Monthly Archives: September 2009

Transportation Equity: New Report on Parking Subsidies

Thanks to Crossroads reader (and RenewLV supporter), Jon Geeting, for bringing my attention to a newly-released report by Subsidyscope on federal transportation spending. Streetsblog: New York posted a great commentary on the report data, discussing, in part, how workers could receive an over-$200 monthly tax write off for parking expenses, while transit tax benefits only amounted to about $100 monthly. Moreover, the post brings attention to the inequity between federal support for highways projects (totaling about $30 billion last year) and federal support for transit (around $9 billion).

The report outlines the various ways in which government allocates transportation funding, and, for all the policy wonks out there, it goes into much detail over the differences between subsidies and direct spending.

To keep up to date on transportation issues, both on the national and local level, become a supporter of RenewLV by visiting our Join Us page.

The Borrowed Park

A friend recently forwarded Allison Arieff’s latest post to me from her New York Times blog, By Design.  The entry touched upon private, for-profit land banking, a practice that involves a developer acquiring land in an underdeveloped region, usually for the purpose of gaining profit through reselling at a much higher value. The rise in value of the land is mostly attributed to an increase in population growth within the surrounding region, resulting in the demand for development. In its public form, land banking has been an effective tool in fighting blight, preserving open space, and implementing many other smart growth ideals. But in the case of private land banking, it has often led to the creation of uninviting, empty lots and blank pavement – hardly the type of scene that people like to frequent.

But a new approach to dealing with these vacant lots is spreading throughout the country, partly thanks to an initiative that began in San Francisco called “Pavement to Parks.” The general idea is that new, low-cost features are added to the empty pavement, as a means of transforming the space into a welcoming, recreational environment. On each project, community residents come together to beautify the landscape in different ways – sometimes adding large potted plants, other times painting the asphalt.

Arieff highlights a few reasons for why these projects are so successful. First, they are swift and require little cost; volunteers come together for an afternoon and provide small transformations to the area. Second, the projects create a sense of community by not only creating a gathering space, but also by bringing local residents together for a common cause. Finally, the private developer does not lose out, as the space is leased out to the municipality for an alloted period of time. The newly-created park is, in a sense, borrowed.

Post your thoughts about this concept below or send us your comments through e-mail.

Showcasing Easton’s Urban Revitalization Agenda

Easton City Center

The Lehigh Valley’s cities have made significant strides in the urban revitalization effort. To highlight Easton’s achievements on this front, the Philadelphia Chapter of the Urban Land Institute has scheduled a half-day conference and walking tour of Easton for Thursday, October 8th. The event, titled The Ultimate Green Choice: Urban Revitalization, will focus on traditional urban development and the investment incentives in establishing business within the city. Easton officials have advocated strongly for brownfield redevelopment within the city center, and the ULI conference will bring greater attention to this effort, while also highlighting the sustainability features that come with building and rehabilitating buildings within the urban core.

Urban Revitalization – City of Easton Case Study will begin with a panel of speakers at 2:00 p.m on Thursday, October 8th, at the Grand Eastonian Hotel and Condos at 40 Northampton St in Easton. Registration for the event is encouraged before October 2nd (registration cost covers program, tour, reception and food). For more information (including schedule and list of panel speakers) or to register for the event, visit the Philadelphia ULI Events page.

Local Effort to Revitalize Public Space

The Lehigh Valley township of Lower Macungie is undertaking a new endeavor: revitalizing the Camp Olympic property off of Cedar Crest Boulevard. The township purchased the property in order to preserve its green space, and now, the community is being asked to join in the discussion over how the space should be revived.

The potential is expansive. Some ideas already mentioned are new hiking trails, a dog park, and even a restaurant. The town has a hired a public consultant to begin drafting a comprehensive plan and is moving ahead thanks to a generous grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – but officials need community members to voice their opinions on what to do with the property. The public is encouraged to offer ideas at the first of four discussions to be held at 7:00 P.M.  tomorrow (Tuesday, September 29th) at the Lower Macungie municipal building, 3400 Brookside Road in Macungie. More information can be found on the town’s meeting notice and website.

TIME Article on Detroit

An article in the most recent issue of Time Magazine highlights some of the serious challenges currently facing Detroit and the fact reality that the problems of a struggling urban center do not respect city limits.

