Blog Archives

Why Should We Have a Smart Growth Book Club?

1. Some people have never heard of smart growth. What a pity it is to be unaware that we’ve been sold an inefficient way of life, and that there’s a beautiful, simpler, less expensive way to live. This book club is a vehicle to raise awareness and do our part to build a critical mass in society that will effect change that will improve air quality, our health and create stronger communities.
2. It’s a forum for smart growth devotees to network and share information. Meeting together is an enjoyable and easy way to learn. We blog face-to-face, if you will, and get to know who else is out there striving for common sense in our communities. Smart growth is about community, right?
3. Together, we may brainstorm ways to practically make the Lehigh Valley a better place to live, work, play, and worship.
4. We can make ourselves available to help one another recalibrate our own communities. For example, we may share ordinances and codes which have worked, or even attend each others’ township meetings.
5. It is hoped that this will lead to local, bi-partisan community support, and commonsense behavior. Smart growth is a broad-based cause that I believe is supported by everyone who understands it. Conservatives ought to be behind it because it aids families and the economy and saves money. Liberals should back it since it is a framework for better social parity and environmental sustainability. The need for it reaches every person’s life.
6. And of course, the book club is an excuse to better educate ourselves and thus make better choices.

To date we have held two meetings, and the conversation has been enjoyable, enlightening, and encouraging. We’re still working through James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, an engaging book that will draw in the novice as well as give talking points to the experienced. Our December meeting “covered” only the book’s first half, so in order to do it justice, let’s discuss the second half in January. As always, if you can’t read the book, you won’t be left out in the cold; your presence is important. We hope to see you at The Allentown Brew Works at 6 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 21! Please spread the word.
If possible, sign up on Facebook, or email Joanne Guth at joguth@live.com to let me know you’re going.

Are We Past the Suburban Century?

A colleague recently sent me an interesting article and I wanted to make sure to share it with our readers. John McIlwain, Senior Fellow at the Urban Land Institute (ULI), claimed that the “suburban century is over” when he made his remarks at a meeting of ULI: Minnesota recently. McIlwain gave his take on the recent housing and real estate market, predicting that difficult economic times will encourage more individuals and families to move closer to work, resources, and amenities.

This is good news to hear for advocates of urban revitalization and redevelopment. The claim is not entirely unexpected, as economic pressures will be pushing more people toward efficient living situations: housing close to work and recreation. There is a hope that some of these pressures will give way to better state and federal policy that favor revitalizing older communities (and make it easier for developers to build more housing in the urban cores).

This is surely a topic that will be covered during the Building One PA event in Allentown this upcoming Monday. The event starts at 6 p.m. at Allentown Symphony Hall (23 N. 6th St.). After a film viewing the documentary “New Metropolis,” community leaders will participate on the panel immediately following the film, and will answer questions and discuss ways in which we can address problems facing our inner cities. View the event flyer for additional information. Hope to see you there!

SteelStacks Project Moves Along, Receives Private Funds

Well, this is pretty exciting. Bank of America announced publicly today that it would be providing a significant fund ($250,000) towards the SteelStacks project. These are the first private funds coming into the project (hence, the press conference today at the Banana Factory). The Morning Call has a rendering of the project:

Some of the proposed features of the project are just ridiculously cool – and it makes me wish that it was already finished: a 450-seat Musikfest Cafe concert venue for year-round music, two cinemas for independent films, the “Pod Zone” media lounge (what is that???). This redevelopment is projected to bring in a number of good jobs into the area, as well as plenty more tourism into the Lehigh Valley.

Are you excited for this project? Which part are you most anticipating?

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.

Visualizing Revitalization

Browsing through some urban planning websites brought me to the Urban Advantage, an organization that creates realistic computer images of smart urban redesign. Each project starts with a snapshot of a current development, and the image is subsequently altered to include elements of walkable, livable communities – sidewalks, multi-modal access, downtown retail, and even green spaces.

This is just one example of the type of computer imaging that the web designers work on:

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The first image shows the current condition – an office park in Columbia, Maryland. The next two pictures show the inclusion of a new sidewalk, buildings that are close to the street, and storefronts. These public space features help shape a corporate parking lot into a community, as characterized by the pedestrians in the third picture.

