Opportunities exist for cities to transform themselves into vibrant communities, even if finding funds is a major obstacle. And at a time where people both young and old are showing an increasing interest in working and living in an urban environment, that time is now.
That’s according to some leaders in development who participated in an Urban Land Institute Philadelphia program on the Development Outlook for the Lehigh Valley at Miller Symphony Hall in Allentown on Thursday.
“If Allentown is going to success, it needs a booming, healthy downtown where people want to be,” said Tom Murphy, a ULI senior resident fellow and former Pittsburgh mayor. “That’s the challenge for cities. The reality is, what you build is what you say.”
Murphy shared stories of successful city revitalization efforts in places around the nation, including Allentown, with data from a report, “Reaching for the Future: Creative Finance for Smaller Communities.”
Murphy was one of the authors of the document, which included examples of how these communities overcame their challenges in severe blight and lack of investment through effective leadership and a strategic vision.
Cities are getting redefined and planning departments are the leaders of the future, Murphy said. He also stressed the importance of architecture in creating communities people want to be in, and that cities have to decide what type of environment they want to create.
“You have started to do that here,” Murphy said, referring to Allentown. “Don’t stop. Keep going.”
Recently, Allentown’s redevelopment success has garnered international attention.
ULI, a global nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., named Allentown’s revitalized downtown district one of 25 international developments selected as finalists for ULI’s Global Awards for Excellence. The organization will select a group of winners from the finalists, to be announced at the 2017 ULI fall meeting Oct. 23-26 in Los Angeles.
NEED A CATALYST
The ULI report notes that some cities are breaking the rules, showing an appetite for risk, vision and leadership, forming great partnerships along the way. The report states that every community has a choice and can either keep reacting to negative forces that inhibit growth or decide what type of community it wants to be and take steps to change it.
According to the report, a community’s ability to change its trajectory begins with intentionality, the point at which a community becomes something other than what it’s been traditionally.
Often, it takes one project to be the catalyst, a risk that developers take that leads to others.
As an example, the report showed that when Murphy was mayor of Pittsburgh, he led the way in 1994, creating the city-backed bond fund and drawing in Home Depot to East Liberty, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, which led to much more investment and public/private leadership. Over the course of the past 20 years, more than $900 million in new investment has come to East Liberty, adding more than 2,400 new jobs, the report said.
PRIVATE, PUBLIC PARTNERSHIPS
Based on examples of successful redevelopment projects in other cities, the report said private and public funds are available and can be combined to create vibrant communities. There is some risk, but that risk is spread widely with a well-crafted partnership with the private sector and, most of all, a commu¬nity vision.
It’s a point that seeped through the ULI program as speakers discussed ways their communities have transformed blighted properties in their efforts to create revitalized, vibrant places.
In Allentown, much of the growth has been in transforming blighted properties into new apartments or office developments, reflecting the need for a walkable environment.
The large amount of approved new office space in 2016 has mostly been concentrated in Allentown, and the number of approved apartments in the city has continued to rise over the years, said Amanda Raudenbush, director of community planning for the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
Raudenbush shared details of LVPC’s annual Build LV report, which highlights major development trends across Lehigh and Northampton counties and includes statistics on approved land development plans.
CRITICAL TAX INCENTIVES
J.B. Reilly, CEO of City Center Investment Corp., spoke about his redevelopment efforts in Allentown and described the Neighborhood Improvement Zone as a very robust tax increment financing incentive that’s helped City Center become very successful at redeveloping these properties.
“We recognized the only way we had a chance for this to be successful was if we had scale,” Reilly said. “That financing was really needed. It’s really working. We’ve had some pretty good success. We think we have to do twice as much as what we’ve done, maybe three times.”
Within the next year, City Center will have developed 400 new apartments in downtown Allentown and already has more than 200 completed.
Reilly said residential units are a critical component because employers are recognizing that their biggest challenge is their ability to attract and retain young workers, with many seeking an urban living environment.
The same element that’s driving companies such as General Electric to Boston is also driving companies to move into Allentown, he added.
Mark Mulligan, CEO of VM Development Group, spoke about his redevelopment projects in Easton, which also included taking vacant, blighted properties and transforming them into new apartment units.
“It’s about risk management,” Mulligan said. “Vision is everything, and you have to be able to step up to that and do it. Once you manage the risk, you have to continue to manage the risk.”
By working with city officials, Mulligan said, VM was able to leverage funds, in some cases, including state and federal historic tax credits and some city funds, to help bring the projects to fruition.
For Easton’s Governor Wolf building, which once served as a county services building, Mulligan used state and federal historic tax credits to redevelop it into a 50-unit luxury apartment building. The historic tax credits were complicated, he acknowledged, suggesting a developer should have professional help when using them for a project.
However, the project leased up twice as fast as he thought it would, he added.
“You have to get great partners who tell you their vision,” Mulligan said.
Gene Goldfeder, borough manager for Catasauqua, spoke about the borough’s efforts to attract a developer to revitalize a brownfield site into a mixed-use development called Iron Works.
“We’ve had to be very creative and forward thinking in taking over little bits of areas and how we develop them,” Goldfeder said.
After building a new municipal complex on part of the site, the borough sent out a request for proposals to attract a developer for the remaining 10.6 acres so it can partner with the private sector.
It was once the site of a former factory between the Pine Street Bridge and Willow Street and also abuts the Lehigh Canal and the Delaware & Lehigh River Trail.