Monthly Archives: July 2013

Meet NIZ’s stepbrother, CRIZ

You would be hard pressed to find a Lehigh Valley resident who wasn’t familiar with the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) in Allentown that has attracted hordes of new businesses, including a hockey arena that will house the minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. But there may be a new ‘IZ coming to town.

Community Revitalization and Improvement Zones are now a new Pennsylvania incentive plan to provide a boost in the redevelopment of the state’s smaller cities, but there are only a few that are eligible. CRIZs are only available to third-class cities with populations of 30,000 or greater, and no more than two are awarded the designation in each fiscal year. These guidelines leave only 8 eligible cities: Erie, Reading, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Altoona, Wilkes-Barre, Chester and York. Unfortunately, our friends over in Easton fall just short of the population requirement.

A CRIZ can cover up to 130 acres of land, and isn’t quite as attractive as NIZ, but still provides business incentives. The NIZ allows companies to redirect all taxes earned in the zone to go to financing it, while CRIZ only redirects taxes in this way after a certain threshold amount. Private investment must also equal 20 percent of the tax redirection funds, or one private dollar for every public five.

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development will determine which cities will receive CRIZ designation based on applications with a specific economic development plan for the acreage within the city. Bethlehem is eligible for such a district and will definitely apply for the designation, with several project options. One of the most popular choices since talk of the CRIZ emerged is Martin Tower, the high rise building in West Bethlehem that has been vacant for six years but the south side of Bethlehem could also provide project options in its abandoned or underutilized structures.

We wish Bethlehem luck in their application for a CRIZ! Remember in our last post we promised a workshop in The Lehigh Valley Summit for Smart Growth focused on Act 111 and Act 47? We will also be hosting a workshop during the conference that looks at the NIZ and what it’s done for Allentown with a panel of developers and city panels. Again, stay tuned for details on how you can register for the smart growth conference!

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What Detroit means to Pennsylvania

After years of financial distress, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy late last week. It becomes the first major city in United States history to do so.

Detroit has debt totaling $18 million. The unemployment rate in the city recently peaked at 28 percent and while it is has been declining, it remains at over 16 percent. The rate of crime is high and the industrial plants that used to populate the city are folding or leaving the city. Detroit is also facing grossly underfunded pension obligations and they will argue that the court should relieve them of these pension obligations. Naturally, their retirees and unions are beginning to launch a fierce battle against this.

While Pennsylvanian cities and municipalities are not yet facing the degree of financial strife that plagues Detroit, its distressed areas are met with similar considerations. Should Detroit be relieved of their pension obligations, it will set a precedent relevant in Pennsylvania where municipalities are mandated to fulfill the pension promises they have made to police and firemen under PA Act 111. They can receive financially distressed status under PA Act 47, which allows them to restructure their debt and consolidate or merge with neighboring municipalities to ease their individual burden. There are many municipalities who are now realizing the enormity of their pension obligations, and have very few choices except bankruptcy. Twenty municipalities in the state, including its capital, already have Act 47 designation that has helped them stabilize their financial status, but hasn’t provided stable, long term solutions to their economic problems.

While Act 47 allows municipal consolidation, there needs to be better understanding of the benefits of merging. A financially failed municipality with heavy debt and pension obligations is not a promising merge partner for a healthy, neighboring municipality.  However, the possibility of shared services and decreased cost in service provision to the stronger municipality should be used as a selling point in these consolidation discussions. Both municipalities can benefit from consolidation and eventually provide higher quality, lower cost services to their constituents while one emerges from Act 47, distressed status.

If these negotiations and state laws are your interest, keep your eyes open for more information on Renew Lehigh Valley’s smart growth conference coming this fall. One of the available workshops will focus exclusively on Act 47, Act 111 and municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with an expert panel featuring Fred Reddig from Pennsylvania’s Local Government Commission and Tom Baldridge of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.

How to Make a Great Place– Top 26

Being the tech-savvy Millennials that we are here at RenewLV, I happened upon a tweet from our friends at Sustainable Cities that I felt I had to share with you to get your input.  The folks at Project for Public Spaces authored the initial post, who also happen to have a connection to the Eastern Gateway project in Bethlehem after doing some work here a few years ago.  After taking Rep. Bob Freeman’s class at Lehigh University about growth management and what “place” really means (and passing with high marks, I might add), I found this particular list intriguing.  Put these 26 items into play in your life, and you will have designed a “great place.”

The following list is excerpted from the new e-book How to Design Our World for Happiness, edited by Jay Walljasper and the ace team at On the Commons.

