Cities have generally had to plan for growth, but many Pennsylvania cities now face shrinking populations. That doesn’t mean they get to stop planning.
Erie is the 4th largest city in Pennsylvania, but it is among the last of the top 15 to catch up to the comprehensive plan bandwagon. Under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code only counties need to come up with a comprehensive plan, but city planners highly recommend them for municipalities as well.
To Kim Green, Erie’s Director of Community and Economic Development, the new plan is a matter of rightsizing. The city was once home to 140,000 people, but now its population is hovering around 100,000. The city will try to serve the needs of remaining residents and hold on to them by implementing a comprehensive plan for the first time.
Erie officials are hoping their plan will set the long-term strategy for retaining young people, attracting businesses to the downtown, and dealing with its surplus of vacant and abandoned properties. Erie has an estimated 6,000 properties that are considered valueless, meaning no one would think of buying them, they don’t generate taxes, and they can’t be used for rental housing to provide a cash flow to owners.
Green said that some neighborhoods look like a smile with missing teeth. The “missing” teeth are the worst of the worst properties that have already been torn down, either by the city or by private businesses and developers.
One of the city’s biggest employers, Erie Insurance, has steadily been cleaning up the neighborhood surrounding its headquarters in the East Bayfront neighborhood. With UPMC Hamot hospital, Erie Insurance also funds a nonprofit working to improve the neighborhood called the Bayfront East Side Taskforce, or BEST.
BEST executive director, Jeremy Bloeser is hoping the broad vision of the comprehensive plan will also zero in on his neighborhood.
“If somebody gets shot at 8th and Parade, that’s out of my neighborhood,” he said, “but that doesn’t help me find homeowners, help find renters, make people feel safe in our neighborhood, because the perception is, it’s only two blocks away.”
Bloeser said, regardless of what happens city-wide, BEST will continue to partner with local businesses to offer home improvement grants to neighbors. Grants have covered projects from new roofs to rebuilding foundations of homes. Bloeser said these types of improvements help maintain property values and home ownership in the East Bayfront, and that can increase the feeling of security there.
The kind of public-private partnership exercised between BEST and local businesses are heavily emphasized in drafts of the comprehensive plan. According to Green, they will have to play a big role in revitalization, because the city can’t save itself on the backs of its taxpayers.
“Erie is one of those cities that has forty-some percent that are nonprofits, that aren’t even contributing to the tax base,” Green said. “And so what’s left is a lot of rentals and we do have a lot of poverty, a lot of lower-income people, and those folks cannot bear the brunt of the cost to improve the city.”
The cost to revitalize will be expensive. Erie hired the neighborhood planning firm czb to develop a comprehensive plan, and its consultants laid out several options, each with a different projected outcome based on the level of investment.
The firm said with no added investments built into Erie’s current annual operating budget of about $70 million, Erie will continue to lose population and tax revenue while gaining blight and poverty over the next 10 years, and that would put the city on a level with Camden, New Jersey.
If the city spends $50 million over the next 10 years to clean up a few key neighborhoods with targeted demolitions of blighted properties and general beautification, the firm projects Erie would still deteriorate to the level of Flint, Michigan. An even $100 million could make Erie look like Youngstown, Ohio.
Peter Lombardi, an associate with czb, said Erie can’t spend 10 years studying its next move. If the city actually wants to turn itself around it will have to take risks and pay up: $200 million to be as successful as Pittsburgh, $300 million to be like Chattanooga, Tennessee. That kind of money will go to big changes like a bike lane system, an “innovation corridor” for new businesses, and a dramatic reconnection of Lake Erie’s bayfront to the downtown.
Lombardi said, “Erie has one of the best waterfronts in the United States, but you don’t sense that when you’re there.”
Like many Pennsylvania cities, a highway is cutting off access between the downtown and the waterfront. Lombardi said the highway is keeping city residents from enjoying their unique bayfront, but more importantly, it’s keeping visitors in the bayfront hotels and convention center from walking into downtown and spending their money.
The consultants and local planners say projects like the bayfront connection would be transformational for Erie, but leaders have to follow-through.
Kathy Wyrosdick is the director of planning for Erie County. As a relative newcomer to the area, she was shocked to learn the city never had a comprehensive plan. She said while a comprehensive plan isn’t technically binding, it won’t do any good sitting on a shelf.
“Too often I’ve heard that the comprehensive plan is not a legal document, and that’s correct,” Wyrosdick said, “But for me, as a planner, it’s actually more important than a legal document because it is your roadmap to progress and to become better than what you are today.”
The final draft of the plan should be finished in January and the city might formally approve it by March. Then, after months of presentations and preparations, Erie can really get started.