The Urban Advantage perspective is that a good vision leads to smarter investments and planning choices . According to the website, “seeing is key to understanding.” If a realistic visualization of a community is presented, then it becomes much easier to make decisions that will lead to that vision. The mission of the organization is to promote a new urbanism, “the revitalization of vital public space—streets, squares, and neighborhood centers—where people can see each other and meet.” Unequivocally, the interpretations provided by the Urban Advantage provide a useful tool for municipalities in making planning decisions.

To keep up to date on the latest in development and planning news, visit RenewLV’s Join Us page to become a supporter.

The Beauty in Brownfield Redevelopment

SteelStacks

Abandoned industrial sites are common in cities that are experiencing a shift in labor force. Often, these brownfields bring blight to the city that is both costly and unsightly. Given the prevalence of these sites within the older communities, the Revitalizing Older Cities Task Force has classified this issue as a top priority, calling on local regions to engage in brownfield redevelopment campaigns. Nowhere is this campaign more evident than here in the Lehigh Valley, where community leaders in the cities have coordinated major redevelopment efforts.

A former steel powerhouse, Bethlehem will soon see its abandoned steel stacks site converted into a destination for culture, art, and education. The local group ArtsQuest, responsible for planning the yearly Musikfest program, is working with the city to reconstruct the site, turning it into a gathering place for residents and visitors to the Lehigh Valley. Some prominent features of the redevelopment will be a music pavilion, a town square, and a performing arts center. The new musical venues will provide locations for the South Mountain Folk Festival and the River Jazz Festival, while the plazas will host farmer’s markets and artist exchanges. In addition to traditional musical acts, theatre and dance productions will be featured on the stage at the arts center, while an adjacent cinema will show independent features.

The Steel Stacks Project is set for a groundbreaking this Fall, with a scheduled opening for May 2011. Visit the Steel Stacks blog that is being run be ArtsQuest to read the latest news about the project.

To stay informed on any future events related to local brownfield redevelopments, subscribe to the Crossroads RSS feed by clicking Subscribe to our RSS feed in the right hand column …or simply click HERE.

Easton’s Transportation Project

easton

To shed some light on the Revitalizing Older Cities Initiative, started by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, and the six policy areas identified as crucial to the initiative, I am running a brief series on how the older communities in the Lehigh Valley are undergoing redevelopment. The first policy area is transportation and infrastructure.

Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation released the news that it was allocating $59.2 million to fund community-powered projects under the Pennsylvania Community Transportation Initiative (PCTI). Of the multiple Lehigh Valley projects, one of these is a transportation improvement project in Easton, PA. Identified by PennDOT as a proposal that adheres to all ten Smart Transportation themes, the plan will improve the roadway, pedestrian, and bicycle network on Larry Holmes Drive, near the city’s Intermodal Transportation Facility.

When construction on the Intermodal Facility began, city planners quickly realized that the local transportation network needed some improvement in order to raise the level of safety for all commuters. A study initiated by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission found that missing sidewalks impeded pedestrian activity, and that stop bars at crosswalks were inadequate in ensuring that pedestrians were safe from car traffic.

Revitalizing older communities in terms of transportation requires increasing transit choices – including walking opportunities. Many community members would like to walk to their destinations, but, unfortunately, street and road design stymies their efforts because pedestrian safety is not often a high priority in city planning. Easton took note of this concern in the Larry Holmes Drive proposal, where some of the improvements include:

  • adding pedestrian signal heads in visible locations
  • extending curbs to prevent drivers from passing other stopped cars in their effort to make a right turn (these drivers often do not watch for pedestrians on the right)
  • providing a marked crosswalk and a sidewalk ramp
  • replacing some of the sidewalks in the area.

Through land-use planning changes, Easton is improving on their current transportation network and ensuring that the needs of the city’s pedestrians are addressed appropiately. The planned improvements are one part of the larger Easton Waterfront project. The sketches for the entire project are available on the City of Easton’s website. The proposal is in line with the larger efforts to revitalize the older communities of the Lehigh Valley through transportation and infrastructure.

In the next post of this series, the focus will turn to housing within the Lehigh Valley.

