WHEELING - Over the past couple of years, change has become the norm for East Wheeling, and transformation of that neighborhood remains a work in progress.
Various efforts that will shape the neighborhood's new direction stand at varying stages of completion. These include a community sports field to replace an entire block of houses, some of which were abandoned and in disrepair, and the Vandalia Heritage Foundation's $3.1 million housing developments.
Questions that remain include what will become of the former Clay School, and the property on which the former Imperial Pools building once stood. But those involved in efforts to turn East Wheeling back into a vibrant neighborhood seem to agree in their belief that a commitment to change its image for the better is going a long way toward making that happen.
The Vandalia Heritage Foundation is in the process of leasing 12 new apartment units inside two new buildings on 15th and Wood streets in East Wheeling.
Photo by Ian Hicks
J.B. Chambers Recreation Park
Mayor Andy McKenzie expects the future J.B. Chambers Recreation Park - featuring new basketball courts, playground equipment and an artificial turf field suitable for multiple sports - will open sometime this year. However, there is no target date for construction to begin on the project that city leaders announced during the summer of 2010.
McKenzie has said it is his goal to solicit enough private contributions to fund the entire $3 million project, including reimbursing city coffers for the approximately $1.2 million taxpayers have spent to date for project design, property acquisition and demolition. Thus far, the only publicly announced contribution has been a $750,000 gift from the J.B. Chambers Memorial Foundation, earning that organization the naming rights to the field.
"Fundraising continues," said McKenzie. "We have had several very generous large contributions ... and we'll make those announcements when the time is right."
Although a city park by itself is unlikely to have a direct financial impact on Wheeling's tax base, officials believe the field will improve residents' quality of life, increase traffic at nearby stores such as Convenient and Neely's Grocery and encourage further investment by changing public perception of East Wheeling as a neighborhood stricken by blight and drug activity.
The sports field and Vandalia housing projects represent a combined investment of more than $6 million. McKenzie also pointed to the expansion of Ziegenfelder Co. and renovation of the former Robinson building into a future state office as recent indicators of positive change in East Wheeling.
"That's more money than has been invested in that neighborhood in probably ever. ... I think that will tremendously change the face of what East Wheeling was perceived to be," he said.
McKenzie said the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park will be the only place in the area where children will have an artificial turf field available for general use, and project plans call for brand new playground equipment to replace what was removed from the Elks Playground during demolition.
City Manager Robert Herron said no additional property is necessary for parking, as he estimated there will be space for about 120 vehicles to park along the perimeter of the field.
Vandalia Housing Project
The East Wheeling homes that met the wrecking ball last year to make way for the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park - about two dozen in all - have been described as "the homes of the people who built Wheeling." According to Vandalia Heritage Foundation Executive Director Laura Kurtz Kuhns, the housing units the group is creating in the neighborhood will be ideal for the young working professionals who will build Wheeling's future.
Construction of two new buildings near 15th and Wood streets wrapped up in mid-December, and Vandalia is in the process of renting the 12 two-bedroom, one-bath units inside them. Renovation of two existing buildings at 129 15th St. and 1409 Wood St., which collectively will feature five three-bedroom and two-bath units, is expected to be complete by the end of March.
Kuhns said because the project is largely funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, people seem to be under the impression the units will be occupied by low-income or "no-income" tenants. But Vandalia does not accept HUD vouchers, she said, and has received clearance to rent to anyone making up to 120 percent of the area's median income, which she said would be about $61,000 per year for a family of four.
Applicants must pass a background check, have a good work history and demonstrate some measure of stability. For a two-bedroom unit, monthly rent will range from $575 to $596, and for a three-bedroom unit, $644 to $749, based on income.
"It's not some kind of handout," said Kuhns.
As future funding allows, Vandalia also hopes to build additional housing on four or five vacant lots it owns along 14th and 15th streets, Kuhns said. She said it probably would have been cheaper to build a single, large apartment building, but noted the easy way is not always the best way.
"That doesn't really build the neighborhood," she continued. "We need a diversity of units. ... It's a formula we've used in other areas that worked very well."
It's been nearly four years since Vandalia began working on its concept for the East Wheeling project and over that time Kuhns said she's noticed an increased police presence during her visits to the neighborhood.
Kuhns admitted that initially, the group had concerns about criminal activity in the area, but she believes city officials are committed to cleaning up the neighborhood - and that, combined with a stable core of residents, existing businesses and its proximity to downtown and Interstate 70, reassured them the project could be successful.
"I just think the investment that's being made there ... is hopefully going to be a catalyst to kind of get rid of that perception and that stigma," said Kuhns.
Imperial Pools Properties
Plenty of unknowns remain in East Wheeling - including the future of the former Clay School, owned by local scientist Darryl Baynes.
His vision upon purchasing the massive structure that occupies almost an entire block of 15th Street a decade ago was to open a science and recreation center there, and even though funding for the project has been elusive, he still hopes to accomplish that.
However, the city wants him to make a decision over the next few months whether to renovate the building or tear it down. Issues with the roof and parapet have developed into serious safety concerns, an inspection of the building late last year revealed.
And the neighborhood lost yet another Victorian-era structure in January when the city demolished the dilapidated former Imperial Pools building on McColloch Street after accepting the deed to the property from an absentee owner.
Officials decided the building was too far gone to be saved, but they have yet to outline where they believe the property fits into the city's effort to revitalize East Wheeling.
Baynes has said he wants the city to donate the land to him so he can build a smaller structure to house his science equipment in the event he has to demolish Clay School, but city leaders have given no indication as to whether they'd entertain such a proposal.