburgh. As any urban planner will tell you, when the artists come, so follows the market, which means long time Wilkinsburg residents are on a clock to define how the future of their city looks and lives before they’re overcome by outsiders making the decisions for them. Such friction recently emerged when the city of Pittsburgh proposed to annex Wilkinsburg. The initiative has thus far failed due to local resistance, but the failed process does not represent the end of fighting to maintain Wilkinsburg’s identity, to the contrary, it’s just the beginning. The market is coming to Wilkinsburg and it doesn’t require a formal annexation process. Local leadership would do well to deploy tools at their disposal to define how and where they want the market to grow before it does it for them. Action steps now will help to avoid victim narratives of gentrification and displacement in the future.

Neighborhood Ranking Criteria

A Front Door

Wilkinsburg Pennsylvania Gateway Sign
That’s a proper gateway into Wilkinsburg. (Image pulled from Facebook)

One of the major “through streets” from downtown Pittsburgh to Wilkinsburg is Penn Ave, which creates the perfect location for Wilkinsburg’s lone front door.

An Identifiable Center

Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh Penn Ave
Penn Ave is the Main Street through town that most Pittsburghers know.
Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh Wood Street
Wood Street is ripe for investment.
Wilkinsburg Trenton Ave Pittsburgh
Trenton Avenue is Wilkinsburg’s pocket Main Street.

Most travelers through Wilkinsburg would define Penn Ave as the neighborhood center, but there is the more subtle Wood Street that cuts perpendicular to Penn Ave that maintains a Main Street dynamic. Taken together, both define Wilkinsburg’s neighborhood center. Additionally, there is a pocket neighborhood center on Trenton Ave.

Boundaries

The Wall Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh
The Wall is a significant barrier that separates neighborhoods within Wilkinsburg.

There is train track elevated by a stone wall that cuts through the heart of Wilkinsburg. For both vehicles and pedestrians, it is a literally wall that one must navigate around. It’s not an external boundary, but a hard internal divider whereby locals resonate with what side of the tracks they live on. Otherwise, neighborhood boundaries are nearly non-existent as the architectural themes from one neighborhood to another simply blend into each other.

Density

The building stock in Wilkinsburg is dense with a few residential towers and tightly knit single family homes that define the city. There are also streets with historic mansions and larger parcels in a few spots.

Detached Sidewalks and Street Trees

Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh Housing
Houses are larger but still tightly knit in Wilkinsburg.

Wilkinsburg was built well with plenty of tree lined streets and detached sidewalks. The canopy is choppy in places but it’s nothing a tree planting campaign can’t solve.  

Diverse Architecture and Buildings That Address the Street

The architecture in Wilkinsburg is ornate. Despite being tightly knit, the homes are large and focus on the street, and each street within the borough has a different architectural theme.

Mixed Land Uses

Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh
That’s a streetscape that could use some attention. Also, Nancy’s has the best pancakes in the Pittsburgh metro.

Wilkinsburg would do well to revise local zoning codes to allow for more mixed land uses, particularly along and adjacent to commercial corridors. Being a densely built community, however, helps to overcome strict separation of land uses.    

Street Energy

Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh Lovett Sundries
Lovett Sundries is on the front end of revitalizing Wilkinsburg’s retail environment.

There is street energy along the commercial corridors in Wilkinsburg but primarily during daytime hours. As the market takes an increased interest in the neighborhood, street energy is sure to grow.

Streets That Generally Connect

“The Wall” creates an immovable barrier within Wilkinsburg whereby all streets stop. It’s unrealistic to move the tracks. It’s less unrealistic but would take a heck of an effort to dig streets under them. The point is The Wall may well be Wilkinsburg’s greatest liability from a connectivity standpoint.

Transit Access

Just regular old city buses run through Wilkinsburg with plenty of stops.

Walkability

Wilkinsburg is a walkable city. One could easily live in the borough without a vehicle, which is precisely what city leadership should aim to preserve. When the market hits, as it’s beginning to do, the choice is revitalizing into a more walkable city or revitalizing into strip malls and surface parking lots. My guess is the present zoning code would dictate strip malls and surface parking lots.

Opportunities for Improvement

Wilkinsburg Pittsburgh Homes for Sale
Old streets define Wilkinsburg.

If the residents of Wilkinsburg want to control their own future by ensuring the market grows the borough in a manner aligned with their vison and values, now is the time to act. The first and most important step is to adopt an entirely new zoning code and throw all the old garbage away. Nothing dictates more how a city looks and functions than its zoning code. Write a new code that preserves Wilkinsburg’s sense of place, walkability, and grows quality of life. There is no better place to write the vision of Wilkinsburg than the zoning code.

If annexing into Pittsburgh is off the table, expand your independence by transitioning into a home rule community. Pennsylvania Commonwealth struggles with many antiquated laws that stem all the way back to colonial days. To the extent you can free yourself from as many of them as possible, a home rule designation significantly helps.

Finally, vacant and derelict structures are a thing in Wilkinsburg, otherwise known as blight. Although frustrating at times, demolishing structures that can’t be saved is the easy part. The hard part is finding a developer to rebuild on the now vacant lots. There are big holes where old buildings once stood in Wilkinsburg, but public/private partnerships can go a long way toward enticing development interest. And the nice part about public/private partnerships is they require a contract between the borough and the developer. This is precisely the document whereby city leadership can incorporate values above and beyond the zoning code and dictate exactly how they would like individual properties rebuilt. That is to say, in exchange for incentives the developer builds in a manner aligned with the community’s vision.

*Map boundaries are an approximate and not identical to Wilkinsburg municipal boundaries.