Why Does Easton Have Parking Minimums If They Can’t Be Enforced?

Tom Coombe:

Schyrhys, who owns several Northampton Street properties, testified that no other downtown restaurants have their own parking, and rely on the same sources he would: the city’s main garage, the parking lot at Our Lady of Lebanon church, and (eventually) the intermodal garage.

Board members had no issue with Schyrhys’s proposal.

“We all know parking is non existent downtown,” said board member Michael Civetella. “It’s the way of the world in Easton.”

The board is rightly dismissing the minimum parking requirements because enforcing them would mean drastically restricting what kinds of businesses can open downtown.

So what’s the point of having the parking minimums on the books in the first place? If “we all know” there’s no way to add new curb or surface parking downtown, then what’s the use in having prospective businesses and developers request variances? If a proposed use seems especially parking-intensive, then you can have that discussion, but the default should be no parking requirements.

Ruggles Introduces Plan to Fine Vacant Property Owners in Easton

Edward Sieger has a great report on Roger Ruggles’ new anti-blight plan:

Easton City Councilman Roger Ruggles said he plans to bring a vacant property law to council next month that would require owners to register their empty buildings and pay an annual fee based on how long a building has stood dormant.

Ruggles, who chairs city council’s planning committee, said the ordinance will be based on one in use in Wilmington, Del., since 2003. That ordinance assesses a $500 fee for properties vacant for at least one year but less than two years and up to $5,000 for those vacant for at least 10 years with an additional $500 for each year thereafter.

And:

Ruggles said he’s spoken briefly to the police department, which supports the idea of a comprehensive list of the city’s empty buildings that would, in part, let patrolmen know which properties should be empty…

About 360 of the city’s roughly 8,539 properties are either vacant lots or house an empty building, according to Becky Bradley, Easton’s planning and codes director.

This is the program I teased in this Patch column back in December.

The fairness argument for this proposal is impenetrable. Vacant land and properties decrease the value of neighboring properties as much as 20%. If you have a vacant property, you’re imposing a tax on nearby properties. It’s unfair, and the vacant property owner should have to pay that external cost.

This is a big problem with foreclosed bank-owned properties. Paul Muschick has an excellent article on how this problem is playing out in South Whitehall. These properties decrease home values throughout the whole neighborhood, but banks just sit on them because they don’t want to eat the losses. But in doing so, they’re passing the costs on to local governments.

Each foreclosure costs local governments $20,000. Three foreclosures = one more teacher you have to lay off:

Local governments should not let the moochers pass these costs on to taxpayers. Levying financial penalties on vacant properties is exactly the right way to fix this problem.

What’s the Case for Government Intervention in Easton’s Barber Market?

From Gail Scudder at Easton Patch, a useful demonstration of how rent-seeking works:

Urena is part of a small wave of barbershops that have all opened along Northampton Street in the last year. In addition to Legacy Hall, there’s Flow Factory in the 600 block, and R&R Barbershop, which opened under new management on the 100 block.

Their arrival has gotten a mixed reaction from the city’s existing community of barbers…

And Juan Mariano — whose Brooklyn Barber Shop is on the same block as Legacy Hall — is concerned about the increase of shops nearby, saying he doesn’t understand why city officials allow another barber shop so close to his.

Others were more accommodating, like barber James Birdsong, who says there’s enough business in the city for everyone…

Although Birdsong says he’s not concerned about the arrival of new barbers, he’s concerned that state officials in Harrisburg aren’t regulating the industry enough to keep it at professional levels.

If you own a barbershop, it’s definitely a bad thing to have another barbershop open on your block. Competition squeezes profits, pushing prices closer to marginal costs. You’re going to make less money.

But what’s the case for government intervention here? It’s hard to see how this is a bad deal for haircut consumers, or taxpayers, or residents. For all these people, it is a very good thing. It means more choices and lower prices. Free markets don’t always produce socially optimal results, but this is precisely the sort of thing they’re good at.

What Are the Best Alternatives to a Neighborhood Improvement District?

Christina Georgiou has a good piece on some new ideas that came out of the first public workshop on the Neighborhood Improvement District proposal in Easton. Some of them are good, but the city needs to keep the focus on the original goal of funding the Ambassadors and the Easton Main Street Initiative in the central business district.

For this to be a success, a few principles have to be non-negotiable.

