Oak Lane group looks to new Pa. law against blight

Taking a new approach to fighting neighborhood blight, a nonprofit community development corporation in the Oak Lane section is looking to a new state law to help revitalize a boarded-up storefront in the Ogontz Avenue business corridor.

The Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. (OARC) has taken aim at a storefront at 7452-54 Ogontz Ave, seeking conservatorship of the single-story, 2,992-square-foot building, which officials said has been unoccupied for more than 20 years.

"Over the years, we've tried to reach out and get something done with the property," said Jack Kitchen, the corporation's president and CEO. "There have been offers to purchase it, but nothing ever materialized."

Kitchen, in an interview this week, said his organization in February filed a petition in Common Pleas Court to be appointed conservator of the building under the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservation Act, which was signed into law in February 2009.

Kitchen and others said the Ogontz Avenue case is one of the first in the state and is being viewed as a pilot case. Erika L. Griffin, a spokesman for the revitalization corp., said its case was the first to be moved and approved beyond the petition stage and the owner has been served with the papers. Griffin said a hearing date had not been scheduled yet.

The owner of the property, Leon Kalemkerian, yesterday said the property was last used as a linen store about 30 years ago. Kalemkerian said that over the years the property had been severly vandalized, causing the roof to fail. He said the roof problem has left the building beyond repair.

Kalemkerian said he wants the revitalization corp to withdraw the petition and provide funding to demolish the building. He said he would then repair sidewalks, "blacktop" and fence the lot so that he could sell the property.

Kitchen said being named a conservator would give the revitalization corp "the right to finance repairs and renovations and recover our cost either through a sale or year-to-year leasing of the property."

He said the boarded-up storefront is out of character with other retail spaces in the corridor, which has undergone extensive renovation. "Good commercial retail space is in high demand up here," Kitchen said.

Under the new law, nonprofit groups, senior lien holders, and individuals, can petition the court to be appointed conservators of a property that is considered abandoned and blighted and meets several other criteria, including being unoccupied for more than 12 months.

Other criteria include being a public nuisance, needing substantial repair, being a fire risk and unfit for occupancy.

The revitalization corps' "mission is to get these properties renovated, revitalized and back on the market," Kitchen said. "We need to create jobs. These are retail spaces that can create opportunies for employment."

Kitchen said the revitalization corp would prefer not to take conservativeship if it could be avoided.

He said he hoped the case "would serve as a stimulus to get people to pay attention to what they have."


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