Courtesy of MRCDC.

Like so many riverfront communities in the Pittsburgh region, McKees Rocks has seen its population and economy shrink since the borough’s industrial heyday.

But lately, through partnerships with state and local officials as well as private businesses, this small community has been seeing a wide variety of new development projects take flight since the beginning of the year.

“Overcoming years of challenges by working together has allowed a new downtown McKees Rocks to come into focus,” said Taris Vrcek, executive director of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation.

Here’s a quick rundown of four projects bringing new life to this iconic Allegheny County neighborhood.

New life in iconic spaces

February 2019 may well be remembered as a banner month for McKees Rocks nightlife.

On Feb. 14, the long-shuttered Roxian Theatre announced the lineup for its grand opening celebration this May.

The 90-year-old theater, located 425 Chartiers Ave. in McKees Rocks, closed in 2003 and remained vacant until local entrepreneur John Pergal, owner of Lawrenceville’s Thunderbird Café & Music Hall, and several partners bought the property from the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation in December of 2017.

Meanwhile, across the street Chartiers Avenue, chef Jackie Page-Heidelberg launched the already popular Love Rocks Cafe in the Sto-Rox Library at the Father Ryan Arts Center on Feb. 17.

In addition to keeping the neighborhood supplied with Ugandan meatballs and candied sweet potato fries, Page-Heidelberg will also teach cooking classes in the kitchen and host the annual Steel Chef live cooking competition.

New use for a vacant site

The mission to find a new use for the brownfield site below the McKees Rocks Bridge has been a long-time goal for civic leaders.

Formerly the site of a holding area for railcars owned by the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, the 52-acre property has sat vacant since the early 1990s.

Since that time, community leaders have been eager to put the land to better use, which briefly included an ultimately unsuccessful film studio.

In 2011, the commercial real estate firm Trinity Commercial Development signed an agreement with the borough council for a multi-modal transit project that would give fleets of trucks easy access to load and unload their payloads onto the trains now operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX.

After eight years of planning, the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation confirmed that construction on the Rocks Multimodal Park will begin this spring.

While the project is technically a private endeavor, it owes much to its public boosters.

“We are encouraged to see development advancing there, and are proud of the work we have contributed to it over the past 15 years, helping to lead in securing site control, advocating for millions of public dollars for its planning and development and marketing the site to the primary developer and end users,” said Vrcek.

In an e-mail to NEXTpittsburgh, Vrcek added, “We are hopeful it will fulfill its market potential to once again be the economic engine of Sto-Rox: a center of job creation and skills development, a catalyst for business development that spurs complementary commercial and residential development in the borough.”

A revitalized streetscape for Chartiers Avenue

On Feb. 8, the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation received a $1.9 million grant from PennDOT to complete the first phase of a streetscape resurfacing project on Chartiers Avenue.

“We are very grateful for the state’s continued investment in McKees Rocks,” says Paul Krisby, borough council president. “The Lower Chartiers Avenue Streetscape will help drive the revitalization of our downtown business district and complement the industrial development occurring.”

First proposed by the city in 2015, the grant includes funding for new sidewalks, green spaces and smart traffic. The project was championed by State Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny County), whose district includes McKees Rocks.

“I was proud to support the Chartiers Avenue Streetscape project as it is a great opportunity to assist in the continued re-emergence of the McKees Rocks business district,” says Fontana. “The community is at its best when everyone is working towards the same goal, which ultimately is a better community for residents and businesses.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.