The first principle is No Peanut Butter. The spending has to be concentrated. Christina quotes several people saying that the whole city should fund these programs. I agree with this argument, because I think it’s obvious that the neighborhoods benefit from a strong and vibrant downtown core. But is this a politically sustainable arrangement?

Some people are already talking about expanding the services to the neighborhoods. I would cautiously support funding specific projects outside the NID area, but I do think it sounds like a recipe for peanut butter.

If voters in the neighborhoods are seeing the funding mostly being concentrated downtown, aren’t they eventually going to try to overturn it? The most politically sustainable scenario is going to be downtown property owners paying for concentrated downtown programs. There’s no reason you couldn’t set up similar programs in the other neighborhoods, but you really need to constrain the area.

Another non-negotiable principle is that this needs to be dedicated funding. Paying for it out of the general fund leaves the programs vulnerable to budget cuts. Corporate sponsors could be an unstable source of revenue. Making businesses pay more would be politically unsustainable, and also unfair since residents would be reaping a windfall from increases in property value. That’s why it’s hard to understand Mike McFadden’s perspective on this:

“If I’m paying in, maybe there’s something the city can do for me, like giving me some ‘get out of jail’ cards for parking tickets. That wouldn’t cost anything (out of pocket),” he said. “If I’m paying out some money, I should get something in return.”

Actually, forgiving parking tickets would cost money. And what he’s getting in return is increased property value, because when the Ambassadors keep the downtown clean and the EMSI fixes the facades of blighted buildings, all the land downtown increases in value.

The best idea here is offsetting the NID tax with higher parking prices. This would create more turnover at metered spaces, and collect more money from tourists as well as residents. Contrary to some peoples’ suggestions, there’s not any evidence that small changes in parking prices would reduce downtown trips or hurt business. Other cities have succeeded in paying for downtown revitalization by raising parking prices. The more likely scenario is that a cleaner, less blighted downtown with more stores would attract many more people than the number that would be deterred by higher parking prices.

Other good options not mentioned would be taxes on bad things you want to see less of, like plastic bags or sugary drinks. Obviously these would be controversial, but they’re good taxes because the market distortions they produce are beneficial, and they raise money for worthwhile programs.

Phillipsburg: Not Doomed?

Rich Wilkins says Phillipsburg’s not doomed, and has some good ideas for turning things around:

  • The train service to New York City from Western New Jersey ends at Clinton in Hunterdon County (roughly 15 miles away) to the west, and in Blairstown (Delaware Water Gap at the north end of Warren County) to the north. In both cases, existing tracks, already laid, connect all the way to Phillipsburg, and even on to Easton and Bethlehem (in fact, right to the door step of Sands Casino basically in Bethlehem, as well as the foot of South Side Hill in Easton). New Jersey leaders of all stripes have not connected Phillipsburg up to those stops (making them the last stop in New Jersey), for fear of making access to the city easy for Pennsylvania residents (to be read: competitors for jobs). This has left Warren County, and especially Phillipsburg, behind). Finish the lines, and add service, all the way to the “Stateliners.” Since these tracks literally run next to the river and South Main Street, you’d bring people downtown at least to get on and off.
  • Governor Christie: stop delaying the new high school they had been promised in 2009. Also, stop trying to deny them “Abbott Funds” for running a regional high school (they aren’t regional up until then).
  • Get creative with the Ingersoll land, or at least clean it up so someone will come in there. Bethlehem was going to die after Bethlehem Steel left, except they didn’t. They got creative, and have re-developed that land to make huge profits. Phillipsburg can do it too. It takes investment of dollars, and bringing in people with a vision that the public will use, not some quick buck making scheme.
  • Put more interchanges off of I-78 into Phillipsburg. You ride several miles, past Phillipsburg, almost out to Bloomsbury, in Pohatcong, before you can get off for the first time. So tell me again, how would someone get off to go into Phillipsburg to shop, eat, site-see?
  • Run the slum landlords off of South Main Street, at least from the train bridge down. Pass ordinances and get tough with these guys. Businesses and shops won’t come in when slums are all around. You can’t allow landlords to run their tenements into the ground to the point that no self respecting human will live there, then think businesses will come in. Code checks, ordinances for safety and cleanliness, and the like should be put into effect.
  • Regionalize the schools and the police forces, allowing for better taxation and spending policies, as well as probably better services.
  • Yes, clean up the water front. Easton’s doing it. There are some decent businesses down by it. Jimmy’s on the Delaware is legendary in the area, the Sand Bar is supposed to be very cool, Delahanty’s is a gem, and the 24 Hour Diner at Market and Main is so good. In addition, the train rides that the town runs, geared towards kids, would probably draw more parents (especially ones with income to spend) with kids there if the whole area looked nicer, and seemed cleaner. If they simply focused from the bridge up to the diner, and worked on that area, they could make progress, rather than worrying about all kinds of other areas of town.

