Plotting an urban design path for Allentown

Morning Call (Allentown, PA), 2014-08-07


Aug. 07 --With half a billion dollars in new construction already underway, and glittering new glass and steel structures stretching skyward, it might seem a bit late for Allentown to be developing an urban design and development plan.

That puck is already in the net, one might say.

One would be wrong, said Ben Carlson , director of urban design with Goody Clancy and Associates , a Boston planning firm that conducted open houses Wednesday in the city to get the public's ideas about the direction of Allentown's urban core.

"There are many, many decisions to be made about what happens next," said Carlson, project manager on a study the city is billing as its downtown urban design and development plan.

Those decisions include how to link the surrounding neighborhood to the Hamilton Street revival; how to facilitate parking, driving and walking in the area; and what amenities and activities should be offered to attract visitors and their disposable income downtown.

Also still to be decided: how to redevelop more challenging downtown properties.

The city's powerful Neighborhood Improvement Zone tax incentive has already spurred development of several downtown office buildings, new retail spaces and a state-of-the-art $177 million arena on prime real estate.

"It's really a chance to kind of take a step back realizing what has happened in a very short period of time and project that into the future," said Mike Hefele , Allentown's director of planning.

The once cash-strapped city has employed four consulting firms to come up with the plan at a cost of $178,229 . Goody Clancy is joined on the project by traffic and parking consultants Nelson\Nygaard, also of Boston ; CodaMetrics, a zoning and codes firm in Chicago ; and local engineering outfit Barry Isett & Associates .

The Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority is chipping in $28,229 to cover costs.

A small but steady stream of passers-by stopped at the outdoor open house Wednesday, making their thoughts about the downtown known to the consultants over the din of construction noise across the street at PPL Center.

Most were workers or visitors to downtown like Jackie Bingaman , a Gilbertsville , Montgomery County , resident who works at the headquarters of National Penn Bancshares , which moved to Allentown from Boyertown in April.

She likes what she's seen so far, and enjoys being able to walk to lunch, but thinks the downtown needs a broader range of retail, from more restaurants to basic conveniences like drug stores, if it wants to capture workers and visitors' time and money.

"If we really want people to stay here and not leave immediately after work, there are definitely things, like more restaurants," she said.

The harsh steel and glass look of downtown is modern, but it screams commerce, not recreation, said Allentown's Lois Bohner , a resident of the city's leafy West End who stopped downtown Wednesday to visit Billy's Diner and the Allentown Art Museum .

If the city wants to lure diners and visitors, it should think about softening the harsh angles and cold modern design aesthetic, Bohner said.

"We like Bethlehem ," she said. "I like that kind of atmosphere."

The city also needs to make people feel safe downtown and make it easier for them to get into and out of the city, said Stephen Berndt , an employee of Lehigh County who lives in Allentown .

He has plenty of friends, many from outside the city, who think the central business district is dangerous and are afraid to visit, especially at night. A former resident of North Philadelphia who knows what it's like to live on mean streets, he tells them it safe, but they will need to see and feel it for themselves.

"It's the perception thing," Berndt said.

Free or low-cost downtown events could lure visitors, he said, and transportation alternatives such as remote parking shuttles and a well-lit, visibly policed environment might bring them back.

Transit and traffic were frequently raised issues, said Lisa Jacobson , a consultant with Nelson\Nygaard who spent the afternoon recording suggestions on little sticky notes and slapping them on a series of themed posters. Several people said they'd love to use public transit to attend downtown events.

Few of those stopping by the daytime open house were local residents, but Paulette Hunter , who lives near Seventh and Tilghman streets, said she wouldn't be surprised if this study ends up collecting dust on some shelf at City Hall .

She'd also like to know if it will incorporate neighborhood residents' need for family-sustaining jobs and worries that their rents will be raised, forcing them to move.

How about creating a program that trains high school students for jobs in the newly resurgent downtown, she suggested, an employment pipeline of sorts.

"We are building all of these shiny buildings and it looks great, but what about the people?" she said.

scott.kraus@mcall.com

Twitter @skraus

610-820-6745

HAVE YOUR SAY

Weigh in on downtown Allentown's future:

11:45 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. today at PPL Plaza , Ninth and Hamilton streets

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