Bethlehem and Lancaster Win CRIZ Districts

It’s a Crizzmas miracle, y’all! (John Callahan’s joke, not mine.) Bethlehem and Lancaster have been selected to keep more of their own taxes to finance infill development. It’s a big win for Bethlehem in particular because they’re right next to Allentown, and people were worried that the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) would diminish interest in redeveloping Bethlehem’s brownfields.

I’m a big fan of the one-of-a-kind NIZ district Allentown politicians snuck into the 2009 PA Code, which has succeeded in spurring lots of urban infill development in its downtown, but I am less enthusiastic about the CRIZ that was modeled on it.

The slush fund nature of the NIZ, where a new Authority gets all the state and local taxes collected in a contiguous area except local property taxes, with few strings attached, seems to have worked strongly in Allentown’s favor. To a large extent, Allentown may have just lucked out with a developer who’s committed to good urbanism, but good ideas combined with a massive slush fund turned out to be a great combo, even as the process obsessives are having kidney stones over it.

The CRIZ is considerably weaker, but still a big win for cities. I think we should extend this deal to all the Cities of the Third Class now, before they all end up in Act 47. That’s not how state opted to do it though, and two large (over 50K) third class cities per year will be selected to keep some more state taxes instead of pissing them away into our state’s emptiest counties.

have a number of problems with Bethlehem’s list of projects (contiguousness is paramount!), and haven’t paid much attention to Lancaster’s, but good for them. I hope the new Bethlehem Council members will revisit the list and make some better choices, or at least make the Martin Tower redevelopment plan contingent on more comprehensive redevelopment of the parking lots and other land parcels around it.

Allentown turned the money firehose on the most walkable areas of town, not on white elephant projects, and that’s a key reason why it’s been successful. People worried the new buildings would stay empty, but they were wrong, and J.B. Reilly’s already leased all of his planned space to business tenants.

PHOTOS: Introducing the Easton Rail Park

The rail station in Easton apparently used to be a really neat looking place, but it’s since burned down so unfortunately there’s not an opportunity for adaptive reuse there. But last year my Mom had a cool idea to turn the abandoned railway, which passes over 611, into a rail park like New York City’s High Line, and one day this past summer I decided to go check it out.

The following is a virtual tour of the trail from the “entrance” at Washington and 4th Street (a hair west of the highway ramp next to the Wawa shopping center) to the free bridge in Phillipsburg, NJ.

My brother David is the photographer in the family, not me, so please bear with these crappy iPhone photos. My hope is merely that this blog post will inspire others to take similar trips, and eventually spark some interest from city officials and business leaders. There are several special things about this project that I will point out between the photos.

Here is the entrance to the trail. Currently much of it is overgrown with weeds, but as you can see, there are actually bricks down there. The entrance area is much wider than this picture suggests:

Some well-designed signage and other attractions, like maybe a permanent on-site concession stand or some food trucks parked to the side could make this area pop, and with some enlightened land use policies, eventually catalyze some sprawl repair around that area of Washington.

This path continues on for a little while and then you make a left onto the rail tracks. There probably is more track to the right but I didn’t venture over that way:

You continue through the foliage for a bit, and then you get a nice aerial view of downtown Easton (starting with an ugly view of the Quality Inn, the Condoms Galore dumpster, and related architectural diarrhea around the intersection of Washington and 611.)

Here’s the view down 4th Street:

Here’s what the trail looks like around 4th Street:

And here’s some more 1970′s planner diarrhea:

As you will see as we continue along the path, this is an opportunity to create a very nice park for Easton, which would likely be a regional draw, and would add a lot of land value to the area. But it should only be undertaken if the city goes into this with the view that it is an opportunity to do sprawl repair all along Washington east of the courthouse, infilling all those sidewalk-facing surface lots with mixed-use apartments and retail just like you see on Northampton Street. Yes I know that Washington is a very steep hill; no, I don’t want to hear that this makes it a bad fit for urban infill. I see people walk up Washington all the time. (Bonus fun fact: they used to close the hill off back in the day when it snowed, and my grandmother and her friends would go sledding down it.)

Some more imagery from the path as we continue toward the river:

The view of the river is so awesome, but the view of the corner of 3rd Street is not. It really makes you realize how much of this key gateway into downtown Easton is devoted to vibe-killing, budget-murdering surface parking. This is the worst place ever for a gas station. It is the worst place for all this stuff.

Here is where things start to get really good. The views get even better as you get out of the city area.