Right on. I still want to place first-order priority on waterfront redevelopment. Rather than spreading development dollars all around like peanut butter, concentrate efforts on the waterfront and the commercial parcels right across the river from Easton.

Yes, All Downtown Property Owners Will Benefit From the Easton NID Plan

A couple points on Samantha Marcus’ article on the Neighborhood Improvement District in Easton:

Advocates can expect a fierce debate if not a legal fight led by prolific downtown developer Peter Koehler of Koehler Kheel Realty.

This brand of a la carte taxation doesn’t sit well with him. He’s already absorbed landlord licensing fees to avoid passing them on to his tenants, he said, but said he — and rent — are at a tipping point.

“We could raise rents, but we’ll lose tenants for sure. It gets to a point you can only charge your tenants so much, what the market will bear. It’s the wrong time to impose another tax on people in the city,” Koehler said.

“I have employees and myself, we go out, we clean our sidewalks, we repair them, we power-wash them, we repair our buildings inside and out,” he continued. “We should not be penalized for the people who do not take care of their properties. Why penalize the good property owners?”

Koehler is looking at this backwards. The bad property owners are dragging down the value of neighboring properties. Likewise, the dirty street conditions that would result from the expiration of the Ambassadors program would also drag down property values. Alternatively, clean street conditions and the Panto administration’s anti-blight strategy are going to increase property values. What’s more, they’re going to increase property values above and beyond what Koehler would be able to do by himself keeping his own properties looking good. That’s a windfall for property owners, so capturing back some of the value to recoup the costs is a perfectly fair way to pay for it.

Sal Panto has another good point:

“Those people who benefit from a service should pay for that service,” Panto said. “Should a neighbor on Washington Street pay for an ambassador to help keep downtown clean?”

Still, everyone reaps the proceeds of a downtown revival. Easton is estimated to collect $600,000 in business privilege taxes in 2011, up from $511,000 in 2009. That’s $90,000 less that residents have to pay, Panto noted.

If Easton Main Street Initiative manages to get even more businesses downtown, that also increases property values and increases business privilege tax receipts for the city, minimizing the need for future tax increases.

The downtown property owners who are saying they aren’t going to benefit from this are wrong. They’re going to be reaping the positive externalities from more robust growth.

Phillipsburg: Doomed, Unless People Think It’s Easton

Noel Jones has a good post asking what’s wrong with Phillipsburg on its 150 year anniversary:

In this Express-Times article by Sarah Wojcik, the mayor seems to be predict a big turnaround for PBurg, but he doesn’t seem to have any concrete reasons for why he thinks it’s going to happen, and the people aren’t buying it. Apparently the community is told every few years that they are going to get a new high school, but it hasn’t happened yet. And they keep getting told that the old Ingersoll-Rand property is going to get developed by outside investors (which sounds kind of like our old Simon Silk Mill in Easton) but they never come. There seems to be a general lament of insufficient marketing of the steam train, which should be a great tourist attraction for the town, and accusations expressed in the comments to the article that the city government is in the poverty business, something we hear residents grumbling about here in Easton regularly. Considering that our neighbor shares the Delaware with us, is just a stone’s-throw away and will get a passenger train stop before we do (if we ever do), why is PBurg suffering so much that it’s young people don’t even have any place to go have fun and be creative at night?

No mayor wants to say his town is doomed, but it’s hard to see how the fundamentals support any other conclusion. Phillipsburg has a pretty decent downtown core to work with, but you can’t see it from Easton. Insofar as their downtown is going to see any new economic life, they’re pretty much attached at the hip with Easton. Any revitalization strategy hinges on tricking tourists into believing that Easton and Phillipsburg are the same city and getting them to cross the bridge. A waterfront development project would probably have the most payoff on this front.