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!

The Pro-Market Plan for Zoned Hauling in Bethlehem

A single trash hauler is the cheapest, greenest, and most efficient option for Bethlehem residents and city government without question, but Bob Donchez and Eric Evans think keeping a handful of redundant trash haulers in business is a more important priority than winning residents hundreds of dollars a year in savings from group purchasing, so it’s not on the table.

But every elected official still knows the current Wild West system is a failure, so now a “zoned hauling” plan is under discussion.

This basically means that each neighborhood would have a specific day for trash pick-up, which we really ought to consider the minimum acceptable outcome. It’s weak sauce though and city leaders can do better.

That’s why I’m proposing my own zoned hauling plan. Here’s how it works:

1. Divide Bethlehem into 4 “zones” – North, South, East, and West.

2. Put contracts out for bid on each of these zones, for 2-3 years maximum duration.

3. Allow trash hauling companies to bid on the contracts for up to 2 of the 4 zones.

4. Hold one or two public meetings in the different zones to review the bids, get public input, and get an advisory-only vote from neighbors on the plans they like best.

5. Take a Council vote to award the contracts to the highest value proposals (trading off comprehensiveness of the service package, lowest price, and meeting participant preference).

6. Do it all again in 2-3 years.

The virtues of this plan over the current system where each household chooses their own hauler are many.

For starters you actually get some meaningful competition. The problem with the current market is that there’s no way to know if you’re actually going to get better service for your money by switching haulers.

Under my plan, haulers have to compete on price and service quality with each other in a transparent way. And there’s a clear easy-to-understand process for evaluating haulers’ performance.

They have to participate in public meetings and defend their performance in front of neighbors and elected officials every few years to keep their contracts, so there’s an incentive for good behavior and great service.

You get real (albeit collective) choice in a real market. At the same time, you get the economy of scale of a single hauler, without concentrated service provider power limiting the cost savings captured by residents. There’d be real competition in each bidding period, not just a referendum on the current hauler with no meaningful alternative.

If people want a free market, Bethlehem should create a real market that is capable of doing what highly functional markets do best: shave service provider profits down close to the cost of production, for the benefit of consumers.

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.

Why Dennis Benner is Investing in Southside Bethlehem

Good interview from Nicole Radzievich, but Benner should head over to Easton though, where a “youthful renaissance” has been taking hold for years now. All the older city downtowns, and some boroughs like Wilson, Nazareth, and Emmaus are ripe for some infill development. We just need more developers like Dennis Benner and sons who get that there’s demand for infill.

Q: Why choose to invest in south Bethlehem?

A: I have been practicing land use law and doing development work for over 30 years. In one word, real estate is about location. Generally speaking the more unique the location the more attractive it is. In my view south Bethlehem is one of the few, if not the only, location that can accommodate a youthful renaissance and hopefully slow the exodus of young professionals from the Lehigh Valley.

Q: You said your sons inspired you to do this project. How?

A: I am fortunate to be one of a long legacy of Lehigh University graduates. As years fly by it’s easy to become complacent about your alma mater and legacy. Both my sons are Lehigh graduates and now law partners. While at Lehigh, I would hear commentary from them and many of their friends about the lack of venues and vitality in south Bethlehem. After awhile I decided to better understand what they meant and discovered an area so void of meaningful enterprise and so ripe for change. Along with my energetic sons we began to acquire property with a plan to create a “college town” in south Bethlehem.

Bethlehem’s CRIZ Wishlist a Boring Hodgepodge

This list of projects can change later if the state determines Bethlehem the winner, so let’s hope this list is just what Bethlehem officials think will impress the dullard economic development thinkers in Harrisburg, and not what they actually want to spend the money on.

The CRIZ, like the NIZ, is supposed to be used to spur (re)development in your urban core areas, and help finance value-adding buildings. The 3rd and New St building is a great example of that, and there are some more infill projects on the list that sound good too. Infill on vacant parking lots further down on 3rd St is great, and I want to hear more about the Northside infill ideas too.

But a parking deck expansion on Northside? Storage for idle cars adds zero value to your city, it subtracts value. The city should focus on getting more buildings built and creating more demand for parking, and then see if private garage builders want to come in and build something if more capacity is truly needed. This is not something you waste CRIZ money on.

Likewise for more warehouses and industrial parks. People are building those without tax incentives because the land is cheap. You want to focus this tax subsidy on areas where land is expensive, or areas where you want to increase land values – your urban core neighborhoods and business districts.

Pick a few areas of contiguous city blocks and let developers go to town. Spreading the projects all around the city misses the entire point of what’s effective about this tax district.

My Plan for the Bethlehem CRIZ

Convention Centers are  a horrible economic development strategy. They almost never actually work to get people outside the site during conventions. Bethlehem shouldn’t blow the CRIZ money on this or luring Bass Pro Shops, and Martin Tower is probably a bad idea too depending on what people are thinking about the rest of the site development plan. I have an idea for a whole new mixed-use West Side downtown over there, but I’m guessing that’s not in the cards politically.

I don’t know what the downtown business owners who are asking for CRIZ designation have in mind for Northside, but the best use of the CRIZ district is going to be more and better walkable clusters of mixed-use office and apartment buildings. The two mid-rise buildings proposed for Southside are a great example of what to do with this district.

If I were on the CRIZ board, I’d be pushing for stuff like:

-One big circle around 3rd and 4th Streets between Hayes and 378, jutting down to the corner of Broadway and Wyandotte on the western side, to try to get that bar on the corner across from the McDonald’s renovated.

- One big circle around the portion of the Steel land closest to the 3rd St, between 378, the river, Founders Way and 3rd.

- The entire length of West Broad, as far as 130 acres goes, from the Monocacy hopefully all the way to the intersection of like Pennsylvania Avenue.

That’s more than 130 acres, but you get the idea. No megaprojects, just fundamentals. Somebody also needs to start the conversation now about upzoning the eventual CRIZ areas to CB (Central Business District), to maximize the amount of infill development and minimize the amount of land wasted on mandated parking spaces.

Why Does Bethlehem Want to Restore Its Rail Transit Connections?

I’ve always been a fan of restoring rail connections between the Lehigh Valley and NYC and Philadelphia, but it’s worth revisiting why we might want this.

Basically if you’re going to waste this very expensive infrastructure on Park n’ Rides, then it’s not worth doing. Simply grafting passenger rail onto the existing transportation and development mix in the Lehigh Valley would be an enormous waste of money. But if you’re going to use this as a catalyst to build out. intra-regional bus rapid transit, increase residential and commercial density near rail stations, and generally attempt to ratchet down mode share for private cars, then it is probably worth doing.

Rail doesn’t lose money – low-density land uses like Park n’ Ride development lose money for rail by undermining ridership and high-intensity development around stations.