In the section labeled “Reviving Motown,” author Daniel Okrent begins with the question, “what — if anything — can pull this tragic city out of its death spiral?” He answers that, “You could do worse than to begin with some form of regional government.”

Suburban Oakland County, at present relatively prosperous, is bordered by Detroit to the south and Flint to the north.

“Oakland’s prized AAA bond rating is in peril because the rating agencies are mindful of the county’s proximity to Detroit . . . and to Flint . . . .A downgrade could cost [residents] millions of dollars, and as the situation in Detroit deteriorates, [Oakland County Exec. L. Brooks Patterson] and his counterparts in adjacent counties will have no choice but to seek common solutions.”

“For its part, Detroit must address the fact that a 138-sq.-mi. city that once accommodated 1.85 million people is way too large for the 912,000 who remain. The fire, police and sanitation departments couldn’t efficiently service the yawning stretches of barely inhabited areas even if the city could afford to maintain those operations at their former size. Detroit has to shrink its footprint, even if it means condemning decent houses in the gap-toothed areas and moving their occupants to compact neighborhoods where they might find a modicum of security and service. Build greenbelts, which are a lot cheaper to maintain than untraveled streets. Encourage urban farming. Let the barren areas revert to nature.”


The Aging Boom and Walkable Communities

At his recent talk at Lehigh University, renowned urbanist/philosopher/novelist James Howard Kunstler declared that we must entirely rethink how we design and build our communities. He pointed to key trends—such as limited access to credit for financing huge suburban projects (especially the needed infrastructure) and a shrinking global supply of oil (which had been critical to the car-based community designs of the past 50 years)—that add up to one key conclusion: more compact forms of development are our only option.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there may be another reason for communities to look at moving away from sprawling patterns of development:  the fact that suburban development is ill suited to the increasingly aging U.S. population.

‘As the country ages, suburbia’s widely assumed benefits—privacy, elbow room, affordability—tend to vanish. Maintaining yards and homes requires more effort; driving everywhere, and for everything, becomes expensive and, eventually, impossible. (Research shows that men and women who reach their 70s, on average, outlive their ability to drive by six and 10 years, respectively.)

Even something as simple as the absence of sidewalks can discourage older adults from walking through their neighborhoods and seeing other people.

Suddenly, “all that privacy that drew people to the suburbs in the first place can become isolation,’ says Ellen Dunham-Jones, associate professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.’

The article goes on to describe how suburbs in Atlanta have been retrofitted to include urban amenities such as a mixture of uses at the block and neighborhood levels, pedestrian-friendly design, and neighborhood centers.

That this apparent trend is leading to more compact development—what the article terms “lifelong communities”—is not a bad thing. But it would be a sad irony if our nation meets this increased demand for urban-like settings without realizing the opportunities for redevelopment of actual urban places, which already have the necessary infrastructure, street-grid design, traditional housing stock and other elements conducive to walkable communities.

In the end, it is crucial that we have policies, funding priorities, and planning approaches–at the federal, state and regional levels–that incentivize the redevelopment of our cities and other core communities.

Join RenewLV in Supporting Federal Funding for High-Speed Rail

The vision for an integrated, national high-speed rail (HSR) network was introduced by President Obama earlier this year. If developed, this network would link Pennsylvania communities with expansive rail networks to the east and west while providing a convenient, comfortable way of traversing the Commonwealth.

As a partner in Transportation for America (or “T4A”), RenewLV–along with dozens of other organizations nationwide–is calling on the U.S. Senate to join with the House of Representatives in appropriating $4 billion for national high-speed rail in 2010. (The Senate has voted to cut this appropriation by more than two-thirds.)

It is important that your elected officials hear from you on this important funding issue. If you’re interested in seeing Pennsylvania become part of a national HSR network, please take a moment to voice your support.

Thinking Regionally About Affordable Housing

The 2nd Annual Lehigh Valley Housing Summit took place this morning at the Holiday Inn in downtown Allentown, attended by more than 200 people. Congratulations to the lead organizers–Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, and Lehigh and Northampton Counties–as well as to the many sponsors on a great event that was jammed with information.

