What Does Allentown Need From Ed Pawlowski In His Next Term?

Obviously if the choice for Allentown Mayor is Ed Pawlowski or crazyperson Dennis Pearson, then you’ve gotta go with Ed Pawlowski. But it is pretty disappointing that Pawlowski won’t face any serious political competition at a time when so many big questions about the city’s future will be in play in the next Mayoral term. Allentown residents deserve a real debate about how best to put the city’s resources to work for maximum prosperity. People deserve to hear more ideas about how to fully capitalize on the NIZ, how to pay for the pension responsibilities, whether to sell city assets, how to raise more revenue, and so on.

That’s not to say Pawlowski’s ideas are bad. I don’t agree with everything he’s done, but I think most of the crap he gets from his critics has to do with people being grumpy that the Hess’s era is over, and lingering anger over the braindead fiscal policies of the Roy Afflerbach administration. It’s not at all clear to me that somebody could have made drastically better choices with the cards Pawlowski was dealt when he came into office.

That said, I do have some issues with Ed Pawlowski’s approach to economic development that I’d like to see his administration move away from in the next term.

I was a big proponent of the NIZ when that debate was happening, but before that changed the strategic outlook for Allentown development policy I was not really a fan of the Pawlowski administration’s economic development strategies. Pre-NIZ, my main issue was that too many of the Pawlowski redevelopment ideas seemed to be trying to leapfrog organic growth, bypassing “gentrification” or whatever, and aiming straight for upmarket amenities.

The strategy seemed to be to make Allentown a “destination” – a word you hear a lot from this administration – the idea being that what Allentown really needs is to attract outside visitors. And of course it does, but this should be a secondary goal to making Allentown a great place to live for the people who already live there.

Rather than focusing on mega-projects and upmarket amenities, the focus really ought to be on lowering the cost of living, and developing deeper markets for the low-cost food, entertainment, and goods and services that are useful to the existing population of poor and middle class folks. That doesn’t need to mean creating a city that outside folks think is just for poor people – it means creating a city that works for all classes of people. Previously I’ve offered some low-cost economic development ideas that focus on lowering the cost of living, and thus increasing the amount of disposable income people have left over to spend on their wants and needs. I think that’s the way to go when you’ve got limited revenue to spend on big flashy improvements.

The other theme I’d like to see Pawlowski take on in the next term is capitalizing on existing resources. For example, Allentown has some great parks. How is the land around those really nice parks zoned? Because it seems to me that much of the land is largely squandered on suburban-style single family homes, when it could support a whole lot of multi-family buildings that would allow many more people to enjoy living next to the parks. Letting people build large expensive buildings on the expensive land next to parks would be a good way to bring in a lot of tax revenue for city pensions and the school district. And best of all, it costs the city no money to rezone that land. Surely there are some other examples of low-cost and no-cost regulatory changes that would better capitalize on the city’s existing assets.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Now that the mega-size projects like an arena and waterfront development are in the works, how about some heightened attention to quality of life issues. Apply the broken-window theory and start acquiring the vacant homes and the tax delinquencies, renovate them and improve the housing inventory. But I suppose the question is where to find the money to do that. I wouldn’t mind seeing property owners who cause or allow blight lose their property to a city authority which can flip the homes and generate sustaining revenue for a city-wide renovation effort.

  2. A City who gets in the business of seizing properties through eminent domain, renovating and then flipping them to generate a profit for the budget.

    …i am sure there will be no abuse in that???

  3. Jon Geeting says:

    PA eminent domain laws are pretty strict about that sort of thing. If you want to seize a property it has to be for a public purpose. You can’t just flip it to another private owner. That’s my theory of why they went with a hockey arena, when an office building would’ve been less risky.

    I think you’d see a lot less blight very quickly if the school district adopted Allentown’s millage rate split for land and buildings. The city taxes land at 5 times the rate for buildings, and the school district is the bigger tax bill. This would push landowners to find a source of revenue for underdeveloped properties and vacant parcels. There’d be a tax penalty for owning blighted land.

  4. Bernie is right, Allentown is officially a Banana Republic.

    If you look dispassionately at everything they’ve done, it’s all for the benefit of Ed Pawlowski’s political career – designed for a short term splash so he can get some headlines, but very poorly designed for long term success.

    Expect more of the same, which bodes well for you because most of your plans are not well thought through with a long term focus either.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Political ambition is part of it, but it seems more likely to me that Pawlowski just has kind of a top-down view of economic development that’s too reliant on big flashy projects, and not focused enough on the fundamentals.

      Actually most of the agenda items I support are focused on the long term, certainly longer than any of you sprawl boosters are planning for, especially when it comes to maintenance costs. That’s because the tool for accomplishing most of what I want to see happen is zoning, which necessarily works over a long time horizon. It’s setting the land use rules for decades of development.

  5. Your zoning example is exactly what I mean when I say it wasn’t thought through. Allentown School District is, to be kind, overwhelmed. Another influx of kids will drown it.

    Your plan to get people in their 20s to live here is at least 10-15yrs away (if that), and in the meantime more density will mean more kids that we can’t handle.

    And Jon, be honest – Pawlowski’s projects have been designed first and foremost to reward his political supporters and make a splash. Any benefit to the city is luck. The four examples are the Hope VI project, the NIZ, the trash/energy plant and the water/wastewater lease.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      You haven’t thought it through. The NIZ district prioritizes commercial development. The name of the game is increasing the number of earned income tax payers working in the zone. If anything, this will mean housing will be underbuilt in the downtown area. If the school district passed a land value tax, they’d be increasing the pressure to build more office space, not housing.

  6. I’d like to see greater emphasis on economic development. Specifically, I’d like to see a business development campaign that focuses on what kinds skills and businesses in the Lehigh Valley could best support metropolitan areas in New York and Philadelphia using information technology or ground transportation systems at lower cost to businesses. Emphasize the quality and relative low cost of existing housing stock in the West End.

    From there, I’d like to see greater focus in educational systems, both in the inner city and at the County Vo-Tech, to train and educate students so that they are equipped to provide businesses with these kinds of skills.

    A lot depends on the condition of the Allentown School District, which currently ranks as probably Allentown’s most significant downside (which is a shame, since not long ago both high schools had some real areas of excellence, and probably still do). Developing a focused magnet school or two at the middle school/high school level (foreign languages, engineering, etc.) using at least some existing faculty and housed in a renovated existing building or using leased office space (NIZ?) could help alleviate some of those concerns. Focusing city education on skills and experiences and not physical plant would be a way a Mayor could show leadership, even if this isn’t his primary responsibility.

    I don’t think critics are necessarily “grumpy.” There are a lot of people who remember Allentown in a much different state and don’t understand how public servants could spend money so poorly.

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