I’m pretty convinced that all the safety issues up to this point are surmountable, but I think city lawyers might get a bit nervous about the part where the trail approaches an active train line. They’re far enough apart that sensible people won’t venture into harm’s way, but if idiot-proof is the standard we’re using, we might run into some difficulties with this:

We’re still in Easton at this point, and the views of the canal are amazing in the lead up to the bridge into New Jersey:

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Here’s what it looks like crossing the bridge into Phillipsburg:

This is my favorite part of the trip. When you get into Phillipsburg, you enter right into a pretty decent part of Phillipsburg. There’s an area to look out on the water, and there is also a bar (on the left). Actually there are multiple bars within a short walk. This area could be much better-landscaped, with more food vendors, eateries, and green space. The trail wouldn’t just be a fun curiosity, it would be a useful way to walk or bike between downtown cultural offerings in Easton, and food and drink in Phillipsburg, connecting the two downtowns in a very scenic loop.

And as you continue along, you get to the area right across the free bridge. There’s a beer store, there’s the train car diner, and some other eateries:

The trail continues on past the free bridge for quite a while, and just as on the Easton side, it could be used as a catalyst for redevelopment of the waterfront if paired with enlightened land use and tax policies.

I’m not sure how high of a priority a project like this could be for Easton at the moment, with so many other things going on, but if I were King of Phillipsburg (or whatever they have over there) I would be beating down Sal Panto’s door to start holding talks between city staffers on this, because Phillipsburg badly needs a piece of that Easton magic. The two sides of the river could eventually come to be seen as one big downtown if the two city governments made an effort to collaborate on more joint redevelopment projects like this, and a rail park could be just the thing to spark some private development interest on the presently undesirable parcels around either side of the trail.

I encourage Eastonians, and really everybody in the Lehigh Valley, to go take this walk, not get caught, and then spread the word to Easton’s elected officials and planners that you want them to get an official study going in the New Year!

No More Surface Parking on Bethlehem Steel Land

You and I both know Bass Pro shops would want a humongous surface parking lot as part of any deal on the No. 2 Machine Shop. I have no idea why anyone thinks that a hunting and fishing store is a good fit for an urban core location, but if they want a surface parking lot that should be a deal-breaker. Either they build structured parking or no go.

I know some people think these parking lots can be redeveloped later, but I don’t see the evidence that the site is developing in a way that will easily facilitate urban infill construction later. It would be a tragedy if this site turned into something like the Promenade Shops. It should just be more Southside street grid, best accessible on foot or transit, with cars a lower priority mode.

The benefit of not having to “blaze a new identity for Bethlehem is that you can be picky about design stuff like that and demand concessions from developers. You don’t have to kiss their asses and sacrifice your site plans.

Now, as he prepares to be sworn in to the city’s top office Monday, Donchez is tasked not with blazing a new identity for Bethlehem, but with finding a way to keep the good things coming while dealing with a more sober fiscal reality that has shrunk city government in recent years.

“We have to maintain the momentum,” Donchez said.

His first-year agenda is packed with flashy economic development projects like courting a Bass Pro sporting goods store for the old Steel plant and, by year’s end, nuts-and-bolts labor negotiations with police and fire unions, both of which took significant retirement cuts for new employees in the current contract.

When Will the First Phase of the Bethlehem Greenway Be Completed?

The final phase of the Bethlehem Greenway trail is going to get built soon, all the way down to Saucon Park, but I’m wondering when the first section of the trail is going to be completed, between the entrance on New St. and the area across the Banana Factory buildings on 3rd Street:

This matters because this area of the trail is going to run between the big new building on the corner of New and 3rd and the new BPA parking garage on New Street. I am encouraging everyone to think about what those buildings are going to look like from the vantage point of someone walking on the Greenway trail, instead of just the frontage on New Street, because whether the sides of the buildings look good from other angles (i.e. have wrap-around ground-floor retail) will impact development interest on the parcels next to Comfort Suites.

Also, just to put it out there, you gotta get rid of that Comfort Suites at some point. Those walls of dead space for pedestrians on 3rd Street and Brodhead Ave, gah!

The New Burbs

New greenfield development that requires new road infrastructure is evil, but I can live with this new denser version of the suburbs:

The real question about this is why we aren’t seeing all these new smaller housing units getting built around downtown Bethlehem. Greenfield development is expensive, but often it is cheaper than dealing with all the zoning approvals and demolition restrictions and parking requirements and other government hurdles that come with (re)building in the city core. Central cities should want this development, and they need to have extra friendly development policies so people don’t go building new towns on the shrinking supply of open space.

Exclusive: First Look at the New Southside Bethlehem Complex Design Scheme

Here’s a peek at the two draft renderings currently under consideration for the new complex of buildings on Southside Bethlehem at 3rd and New Streets.

