Residents weigh in on Allentown's center city revitalization

27,000 live in heart of city, 29 show up to learn about plan

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A revitalized center city Allentown can't exist as an island, said city planning director Michael Hefele.

"We want the benefits we're getting downtown from the new development to extend out into the neighborhoods," explained Hefele.

The need to accomplish that huge task is documented in an evolving revitalization plan called: "Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods: The Center City Initiative."

Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski calls it a community action plan. He said the city does not intend to forget the poorest neighborhoods surrounding the developing downtown. His goal is to benefit those neighborhoods in significant ways.

For two hours in City Hall Wednesday night, Hefele, Pawlowski and other city officials sought input from residents about what they think should be the top priorities to help make that revitalization happen.

Because less than 30 people attended, they were not exactly overwhelmed with suggestions.

According to the new plan, 27,000 people live in center city.

The 35-page plan's introduction offers a blunt assessment of the dilemma facing Allentown:

"Fueled by the incentives offered by the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, the downtown business district is experiencing growth that it has never seen before in such a short period of time."

But that business district "is surrounded by neighborhoods whose challenges currently outweigh their promise.

"These neighborhoods are characterized by some of the oldest and densest housing stock in the city; are home to the poorest population in the Lehigh Valley; have their share of drug-related crime and lack some of the amenities that more successful neighborhoods enjoy."

The plan also states "household incomes are unable to adequately support even the most basic housing."

The plan stresses: "The wealth of the community must be increased."

One of is recommendations is that "the area requires the infusion of new income in the form of new residents with higher incomes and an increase in the incomes of current households."

One of the top priorities to come out of Wednesday night's gathering was the need for more job training for center-city residents.

Other high priority items indicate more should be done to educate residents about everything from crime to proper maintenance of their properties and that more should be done to create a sense of community in those neighborhoods.

Pawlowski stressed those neighborhoods have great assets as well as great challenges.

According to the plan, those attributes include uniqueness of the building stock in two historic districts, a burgeoning commercial district along 7th Street, long-standing health care and educational institutions, community groups dedicated to neighborhood improvement and "the energy and entrepreneurial spirit typically found in ethnically diverse communities."

Center-city demographics

The boundaries of the "Center City Initiative" target area are generally defined as 12th Street on the west, Tilghman Street on the north, Jordan Creek on the east and Union, Jackson and Spring Garden streets on the south.

One exception is the North 7th Street corridor, which is included all the way to the north end of the city.

Nearly-one quarter of the city's total population lives within the plan area.

Sixty-one percent of the residents in that part of the city are Hispanic or Latino, according to the plan.

Thirty-two percent to 55 percent of those residents live in poverty – compared to a citywide poverty rate of 26 percent.

The area experienced a five-year unemployment rate of more than 23 percent, compared to the city's 14 percent.

The median annual household income of those residents ranges from
$13,911 to $30,913.

Seventy-one percent of the housing is occupied by renters; only 29 percent is owner-occupied.

"We're starting in this area, but we have plans for the whole city," said City Council member Joe Davis, who attended the gathering. "You need a starting point."

No overview

A program about the plan was scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday with an overview presented in City Council chambers.

That didn't happen.

At about 6:15 p.m., a half dozen people waiting for the program to begin were told there would be no presentation in the meeting room.

Everyone was directed to six stations along the corridor outside council chambers, each focusing on a different aspect of revitalization.

Taped on windows at each station were maps of the target area and lists of priorities for Allentown's revitalization.

At each station, participants were encouraged to place two red dots on what they consider the greatest priorities.

They also were able to write additional priorities on easels at each spot. A skate park and shelters for families were just two of the many added priorities.

Some recommendations will be incorporated into the plan, which was distributed but it still labeled as a draft.

The mayor said Wednesday night's gathering was the first release of the whole plan. "It's the first time it's been shown that combines all the elements together."

Although only 29 people attended, Pawlowski called it a good turn-out,
saying: "It's tough to get people to come out for events like this."

Pawlowski to seek corporate partners

The mayor explained part of the solution for center city is to create opportunities for investment in more properties, including more home ownership, plus other economic development, job creation and blight remediation.