  1. Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions.
  2. Notice how many of life’s pleasures exist outside the marketplace—gardening, fishing, conversing, playing music, playing ball, enjoying nature, and more.
  3. Take time to enjoy what your corner of the world offers (As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once declared, “We are bigger than our schedules.”)
  4. Have some fun. The best reason for making great places is that it will enliven all of our lives.
  5. Offer a smile or greeting to people you pass. Community begins with connecting—even in brief, spontaneous ways.
  6. Walk, bike, or take transit whenever you can. It’s good for the environment, but also for you. You make very few friends behind the wheel of your car.
  7. Treat common spaces as if you own them (which, actually, you do). Pick up litter. Keep an eye on the place. Tidy things up. Report problems or repair things yourself. Initiate improvements.
  8. Pull together a potluck. Throw a block party. Form a community choir, slow food club, Friday night poker game, seasonal festival, or any other excuse for socializing.
  9. Get out of the house and spend some time on the stoop, the front yard, the street—anywhere you can be a part of the river of life that flows past.
  10. Create or designate a “town square” for your neighborhood where folks naturally want to gather—a park, playground, vacant lot, community center, coffee shop, or even a street corner.
  11. Lobby for more public benches, water fountains, plazas, parks, sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, and other crucial commons infrastructure.
  12. Take matters into your own hands and add a bench to your front yard or transform a vacant lot into a playground.
  13. Conduct an inventory of local commons. Publicize your findings, and offer suggestions for celebrating and improving these community assets.
  14. Organize your neighbors to prevent crime and to defuse the fear of crime, which often dampens a community’s spirits even more than crime itself.
  15. Remember streets belong to everyone, not just automobiles. Drive cautiously and push for traffic calming and other improvements that remind motorists they are not kings of the road.
  16. Buy from local, independent businesses whenever possible.
  17. Form a neighborhood exchange to share everything from lawn mowers to childcare to vehicles.
  18. Barter. Trade your skill in baking pies with someone who will fix your computer.
  19. Join campaigns opposing cutbacks in public assets like transit, schools, libraries, parks, social services, police and fire protection, arts programs, and more.
  20. Write letters to the editor about the importance of community commons, post on local websites, call into talk radio, tell your friends.
  21. Learn from everywhere. What can Copenhagen teach us about bicycles? India about wellness? Africa about community solidarity? Indigenous nations about the commons itself? What bright ideas could be borrowed from a nearby neighborhood or town?
  22. Become a guerrilla gardener, planting flowers and vegetables on neglected land in your neighborhood.
  23. Organize a community garden or local farmer’s market.
  24. Roll up your sleeves to restore a creek, wetland, woods, or grasslands.
  25. Form a study group to explore what can be done to improve your community.
  26. Think yourself as a local patriot and share your enthusiasm.

To be honest, I think some residents of the Lehigh Valley already do many of these, which is why the Lehigh Valley is such a wonderful place!  But we want to know what you think.  Anything you would add to the list or take off?  What would you recommend we focus on first and foremost to make the Lehigh Valley an even better place?

You can also share your thoughts for the future of this great “place” by visiting www.envisionlehighvalley.com

The Supreme Court and Local Government

With all of the hubbub surrounding the Supreme Court rulings on the Voting Rights Act and Defense of Marriage Act, another important case slipped under the radar.

Koontz v. St Johns River Water Management District settled a dispute between a Florida water management district and a local developer. The water management authority asked the developer to help pay for environmental mitigation of local wetlands in exchange for a building permit. In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that this request violated private property rights.

This ruling changes the existing precedent in the relationship between public authorities and private developers. Negotiating funding for public projects in exchange for building permits within a municipality’s borders has become a common practice, but is no longer allowable as public agencies are not permitted to request money for such projects.

Koontz, the private developer, received legal support from the Cato Institute and the Institute for Justice, both funded by the Koch Family Industries widely known for their political contributions and desire to decrease government involvement in land usage. The Supreme Court overruled two Florida Supreme Court precendents with this ruling. A professor at Vermont Law School responded to this case with a letter to the New York Times, a portion of which is below:

Leaving the majority’s legal reasoning aside, the Supreme Court’s ruling is likely to do some serious real-world damage. As Justice Kagan correctly explains in her dissent, the decision will very likely encourage local government officials to avoid any discussion with developers related to permit conditions that, in the end, might have let both sides find common ground on building projects that are good for the community and environmentally sound. Rather than risk a lawsuit through an attempt at compromise, many municipalities will simply reject development applications outright — or, worse, accept development plans they shouldn’t.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Alito, and dissenting opinion by Justice Kagan can be read here along with a brief history of the case.  What do you think? What effects will this ruling have on local government land use and permits?

The Future of Cars

Owning and driving a car, once deemed a core aspect of any American’s life, is now on the decline in this country.

A recent New York Times article titled, “The End of Car Culture” examines how Americans are “buying fewer cars, driving less and getting fewer licenses.” The hypothesis is that the country has passed its peak driving period and that different modes of transportation are now edging their way into the transportation market that had previously been inundated with personal cars. Even the percentage of individuals that have a drivers license in their teens, 20s and 30s has declined significantly since 1983.

The data that the article used was adjusted for population and found that the quantity of miles driven by Americans peaked in 2005 and has declined since. While some have speculated that the decline in cars purchased and miles driven was a cause of the recession, those declines actually began two to three years prior. There are also other theories to the cause of this trend.

“Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift,” said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes telecommuting possible and allows people to feel more connected without driving to meet friends. The renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Likewise the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.

Reduced use of personal vehicles has positive results for the environment and carbon emissions. Transportation is the second leading source of carbon emissions (power plants are first). New York’s bike sharing program is growing in popularity as tolls increase and funding that promotes car ownership decreases.

To further support the idea that this trend is more than economic, the age group of those most likely to purchase a car and to have a license is increasingly the elderly. The youth are expressing less interest in cars and more interest in living in communities where a car is unnecessary and the public transit is satisfactory.

The article mentions Bay Area Rapid Transit, a transportation system in San Francisco that optimizes bus routes by looking at frequency of use and land use in the area. Our very own LANta is in the process of studying Bus Rapid Transit for the Lehigh Valley. Their report is part of the Envision Lehigh Valley project and will be released soon. The trend across the country points to the need for multimodal transportation options and this is an important step by LANta. As our population increases in city centers, there is less need for a personal car but short bus routes and safe biking paths are still important transit developments. All of these options are environmentally promising and are sustainable alternatives to individuals relying solely on their personal car.