Streetcars in the Future

Downtowns Across the U.S. See Streetcars in Their Future

Published: August 13, 2008

CINCINNATI — From his months-old French bistro, Jean-Robert de Cavel sees restored Italianate row houses against a backdrop of rundown tenements in this city’s long-struggling Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.

He also sees a turnaround for the district, thanks to plans to revive a transit system that was dismantled in the 1950s: the humble streetcar line.

“Human beings can be silly because we move away from things too quickly in this country,” Mr. de Cavel said. “Streetcar is definitely going to create a reason for young people to come downtown.”

Cincinnati officials are assembling financing for a $132 million system that would connect the city’s riverfront stadiums, downtown business district and Uptown neighborhoods, which include six hospitals and the University of Cincinnati, in a six- to eight-mile loop. Depending on the final financing package, fares may be free, 50 cents or $1.

The city plans to pay for the system with existing tax revenue and $30 million in private investment. The plan requires the approval of Mayor Mark Mallory, a proponent, and the City Council.

At least 40 other cities are exploring streetcar plans to spur economic development, ease traffic congestion and draw young professionals and empty-nest baby boomers back from the suburbs, according to the Community Streetcar Coalition, which includes city officials, transit authorities and engineers who advocate streetcar construction.

More than a dozen have existing lines, including New Orleans, which is restoring a system devastated by Hurricane Katrina. And Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., have introduced or are planning to introduce streetcars.

“They serve to coalesce a neighborhood,” said Jim Graebner, chairman of the American Public Transportation Association’s streetcar and vintage trolley committee. “That’s very evident in places like San Francisco, which never got rid of its streetcar system.”

Modern streetcars, like those Cincinnati plans to use, cost about $3 million each, run on an overhead electrical wire and carry up to 130 passengers per car on rails that are flush with the pavement. And since streetcars can pick up passengers on either side, they can make shorter stops than buses.

Streetcar advocates point to Portland, Ore., which built the first major modern streetcar system in the United States, in 2001, and has since added new lines interlaced with a growing light rail system. Since Portland announced plans for the system, more than 10,000 residential units have been built and $3.5 billion has been invested in property within two blocks of the line, according to Portland Streetcar Inc., which operates the system.

Critics, including Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian research organization in Washington, and an expert on urban growth and transportation issues, counter that growth along streetcar lines is dependent on public subsidy and of little use.

“It looks like it’s going to take you somewhere, but it’s only designed to support downtown residents,” he said. “If officials fall for the hype and don’t ask the hard questions, voters should vote them out.”

Cincinnati’s streetcar enthusiasts counter that they serve to shrink residents’ everyday world of work, shopping and entertainment by bringing services and businesses to one area.

“One happy consequence will be that streetcar customers who live in the area will be less mobile by choice,” said John Schneider, a Cincinnati real estate developer and downtown resident who championed an unsuccessful 2002 county sales tax proposal that would have financed a regional light rail system.

Since then, gas prices have risen sharply and advocates have started emphasizing streetcars’ ability to revitalize urban neighborhoods.

“In years gone by, people would move to cities to get a job,” Cincinnati’s city manager, Milton Dohoney, said. “Today, young, educated workers move to cities with a sense of place. And if businesses see us laying rail down on a street, they’ll know that’s a permanent route that will have people passing by seven days a week.”

After looking into streetcar systems in Seattle, Tacoma, Wash., and Charlotte, Mr. Dohoney became convinced that they spur growth. “Cincinnati has to compete with other cities for investment,” he said. “We have to compete for talent and for place of national prominence.”

A hundred miles north, Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio, has come to the same conclusion and is pushing to build a $103 million streetcar network along the city’s High Street connecting Ohio State University with the downtown business district. The loop would be paid for through a 4 percent surcharge on concert tickets, sporting events and downtown parking and a $12.5 million contribution from Ohio State.

“It is directly tied to economic development, and when times are tough in Ohio, we need an additional tool to create jobs,” Mr. Coleman said.

While critics question whether scarce city money would be better spent elsewhere, Mr. Coleman argues that streetcars are important to the city’s growth.

“We have to plan for the future,” he said. “I believe in 10 years, we would ask, ‘Why didn’t we do this?’ It will be 10 times more expensive, and the cost of gas will be unaffordable.”