Allentown turns to residents for plan to revitalize historic waterfront neighborhood
Affordable housing and access to fresh food were top priorities for Allentown residents who attended a neighborhood plan presentation Thursday night for the city’s first and sixth wards.
The event at the America on Wheels museum attracted more than 65 residents and stakeholders, who got a glimpse of their community’s vision after more than a year of community engagement and city planning. The community is nestled between the Lehigh River and Jordan Creek, a place with a unique history and geography.
Participants were invited to take large billboards highlighting neighborhood demographics and weigh in on priorities and suggested projects for the next 10 years. Participants were asked to rank potential solutions to problems identified during neighborhood planning. Affordable housing, including a requirement for all new projects to include a percentage of affordable housing, and access to fresh food topped the charts. Also rising to the top was ensuring that all residential units are inspected and meet federal standards for “decent, safe, and healthy housing.”
Residents also liked the idea of creating incubation spaces offering below-market rents for businesses and cultural spaces owned by local and minority owners. Adaptive reuse of properties and vacant land for mixed-use developments also ranked high.
Allentown’s Vision 2030 process—the city’s current comprehensive and economic development plan—divided the city into four planning zones, but the First and Sixth Wards did not fit neatly into any of the identified zones, so the city flagged it as a top priority for a neighborhood planning process, said Irene Woodward, city director of planning and zoning. It started in October 2020, presented a community vision workshop in June 2021 at Bucky Boyle Park, and involved Allentown School District students in the process by asking them to reinvent a vacant lot on Ridge Avenue into a park. of pocket.
New Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk said he was energized by the turnout. The city’s beautiful neighborhoods are its heart and Thursday’s event is the culmination of more than a year of work between planning staff and residents, he said. He thanked the citizens for “giving your time to your neighborhood”.
He encouraged residents to share their priorities and thoughts to guide the city in implementing the planning work. City staff want to know if their planning is on track so they can prioritize resource allocation to community priorities, Woodward said.
About 6,000 Allentonians call the Wards – as the neighborhoods are known – home. The neighborhood’s rich and diverse history, centered around generations of working-class immigrants, is a big part of its cultural identity and is a point of pride for many residents.
The area is set to see a massive influx of economic development with Jaindl Enterprises’ $300 million redevelopment of 26 acres along the Lehigh River into a mixed-use complex comprising offices, luxury homes, restaurants and retail outlets. The design includes waterside plazas and walking and horse trails along the banks.
Next, in the 200 block of Front Street, the New Jersey-based Manhattan Building Company wants to turn a former furniture factory into a mixed-use project. The company has also rezoned land in the 500 block of Front Street from residential to commercial, and the developer is interested in taking over redevelopment of parcels from the former Neuweiler Brewery, according to the city. Another property in the 200 block of Front Street was recently rezoned to accommodate a proposed flexible warehouse.
The neighborhoods feature an older housing stock—nearly 67% of its homes were built before 1939—and nearly 67% of its residents are renters, exceeding both city rental rates (59.2 %) and the State (31.15). Nearly 50% of neighborhood residents spend more than 35% of their income on housing, making them cost-burdened, and their households tend to be larger than other neighborhoods in the city.
The neighborhoods have a high concentration of minority and low-income residents, making the area “particularly vulnerable” to environmental justice issues such as pollution and adverse health effects, according to a city analysis.
While there are plenty of neighborhood jobs, they aren’t filled by residents: 98% of residents leave their communities to work every day, according to 2019 U.S. Census figures.
The Allentown Planning Department sought to deeply involve the children of the community in the planning process by allowing them to design a park on vacant land at 411 Ridge Ave. Fifth-grade students from Sheridan Elementary School were the citizens of the planning exercise, while Harrison Morton Middle School students took on the role of planners.
It has been a refreshing and rewarding process for Assistant Planning Officer Brandon Jones. Children don’t come to a planning challenge like this with the filters and ideologies adults bring to the table, he said.
“It’s the most genuine contribution you can get from the community,” Jones said. “We try to plan the future of the community with the future.”
The process with the students extended through the fall of 2021 and energized the students, who will help the city turn the land into a park, Jones said. The main ideas were a multipurpose play space followed by a traffic park and an outdoor cinema.
“This will be the most powerful and groundbreaking part of the project,” Jones said. “…The kids are going to be proud of their playpen. They will know that their ideas matter.
Allentown resident Alex Encelewski lives across Jordan Creek in the 10th Ward, but attended Thursday’s planning session because of the connection he feels to the neighborhoods. He loves that the city engages residents in community conversation. He may not be 100% on board with every idea he saw that night, but he likes the forward momentum and is focused on the residents’ concerns.
He hopes that any priorities that emerge will focus on long-term goals to make Allentown a city where you can live, work and play.
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Sara K. Satullo can be contacted at [email protected].