An elaborate plan to showcase Allentown’s Lehigh River waterfront was shared with about 100 residents gathered in the auditorium of Sheridan Elementary School Wednesday night.
The master plan addresses a 1.3-mile stretch of the river’s west bank, from the city’s northern boundary downstream to just south of the Hamilton Street bridge.
One high profile aspect would create a roundabout – also known as a traffic circle – that would replace the ramps at the west end of Hamilton Street bridge in front of an expanded America on Wheels museum.
Several major streets would merge at the roundabout, including a new Wharf Street.
America on Wheels will be the initial gateway draw into the redeveloped waterfront, but more entertainment and retail offerings must be added around the museum to make it more successful, said Keith Weaver of EDSA, Inc., the Baltimore consulting firm developing the plan with the city.
The plan envisions riverfront restaurants, a Riverside Drive along the Lehigh, floating docks, a Festival Park, a soccer/football field and even a 3-mile trail loop, partly running along the river. Weaver said Bucky Boyle Park would be expanded and might revert to its original name: Riverfront Park.
Potential new development includes light industries, offices, additional housing (all existing housing would remain) and retail businesses. Much of that would go where old, vacant and derelict industrial buildings now stand, blocking the river from the rest of the city.
The plan also envisions much more open space, parks, greenways and access points to the river than exist today. Weaver said now there are only three locations where the public can get to the river.
The plan proposes opening at least 50 percent of the waterfront to the public. More city streets also will extend down to the river.
Mayor Ed Pawlowski said Allentown’s waterfront is a tremendous asset, because it’s the only place where the Lehigh is deep enough for boating. He wants to re-energize the waterfront and bring the river back to the people.
Wednesday’s two-hour overview presentation was the third and best attended public meeting on the developing riverfront master plan.
The mayor stressed the plan is only a guide, but not a blueprint containing specific details of what the transformed riverfront will look like.
“We’re plotting out some broad based ideas,” said Pawlowski. “As potential development opportunities come in, we can fit into them into the context of the plan, as opposed to saying ‘hey, you do whatever the heck you want and maybe it will come out looking okay in the end’. Over the course of the next 3, 4, 5, 10 years you will see this development start to happen. Some aspects of this plan will change. That’s okay. It should be flexible, not set in stone.”
The mayor answered most of the questions from the audience near the end of the presentation.
He insisted the All-American Parkway bridge over the Lehigh River will be built in 2013 and even bet one skeptical resident lunch that it will happen.
A woman in the audience was doubtful about the ambitious redevelopment plans, saying the city could not even afford to keep Bucky Boyle’s swimming pool open.
The mayor said the pool was not only in disrepair but had low usage. She also was skeptical about the area drawing visitors because of concerns about safety.
Pawlowski said criminals don’t want to be where there are a lot of people.
“This is a plan that gives us a vision of what our waterfront could be,” said Pawlowski. “We have the ability to make this happen.”
He praised the controversial Neighborhood Improvement Zone funding mechanism, created specifically for Allentown by the state Legislature, for giving the city the financial ability to turn the plan into a reality.
He was applauded when he told residents the NIZ gives the city the ability to fund projects it could never fund before.
Residents were encouraged to submit written comments about the plan. The mayor said the plan has a website and told the audience: “We want you to keep being involved in this process.”