The mayor said the city has been developing the comprehensive plan for many months and already has gotten input from neighborhood groups and other community organizations.

In early March, Pawlowski announced the city plans to spend $2.5 million to help revitalize those neighborhoods. On Wednesday he called that "a small amount" compared to what will be needed.

He explained completion of the plan will give Allentown the ability to win a designation so it can seek more money for revitalization improvements through the state's Keystone Communities Program.

He said that designation won't guarantee the city will get grants or loans available though that program, "but it puts us at the top of the list."

The mayor also said the city will approach corporations – he mentioned PPL as one example – to see if they are willing to "commit some significant dollars" to help revitalize center-city neighborhoods.

"If we go to PPL, I want PPL to know that we have skin in the game,"
said the mayor, referring to the $2.5 million.

"We're not just going there for a handout. We're also putting dollars on the table. We're going there to say ‘we can make a significant impact on this neighborhood, which will benefit everybody. We would like you to be a partner with us. It will benefit you as a major employer downtown.'"

He said those corporations are going to want to see a significant plan that will clearly show the benefits of both short- and long-term improvements in the city.

Dots show priorities

The six stations set up in City Hall were physical improvements/design, housing, economic development and employment, public safety, marketing/community events/communication and arts and culture.

That last category is still under development, so it had no list of possible priorities.

Here are the top priorities in the other five categories, as measured by the number of red dots stuck behind each of them just before 8 p.m.

Under Employment actions, 11 dots were placed behind: "Continue to encourage downtown employers to hire and develop mentoring and other programs aimed at providing training for area residents."

In that same category, six dots were behind: "Continue to partner with educational and training institutions to develop and provide a full range of training and education options meeting the needs of Allentown's workforce that are accessible to program area residents."

Under Housing actions, seven dots were placed behind "Support and encourage employers within and around the area to create employer-assisted housing programs that target the program area."

In that same category, five dots were behind: "Identify blocks with a preponderance of poor housing and building conditions and prepare mini-improvement programs that apply acquisition, demolition, rehabilitation and public improvement activities in a strategic manner to upgrade the entire block."

Under Public Safety actions, seven dots were placed behind: "Explore establishment of a youth civilian police academy. Use School Resource Officers to facilitate programs in schools."

In that same category, four dots were behind: "Provide neighborhood profiles – blight, unemployment, etc., contribute to crime. Knowing this information will help residents focus their efforts."

Four dots also were behind: "Encourage neighborhood ‘pay it forward'
systems wherein neighbors support neighbors in getting their needs met."

Under Communications, nine dots were placed behind: "In order to develop neighborhood pride, celebrate diversity and camaraderie among neighbors; support neighborhood sponsored events such as clean-ups, block parties and cultural events."

In that same category, five dots were behind: "Encourage residents and business owners to participate in neighborhood groups, steering committees and other activities associated with the implementation of this strategy."

Under Physical Improvements, seven dots were placed behind: "Undertake neighborhood outreach activities to explain the background and significance of the Old Allentown and Old Fairgrounds Historic Districts and encourage proper care and maintenance of the structures."

That was followed with four dots for: "Support a traffic/design study for the 7th Street corridor that examines the feasibility of providing for two-way traffic; for making it more pedestrian friendly, and for enhancing its role as a major gateway into the city."

Education needs not addressed?

Beth Tomlinson, assistant director of K-12 education at United Way of Greater Lehigh Valley, felt major educational issues are not addressed in the center-city plan.

She said 60 percent of the children entering kindergarten in center city's three elementary schools –Central, Cleveland and McKinley –"are significantly delayed when it comes to school readiness."

She said that problem can be addressed with more early learning centers and quality day care centers that parents of those children can afford.

She also said those elementary schools experience very high rates of "mobility" – kids coming and going throughout the school year. She explained that makes it tough to educate children. She attributes that problem "to housing and financial insecurity."

She said children should stay in one school to build a relationship with their teachers and get the education they need.

The mayor said the city is working with the Allentown School District to get it involved with the plan.

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Allentown, PA 18102


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