Lehigh Valley

Is Allentown crumbling around its new downtown?

City Council hears about blighted homes

Residents say Allentown is not taking care of blighted homes

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Is the heart of Allentown literally crumbling at the same time it is rising?

That possibility was raised Wednesday night when Ken Heffentrager, a city resident who is vice president of the Tenant Association of Allentown, showed City Council photos of a building at 716 N. 9th St., which he said is collapsing.

Heffentrager said the city has many blighted properties, "but this is one of the most serious ones. This property has got to be dealt with and like immediately."

"The porch is about ready to give way" from the weight of a front wall that has fallen onto the porch roof, according to Heffentrager. "Residents who live there tell us parts of this building already have fallen into the street."

Council member Jeanette Eichenwald said that building is just one example of blight threatening much of the inner city.

"All of us are excited about what's happening on Hamilton Street, but what about the core?" asked Eichenwald. "As much as we are placing our effort on these huge developments for City Center, etc., etc., what about the houses in which our people live?

"All around, our city is decaying. That should be the biggest issue we should focus on, the decaying of the surrounding area."

Heffentrager said the N. 9th Street building is not sealed up to keep people out and residents in that block of row homes fear it will catch fire.

He claimed the condition of the property's exterior violates at least eight city laws.

He said a nearby business owner has called the city dozens of times about the building, adding his organization also has called the city quite a few times.

The property owner lives only three blocks away for the building, according to Heffentrager. "How is this man not being nailed?"

He said city residents are being fined because their grass is too high or they have "a little bit of garbage" outside, but no one seems to be going after owners of vacant and blighted buildings.

Eichenwald said "once upon a time" such a property would have been condemned by the city and rehabilitated.

"We've gone backwards." said Eichenwald. "Two years ago we had a process. It worked beautifully. That was totally dismantled [by the administration]. Council just sat here and it happened. We decided we were going to concentrate our efforts on the [hockey] arena -- and I'm not negating the importance of the arena in any way.

"But there is no issue more important than if we allow the outer rim of this downtown to decay. We're not going to be the shining city. We can't have houses like this, we just can't do it. They will collapse and our city will collapse under the weight of this if something isn't done."

Francis Dougherty, the city's managing director, explained the administration is working "to invigorate the process" to counter blight in Allentown. "We're taking a fragmented process and trying to bring more sense and centralized management to it."

Council president Julio Guridy said in the past most property owners would fix them when faced with the prospect of the city condemning them and taking ownership by eminent domain, a process he said can take more than a year.

Said Eichenwald: "As much as we want to concentrate our efforts on building these shining buildings, it's not going to help our city in its totality unless this problem is taken care of."

Said Dougherty: "We agree."

Based on Dougherty's assurances, Eichenwald said she looks forward to driving around the heart of the city and seeing improvements.

"Things take time," said council member Joe Davis, who defended the efforts of city inspectors to address such issues. "We can't fix all these properties overnight."

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