I’ve been interested in how the new office building and the new city parking garage will interact with the Greenway park, the pedestrian space on the surrounding sidewalks, and the alley on Rink Street.

Now we have some initial answers. It looks like the main issue they’re working out right now is whether to build a walkway over the Greenway between the office building and the parking garage.

Here’s the first version of the plan. Click to embiggen:

 

I think the walkway could add something to the pedestrian experience of the Greenway park, but the columns holding it up need to look good. We don’t really get a sense of how this would look from the path yet. Think of the park when designing that stuff.

Another good thing about the plan is that the parking garage entrance doesn’t take up a whole lot of space on the block. Retail spaces on the ground floor of the parking garage are so key for New Street. I also really like that the restaurant area on the ground floor of the office building has a view of the Greenway. Will there be an entrance over there and space for outdoor seating?

Now here’s the second plan, without the walkway:

Not a whole lot different without the walkway in terms of aesthetics, but as we see on the slide comparing the two, the walkway option means fewer parking spaces but quite a bit more office and academic space. With the walkway option, you’ll get 73,856 square feet of combined office and academic space, versus 58,290 square feet in the other design. But in the second design you get 52 more parking spaces. Regular readers know where I’m coming down on that question.

One thing I was surprised to see is that the parking garage’s footprint will extend all the way west to Vine Street, meaning a city block worth of homes and buildings are getting taken down.

That raises the question of how the ground floor of the garage will interact with Vine Street in addition to the Rink Street alley and the Greenway. This plan envisions blank walls facing the Rink Street alley, Vine Street and the Greenway, which would be a huge bummer for walkability, and a major missed opportunity to add some more new retail space in key areas of the Southside central business district.

The main suggestion I have is to make the first floor all retail space, and add another story on top to replace the parking.

Rink Street is a very nice alley that spans a couple blocks between Broad Street and New Street,  and it would be awesome if both the parking garage and Benner’s new building on 4th Street had retail spaces fronting that alley. It would be like Bethlehem’s answer to Bank Street in Easton. Everybody loves cute stuff like that. The parking garage is the city’s responsibility, so Council members are well within their rights to request that kind of design change.

Returning to the areas of Vine Street and Graham Place that the garage will replace, right now they look like this. The building on the left at the corner of Rink and Vine will go away. This could be a new retail corner spot just down the block from Deja Brew and the corner space where the tanning salon used to be:

And here’s the view of the whole block looking down Vine Street from Deja Brew:

It looks like the garage will actually get rid of the section of Graham Place currently running next to the Greenway, so it’s even more important to make sure it looks nice. Here’s what that looks like now:

That could all be new retail space facing Vine Street and the Greenway. You could fit 5 or 6 new shops in there.

Imagine sitting outside next to the Greenway at the Benner building’s wine bar, drinking a glass of wine while watching families walk their dogs on the trail, and people window-shop at the new shops across the park.

Now imagine sitting outside at the restaurant and looking at a blank wall. Not as nice!

I think the Parking Authority has a responsibility to make the ground floor level of the new garage as pedestrian friendly and neighbor friendly as possible, and that means turning the whole ground floor into retail space. This would cost about 65 parking spaces in either design if BPA didn’t add an additional level: 16 spaces on the Rink St. alley side, 7 on the Vine St side, 15 next to Greenway, and it looks like 27 in middle of the first floor. You could either add a floor to make up for that, or just go with the walkway-less version of the plan and call it a day.

As Car Sharing Grows in Popularity, Time to Stop Singling Out Car Rentals for Special Taxes

One other way city and state politicians could help folks keep more of their take-home pay by making it easier not to own a car is by making it cheaper and easier to rent cars and rides for-hire.

When I moved to Philadelphia a couple months ago, my wife and I decided to ditch our car and use Zipcar’s car-share program rather than deal with the insane curb parking situation in our new neighborhood.

The car we had was registered in Bethlehem, PA and to get a Philly residential parking permit, your car needs to be registered to your Philadelphia address. (Read Michael Noda on why this policy is mistaken.)

If you don’t have a parking permit, then you need to hunt for scarce parking spaces on the few remaining blocks that have not yet elected to ask the city for parking demand management (yes, that’s actually how it works), and thus feature free curb parking for unlimited amounts of time. During the month that we had our car here, this was maddening. These spaces are very hard to find, so I’d have to circle around forever trying to locate one. And I know I was imposing some pain on the car owners who live on those blocks too, because when I finally found a space, I would leave my car there for days depriving others of a parking space close to home or other destinations.

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