J.B. Reilly is Committed to Good Urbanism in Allentown

Matt Assad and Scott Kraus have a well-written article on the economics of restaurant clusters, in the context of the downtown development taking place in Allentown. As you’ll see, there’s basically no economic evidence in favor of the protectionist view, and lots of support for the “saturation theory” that says a downtown with a ton of different restaurants to choose from will grow the population of restaurant-goers, rather than dividing the pie into smaller and smaller pieces.

On an unrelated point, I wanted to flag this section about J.B. Reilly because the guy catches a ton of flack from people suspicious that he’s just some opportunist out to make a quick buck. The reality seems to be that he’s in this for the long haul, and genuinely cares about transforming center city Allentown into a 24-hour live/work/play environment. Disagree with his vision all you want, but I personally agree with his urbanist design opinions and it’s clear to me that he cares a great deal about the city:

Still, J.B. Reilly, CEO of City Center Investment Corp., said all those new restaurants aren’t just encouraging, they’re necessary. Without them, the downtown cannot shed its reputation of being a place where there is nothing to do after 5 p.m. For Reilly, whose company plans to open five restaurants, hockey is the smallest part of the equation.

The key lies more with the 2,000 to 3,000 workers who will be in three new office buildings being built, and the hundreds of new residents that will soon be living downtown, he said. Reilly said the 170 apartments he’ll have open by late 2014 will bring 250 new residents, and more will come. He expects there to be as many as 1,000 new downtown residents in five to seven years.

And Reilly believes the restaurants are a linchpin to all of it.

“This needs to be a place where people want to be for dinner, for business and to live,” Reilly said. “If we don’t build this to scale very quickly, it’s not going to work. People don’t want to eat in a suburban strip mall anymore. They want an authentic experience in a real downtown that has energy. That’s what we’re going to have here. So, no I have no concern that this is too much. If anything, it’s not enough, yet.”

Becky Bradley, the eight-year planning director for Easton and the new executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, subscribes to the saturation theory, because she’s seen it work.

“Easton has been able to use its restaurants to lead the revitalization efforts,” Bradley said. “We opened nearly two dozen new restaurants in the last six years, and I think Easton has learned that food can lead the way.”

Comments

  1. futuredowntpplcenterattendee says:

    Ever notice how O’Hare who lives in in Nazareth and Molovinsky who lives in South Whitehall never write about the towns they actually live in?

  2. There were some great articles a few years ago about how restaurant owners in Denver banded together to promote the downtown district as a place to go. I seem to remember the line was something to the effect that their competition wasn’t each other as much as it was staying at home and watching TV. Emmaus and Easton do this pretty well, with differing focus.

    It strikes me that while restaurants are an important sign of prosperity, a lot of folks want to make it a cause of prosperity. Places like Denver succeed because the downtown resurgence is tied to a business resurgence in a couple key sectors, which has not happened yet. Maybe the NIZ will do this, but the trick is going to be getting people to stay for dinner–not lunch–because that’s where the real profit is made in the food business (especially if rents continue to go up).

    I don’t think many thing Reilly is a bad guy, and I’m thankful for him giving Allentown a chance. The main concern I’ve seen voiced is that, out of desperation, Allentown has picked him as their “horse” and he seems to have unique access to decision making. The bigger concern is whether he’s able to game the system in ways that don’t do much for downtown–moving a tobacco business with a few people to the NIZ isn’t going to save Allentown, and it is arguable at best if tobacco taxes going to developers or to that state is a better way.

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