Panelists touched on topics ranging from financing strategies for affordable housing to market trends  to the impact of blight. The Brookings Institution’s Anthony Downs, an internationally recognized authority on smart growth and housing, discussed possible strategies that the Lehigh Valley could take to meet its affordable-housing needs.

Downs applauded the work that has already been done in the Lehigh Valley, just in the past year. He identified the creation of (and the county funding for) a regional affordable housing coordinator position as an important step.  He also noted that the creation of a Lehigh Valley Community Land Trust (which has officially incorporated and is now seeking nonprofit status) as an effective strategy and underscored that the Lehigh Valley is one of only a handful of regions nationally to have taken this step.

These important kinds of progress, Downs said, shows that the Lehigh Valley has gotten serious about taking on the challenge of creating affordable housing–and that this is essential. “Developing affordable housing involves sustained effort over the long term, in the face of serious opposition.”

According to Downs, the key in the end is putting in place policies that can lead to a balanced approach to housing–that is, communities that provide a mix of housing types and, in turn, promote mixed-income communities. This means ensuring that communities have housing options that are within reach of public-sector workers (teachers, firefighters, police officers), service-industry workers, and entry-level professionals.

A promising potential strategy highlighted by Downs is inclusionary zoning, where communities require that private developers set aside a certain proportion of units in a new project as affordable (i.e., below-market-rate) units. On this point, Downs again emphasized the value of thinking at a regional level. Inclusionary zoning policies, he stated, need to be enacted at the county or regional level. If only adopted by certain municipalities, such policies are ineffective, since developers can simply seek out municipalities–within a given regional market–that aren’t requiring affordable housing allotments in new projects.

RenewLV continues to work on advancing the principle of regional collaboration on the key issues (including land-use and planning) that affect how the Lehigh Valley develops. To learn more about this work, email us at or join our email list.

The Beautiful Lehigh Valley

As part of my work with RenewLV (and, of course, as a resident of the Lehigh Valley), I like to call attention to the natural beauty of this region. The Lehigh Valley has some of the most breathtaking scenery, from the rural landscapes to the rolling hills, and one talented photographer, Nicholas A. Tonelli, has captured this beauty in his collection of Lehigh Valley photographs. The photographs below are a sample from Nicholas’s Flickr album. I invite you to e-mail us if you are interested in getting in touch with Nicholas.


Lehigh River near Slatington, Lehigh County - Northampton County line

Lehigh River near Slatington, Lehigh County - Northampton County line

Lynn Township, Lehigh County

Lynn Township, Lehigh County

Minsi Lake, Northampton County

Minsi Lake, Northampton County

South to Southeast view of the Lehigh Valley, from Bake Over Knob, Appalachian Trail

South to Southeast view of the Lehigh Valley, from Bake Over Knob, Appalachian Trail

Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County

Weisenberg Township, Lehigh County

Upper Mount Bethel Township, Northampton County

Upper Mount Bethel Township, Northampton County

Development and Land Use Planning: The Houston Example

Since land-use planning connects closely to all of RenewLV’s initiatives, a story that aired during NPR’s Morning Edition on WDIY 88.1 last week sparked my interest. The story covered the effort to improve energy efficiency in the city of Houston, TX. The current mayor, Bill White, has been working toward encouraging better development projects that incorporate energy-saving features. Unfortunately, the effort has hit a few snags.

A new multi-use development project has been resisted by local residents, who insist that the building would bring in additional traffic. The developer’s goal was to decrease the number of cars on the road, by providing a restaurant and office space in a residential complex. The idea here is that proximity to resources (such as work and recreational activities) would cut down on driving to destinations and help in reducing overall energy use. Because of complaints from the neighbors, the city refused to grant a building permit without the developer restricting the project to residential dwellings.

Some are saying that the city officials have little experience with urban planning, and are not exerting enough power over development decisions. For example, the city has not provided many incentives to build along the light-rail line, and complex zoning ordinances have actually deterred developers from considering the region as a worthwhile investment. Such setbacks have been pivotal in showing the impact that land-use planning has on transportation, community design, and – at least in the case of Houston – energy consumption.

You can listen to the full story and read the transcript on NPR’s Around the Nation website. Post your thoughts and comments below, and make sure to subscribe to the Crossroads blog.