Lehigh Valley

Residents of Easton's West Ward make their case for conservation districts

EASTON, Pa. - Residents and business owners in Easton's West Ward who attended a community meeting on Thursday night seemed to support the idea of creating a conservation district to help maintain the unique character of their neighborhood.

The gathering of about 20 people at the Easton Area Community Center was led by Paul Felder, an architect and planner from Easton's College Hill, and Tom Jones, a planner and architectural historian who resides in the West Ward. They are heading up an effort to create conservation districts in the city's College Hill, South Side and West Ward neighborhoods; the downtown already has a designation to protect historic properties under the National Register of Historic Places.

About a year ago, the Easton Planning Commission, receptive to the idea of creating conservation districts, gave Felder, Jones and their volunteers the go ahead to gather feedback and hold meetings to determine support among residents.

Thursday night was the kickoff meeting for the West Ward.

Felder said he anticipates the process of establishing conservation districts to take up to eight months, requiring the drafting of an ordinance, input by city staff, coordination with any new zoning proposals, a recommendation by planning commission and ultimately a public hearing and vote by Easton City Council.

Conservation districts, in use by dozens of Pennsylvania municipalities, do not supersede zoning regulations but are complimentary to them, Jones said. He said a conservation district can work to save historic buildings from demolition and also influence what happens on vacant land.

"They are about preserving the established characteristics of a neighborhood," he said.

Easton's West Ward has plenty of unique characteristics worth saving for future generations, Jones and Felder said.

The West Ward extends from Sixth or Seventh street, depending on who you ask, to 15th Street between the Bushkill Creek and the Lehigh River. It's the largest of Easton's neighborhoods, in terms of land mass, with the inclusion of Easton Cemetery, Felder said.

Historically, the West Ward began in the 19th century as a working class neighborhood, which shared the streets with the executives who ran industries along the Bushkill Creek and Lehigh River, Jones said.

"It's largely intact compared to the other neighborhoods," he said, noting the mix of row homes, former mansions, corner stores and restaurants. Most of the residential properties were built prior to World War II, providing the foundation of West Ward's character and most of its affordable housing stock.

With the historic, park-like Easton Cemetery, the resting place of ironmaster George Taylor, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the Karl Stirner Arts Trail, much of it in the West Ward, the neighborhood also enjoys significant open space.

"It's a value to be cherished," Felder said.

Some lesser-known attributes are a stunning stone arch bridge on 13th Street and a rare, original Westinghouse generating station from 1886 on Wolf Avenue. When it was activated, Easton threw a party to welcome the electric age, Felder said.

At the outset of the meeting, Jones invited residents to describe their likes and dislikes of the West Ward.

Among the dislikes: lack of mature shade trees; streets and sidewalks that need repair; poorly maintained rental properties; fast turnover of property ownership; and inaccurate media reports about crime.

Positives include a large number of residents born and raised in the West Ward; ethnic diversity; good neighbors; good places to eat; residents who take the time to beautify their front yards with flower boxes and other plantings; and the varied architecture, particularly the elegant interior woodwork in homes that otherwise appear ordinary from the street.

One resident commented that a conservation district would help prevent gentrification by preserving vintage buildings and allowing long-time residents to stay in their homes.

"There's a lot a conservation district can or cannot do," Felder told the audience.

He said he hopes the residents who attended the kickoff meeting will encourage their neighbors to attend a subsequent meeting in about two months to get more feedback to develop a document that represents the will of the people of the West Ward.

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