5th Street revitalization project visionary, but costly

MUHLENBERG TWP., Pa. - A 24-month long 5th Street Highway revitalization study envisions significant changes for one of Berks County's major thoroughfares.

Eric Stump, of Herbert, Rowland & Gubric Inc., presented the study's findings and final report at the Muhlenberg Township Supervisors' meeting on Tuesday night.

The study, funded by a $340,000 federal transportation grant, consisted of a steering committee, stakeholder interviews, focus groups, a town meeting to obtain public feedback and an online survey of property owners along the corridor.

The goal was to determine traffic and pedestrian safety issues as well as ways to re-energize and rejuvenate the area.

Common themes identified included the need for improved safety, pedestrian and bicycle access, and better traffic flow and connectivity.

The public also desires to create an identity for Muhlenberg, to establish it is as a community and not just a highway.

"We want to give Muhlenberg an identity and to take away the highway feel. We don't want it to be just a way to get somewhere, but somewhere that you want to be," explained Chris Stump.

A revitalization plan has been developed that proposes creating three unique districts along the four-mile stretch of highway.

The first is "A Place to Play," in the north Muhlenberg Gateway District near Walmart.

The plan calls for establishing a new northern gateway, adding new streets, walkways and bikeways, and expanding park resources.

The second, "A Place to Live and Work," is designed around the Quarry Commerce Center District from Cherokee Ranch to the quarry.

Here the plan calls for added pedestrian and bicycle access, new mid-level restaurants and hotels, enhanced greenways and low-impact development around the quarry, such as a park or nature trails.

The third district, "A Place to Visit," would be in the southern Muhlenberg Town Center District where the goal is to create a town-square atmosphere near the Fairgrounds Square Mall and Digiplex Cinema Center.

The study suggests a need for creating inviting gateways, adding new restaurants and retail establishments, redeveloping corridor frontage and marketing vacant and underused commercial property to contemporary businesses.

The plan calls for large-scale renovations along the full length of the 5th Street Highway. A number of residents and board members expressed concern over the cost of the revitalization efforts.

Commissioner John Imhoff's acknowledgement of these concerns garnered applause from the residents.

"It is a great study, and a great plan. It's visionary. But I think the problem is that it is visionary, because the money is just not there. I'm fine with trying to improve Muhlenberg Township but not at somebody else's expense," Imhoff said.

The full plan is available for download on Muhlenberg Township's website.

The report was accepted as presented by unanimous vote, but the consensus of the board was that the suggestions made in the report will need to be attended to slowly over time, and that different funding options need to be pursued before any further action can be taken.

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