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Will Allentown rebirth end the suburbs?

By - Last modified: February 13, 2014 at 11:21 AM
Fortune Senior Editor-at-Large Pattie Sellers, left, leads a panel on the growth of cities at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown yesterday. Next to Sellers are, from left, Leigh Gallagher, Fortune assistant managing editor; Christopher Hager, chairman of Urban Land Institute and senior associate at Langan Engineering; Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and J.B. Reilly, CEO of City Center Investment Corp.
Fortune Senior Editor-at-Large Pattie Sellers, left, leads a panel on the growth of cities at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown yesterday. Next to Sellers are, from left, Leigh Gallagher, Fortune assistant managing editor; Christopher Hager, chairman of Urban Land Institute and senior associate at Langan Engineering; Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and J.B. Reilly, CEO of City Center Investment Corp. - (Photo / )

Cities will continue to attract jobs, businesses and additional investments in the years to come as lifestyles and demographics continue to evolve.

Downtown Allentown's recent spate of bustling growth is the start of a noticeable trend that can be seen shaping cities throughout the state and the nation, according to several experts who spoke at an event hosted by City Center Lehigh Valley at Miller Symphony Hall on Wednesday.

Allentown native Pattie Sellers, Fortune senior editor at large, interviewed Leigh Gallagher, Fortune assistant managing editor, and author of "The End of the Suburbs." The book explores the ways suburbs and cities are changing, with cities gaining increasing numbers of residents and businesses.

"It's so exciting to be here in Allentown, which is so in line with what I write about," Gallagher said.

She talked about how the model of most suburbs in America centered on the automobile and were built at a time when people had different lifestyles. Now, more corporate offices are moving their headquarters from the suburbs to the cities, Gallagher said.

"We're just starting to see the beginnings of what I think is a big trend," Gallagher said, saying that big companies are moving their headquarters to cities.

"Here in Allentown we have this happening," Sellers said. "You have all of these companies coming here."

As an example, National Penn Bank will move its headquarters this spring from Boyertown in Berks County to Two City Center, an office building in Downtown Allentown. The building will include other tenants such as Air Products and Lehigh Gas.

It's a pattern that will only accelerate, according to Sellers and Gallagher.

Gallagher said more retail stores, including big box retailers, are opening smaller locations in downtowns and many are seeing increasing investment opportunities in cities and walkable communities. Large shopping malls are declining in popularity as well, with more people wanting stores within walking distance from their homes or jobs, according to Gallagher.

YOUNG PEOPLE DESIRE CITY LIFE

Cities are attracting young people, single people building careers and older people, too, Gallagher said. Age diversity is important to the growth of cities, she said, and increasing numbers of people want to be closer to where they work. As a result, some companies are beginning to find it necessary to be in more urban environments to attract the right workforce.

Suburbs are starting to change now, too, with many homebuilders today building suburban communities with more walkable elements such as paths and town centers, she said.

Though Gallagher said she wrote her book about three years ago, what's occurring in Downtown Allentown today with the development of an ice hockey arena, hotel, new restaurants and several office buildings is closely aligned with the trends she is studying in urban environments.

NEED RESIDENTS, TOO

During a panel discussion at the event, J.B. Reilly, CEO of City Center Investment Corp., spoke about the tax incentives in Downtown Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone and how he applied these incentives to encourage much of the development that's now underway. City Center is developing a franchise hotel under construction, in addition to several office buildings and apartments, restaurants and retail establishments.

"Construction costs are higher; it's more expensive to build in cities," Reilly said. "You need to create economic incentives. This legislation allows an urban developer to be more competitive by using revenues to reduce costs."

Reilly said he realized early that in order for the City Center redevelopment project to be successful, the company needed to take a broad view and ensure that the residential portion of the project did not come in too late.

"One challenge that I deal with every day is, in order for this to be successful, you need to achieve scale," Reilly said. "To do all of these projects at the same time, you need to provide the funding to do it."

STRONG CORE HELPS ENTIRE REGION

Gallagher noted that with the growth of technology and health care in the business world (and the opening of a Lehigh Valley Health Network facility on the hockey arena block), Allentown could be following in the footsteps of Pittsburgh, which has recently experienced a strong urban rebirth.

Christopher Hager, chairman of the Urban Land Institute in Philadelphia and senior associate of Langan Engineering, which has an office in Bethlehem, said it was important to note that the cities are not being re-created at the expense of the suburbs. ULI studies good land-use practices in urban environments, and Hager noted how growth in city cores spreads out to nearby urban areas.

"A strong New York City is why Brooklyn is exploding," Hager said.

Urban growth in Allentown is also good for Bethlehem and Easton and the suburbs surrounding these cities, he said.

"It strengthens the region by providing a strong core," Hager said.

Creating higher density development in the core reduces traffic with less vehicle miles traveled, he said.

"Studies show that by doubling densification, you're reducing traffic by 40 percent," Hager said.

STARTS WITH ONE PERSON

As executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Becky Bradley said her organization represents all cities and municipalities in Lehigh and Northampton counties and noted how the three major cities – Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton – each have a different character, which strengthens the Lehigh Valley.

Regarding Allentown's Downtown resurgence, she said the remaking of a city will "remake the Lehigh Valley."

Sellers reflected on how one person with a vision can create significant, lasting changes.

"All of the great, amazing business success stories … it starts with an idea and one person making a big bet," Sellers said.

Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it. Brian also has a strong interest in health and fitness. He works part-time as a personal trainer at Steel Fitness Riverport in Bethlehem and earned his personal fitness trainer certification from World Instructor Training Schools.

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