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The Great PA 48 Clearance Sale

It's not often that any department of transportation sells land it purchased.  They are usually in the business of acquiring land for right-of-way.  But in 1982, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation did exactly that.  Offering to buyers land it purchased just 15 years earlier for the never-built Route 48 Expressway.

Background:

The sale was a result of the 1970s cash crunch that PennDOT experienced.  Many projects were cut back, shelved, or eliminated.  The 'New 48', or the North-South Parkway, which was touted for nearly 20 years as a connection from the industrial Mon Valley to the Turnpike and Monroeville was one of the casualties.

In the mid-late 1960s, the movement to construct the new highway began with targeting a two-mile stretch of highway from the Route 48 intersection at Lincoln Way in White Oak to US 30 in North Versailles.  The plan was then to continue the highway northwards to Monroeville.  Extension south across the Youghiogheny River and to PA 51 would occur last.

In 1968, PennDOT would move fast.  The state would condemn the still-operating Rainbow Gardens amusement park on September 6th.  The last drive-in movie shown at the accompanying theatre was on September 30th.  A public auction of the rides and various equipment occurred on October 30th netting $80,000.  (1)

1968 Rand McNally Map of Pittsburgh that shows the proposed routing of the PA 48 Expressway.  The McKeesport Sportsman's Club and White Oak County Park are also shown.

Right-of-way purchasing would come to a halt as the state and Allegheny County had trouble finalizing a deal for 42 acres of land through White Oak County Park.  A deal was thought to be reached in 1970; however, it wasn't until three years later that the deal became official.  An additional party, the McKeesport Sportsman Association - which also had land the proposed expressway would travel through - needed to reach a deal with the county for the highway to go through.   Allegheny County and the Sportsman's Association agreed to a deal that would allow the county to gain two acres of land for White Oak Park in exchange for a one-half acre to the Sportsman's Association. (2)

In total, PennDOT would spend over $5 million to acquire over 130 properties and over 400 acres of land. (3)

The Land Sale:

The delays in completing the road led to a different kind of lawsuit filed against the state.  In October 1975, White Oak Borough sued PennDOT in an attempt to recover $155,000 in lost property taxes.  The Borough, which supported the construction of the highway, believed that delays in construction caused the heart of the Borough (Rainbow Gardens) to become "...a barren and unsightly wasteland." (4)

White Oak, Pennsylvania in 1967.  The intersection of Lincoln Way and PA 48 is in the center-left of the image.  Rainbow Gardens is in the northeast corner of that intersection.  The PA 48 Expressway was planned to run to the east of the existing Route 48.  (Penn Pilot)

The former Rainbow Gardens was an empty lot - the roller rink was the last of the old amusement park to go torn down in 1972.   Homes from a subdivision across Lincoln Way from the amusement park were also torn down to make room for the expressway, leaving abandoned foundations and staircases.  The Borough also lost a bowling alley, motel, and several restaurants. (5)  

By 1977, White Oak Borough officials estimated they were losing between $60,000 and $80,000 annually in lost revenue.  Around the same time, a bill began circulating through the Pennsylvania legislature that would allow PennDOT to sell to the general public parcels of land it no longer needed.  (6)

The law was passed in 1980.  It authorized PennDOT to approach the original property owners to purchase their land back first, and if they were not interested, allow it to be sold at auction.  PennDOT began to approach property owners in early 1982 to mixed results.  Some property owners were angry that their former business, farms, and other livelihoods were gone, and the land that was being offered back was no longer as valuable as it was when PennDOT acquired their property in the late-60s. (5)  PennDOT was still attempting to sell various tracts of land well into the 1990s.

PennDOT For Sale sign at the former Rainbow Gardens - February 11, 1982.  I vaguely remember seeing this or a similar sign in the late 1980s.  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (3)

The largest parcel - the former Rainbow Gardens site - would go to auction.   The over 33-acre property would be the most valuable and the most controversial of all the land sales.   After soliciting bids for the property twice, PennDOT awarded the land to the Christian Life Church with a winning bid of $351,102 during the Summer of 1982.  PennDOT had paid over $1 million for the Rainbow Gardens Property 15 years earlier. (7)

Christian Life Church planned on building a school and retirement home on the newly acquired land.  However, the White Oak Borough Council rejected the idea as there would be no tax revenue generated by the church and its buildings.  To block the church's purchase, the council passed an ordinance prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from developing the property. (x)

PennDOT would then turn to a real estate agent to sell the land for a fair market value price.  At the same time, White Oak Council looked at tax and improvement incentives to make the property more appealing to investors.  The Rainbow Gardens parcel would sit empty for a decade until construction began on a new shopping center - Oak Park Mall in the early 1990s.  Opening in 1993, the shopping center was anchored by a grocery store, home improvement center, and many other shops and services.

On a personal note:

Ever since I was a child, the story of the New 48 has always been of interest to me.  My father always talked about how there was to be a cloverleaf at 48 and Lincoln Way.   The highway was always talked about in vague stories from older people that I knew.  

The empty lot that was once the Rainbow Gardens amusement park served as an impromptu carpool/caravan meet-up spot for travel soccer games on Sunday afternoon's in the late 80s until construction began on the Oak Park Mall.  I vaguely remember a land for sale sign at the site.  I always tried to visualize what the highway would look like or where the New 48 was to go.  Researching the 1980s land sale gave a greater insight into this never built road, but there's still more to learn.  Hopefully, some more clues will surface one day.  

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