In case you missed it: This week’s best reads from Pa. cities

     Children play on playground equipment at Franklin Square in Philadelphia, Pa. Our partners over at PlanPhilly are celebrating what would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday this weekend with Jane's Walk 2016. (AP File Photo/George Widman)

    Children play on playground equipment at Franklin Square in Philadelphia, Pa. Our partners over at PlanPhilly are celebrating what would have been Jane Jacobs' 100th birthday this weekend with Jane's Walk 2016. (AP File Photo/George Widman)

    Happy Seis de Mayo! 

     Act 47 updates

    Plymouth Township has exited Act 47, the state’s program for distressed municipalities. The Luzerne County township of 2,000 residents entered the program in 2004 and is the 12th to exit. Plymouth was facing $830,000 in debt, nearly the whole of its $1 million annual operating budget. Today, the township has a surplus of $80,000. 

    How did they do it? Home rule and better record keeping. 

    Home rule, or writing a local charter that better serves the municipality’s needs, has been tried in other distressed cities. Altoona, which is still in Act 47, and Nanticoke, which recently exited, are both under home rule. Nanticoke and Plymouth are neighbors, along with West Hazleton, another recent alum of the Act 47 program. 

    But as some cities have learned, leaving Act 47 isn’t the end of the road. The city of Clairton, in western Pennsylvania, exited the program, but still faces issues of blight, unemployment and lack of development. Local leaders hope removing the ‘distressed’ label will remove some of the stigma, and help welcome businesses back in. 

    There are still 18 municipalities in Act 47. 

    Those crazy kids

    Two college towns on opposite sides of the state are trying the same thing — and seeing the same success.

    The borough of Swarthmore, home to Swarthmore College, is working to connect the town to the campus. They’ve built an inn that showcases student artwork and remodeled the traditional campus bookstore into a community meeting space. 

    Meanwhile, residents of the borough of Slippery Rock banded together to improve their downtown, in the hope of attracting more students to Slippery Rock University.  Enrollment at the state university, which is the borough’s main economic driver, had been steadily declining. These residents thought the “just plain ugly” downtown might be a factor. Over the past 15 years, they’ve used federal, state and private grants to clean up a park, add amenities and attract a number of businesses.

    The bad news is that, no matter how nice the downtown is, many students in Pennsylvania aren’t able to enjoy it. The commonwealth ranked second to last when it comes to state college affordability. The high cost of research universities like Penn State, Temple and Pitt didn’t help: the average family would have to pay 47 percent of their income to send a student there. 

    For the post-grad crowd, Pennsylvania is looking up. According to data gathered by Billy Penn, Philadelphia does a better job retaining millennials than other cities of a similar size. And if you’re looking for a job, try Pittsburgh. Experts are expecting a workforce shortage of 80,000 employees within the decade. (Pittsburgh can’t win: last month’s unemployment numbers in the region were up due to too many hopeful employees.)

    Poison, parking and police

    We’ve written a lot about lead poisoning. But what does lead poisoning actually look like? Turns out, it’s not that different than a child without lead poisoning. The effects show up much later and can be easily confused with autism or behavioral disorders. That makes diagnosis and treatment far more difficult. 

    The city of Scranton is preparing to lease its parking systems to a national company. This is all part of the city’s attempt to escape bankruptcy — the city’s five under-utilized and debt-laden parking garages are at the center of that plan. The National Development Council will lease all parking in the city for 40 years for a yet-to-be-disclosed upfront fee. The NDC has plans to demolish parts of the garages and raise parking rates across the city.  

    They also want to switch from coin to smart meters, which the city of Pittsburgh can tell you, is just a smart idea. Four years after the city switched to pay-by-plate meters and parking revenue has shot up, from $5.5 million in 2011 to $17.1 million in 2015. That’s allowed the city to renovate two parking garages without borrowing. 

    When you get out of that parking space and out on the open road, make sure you check the speed limit. The speed limit has been raised to 70 mph on some major highways in Pennsylvania. PennDOT only considered raising the speed limit where it was already 65 mph, so speed demons stuck going 55 will just have to ride the brakes. Or face a ticket from the state police, who patrol the highways.

    The agency is also responsible for policing municipalities that don’t have their own local police force, which is more than half of all municipalities in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth has no statute requiring a local police force, and those that rely fully on state police are charged no additional fee. That could be an issue, since the agency is facing a trooper shortage and budget cuts. 

    Happy birthday, Jane Jacobs!

    Jane Jacobs, a Scranton native best known as the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” would have turned 100 this week. In her landmark book, Jacobs — you know what? I’m going to let Ashley Hahn, editor at PlanPhilly, explain. 

    “When Jane Jacobs published “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961, it was a self-aware indictment of the dominant thinking in city planning. Jacobs railed against top-down master planners for their hamfisted interventions that wrecked community, erased urban texture and sacrificed the very foundational ideas that sustained city life for centuries.”

    Jacobs’ ideas about cities continue to influence urban thinkers today, and most American cities have Jacobian elements. Would Jane Jacobs approve of your neighborhood? In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday, Curbed put out a quiz that answers that very question. 

    Downtown State College got three Janes, which is apparently a very good number of Janes. How many Janes does your neighborhood get? 

     

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