ULI: How comeback cities are getting it done

May 13

By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

The speakers at Thursday’s ULI Urban Marketplace forum spoke on many topics ranging from transportation to tax structure, parks to industrial sites, commercial revitalization to preservation. Yet, a common theme ran throughout the day: America’s urban centers are being reborn.

For larger cities, including Philadelphia, things began turning around about twenty years ago. But at one afternoon session at the Urban Land Institute event, a group of people who have spent years trying to turn around their smaller cities, joyfully exclaimed that the good news had finally reached their borders.

“Finally, after 40 years of population loss, the cultural trends and housing trends that supported the rebirth of Philadelphia have finally reached cities in Central Pennsylvania,” said Eric Menzer, York’s former director of economic development and a senior vice president of Wagman Construction who specializes in urban development, historic renovation and adaptive reuse projects.

Menzer was joined on the Re-Emerging Cities panel, moderated by John Kromer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, by Wilmington Mayor James Baker, Easton Mayor Sal Panto, and Greater Camden Partnership President and CEO David Foster.

Menzer’s fellow panelists agreed that there were good signs in their cities, too – not that capitalizing on the trends has been easy, or cheap, or that the promised land has been reached yet. Kromer’s questions solicited a best-practices list of helpful hints.

Foster praised the revitalization work on his city’s waterfront done by the Cooper’s Ferry Development Corporation under the leadership of Tom Corcoran, who is now president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation on the Philadelphia side of the same river. But as Kromer noted, a problem has been that many people have gone to the aquarium or a baseball game, then hopped in their cars and left without lingering – and spending – in the city.

Foster said that now, with the support of Mayor Dana L. Redd – the luncheon keynote speaker – Camden is continuing to focus on its waterfront, but is also working to strengthen its “eds and meds” and public transit infrastructure.

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John Kromer

Investing in downtowns hasn’t always been popular, he said, but his organization has kept shouting that the stronger the city core is, the stronger the region is. The city’s big institutions, including its colleges, hospitals and large private employers, have started to fund housing, retail development and other projects that promote the health of the city, in large part by encouraging their employees to live in Camden, he said.  These institutions provide much more “patient investment” than do private investors, he said.

All of the participants talked about how the arts and the “creative class” are helping to rebuild their cities. Easton’s Panto spoke about the State Theater, which his city purchased for $55,000. The city provided a $7 million loan for its renewal, which was paid back with a ticket surcharge. The Theater proved extremely popular – not only did residents have somewhere to see shows without traveling to a larger city, but their presence downtown spawned a restaurant row that now gives even non-theater goers a reason to visit Easton.  In Wilmington, renovations are now underway on the Queen Theater, which had been abandoned for 50 years, Baker said.  Just last week, he said, a building with 24 residential lofts for artists opened, he said. “It’s already leased up.”

“Our whole economy is based on the arts, culture, hotels and tourism,” he said.

Encouraging people to live downtown can take a city farther than just attracting visitors or even commuting workers to cities, Menzer said, as studies have shown that residents spend about eight times as much in their cities as workers do.

One of the hardest obstacles for cities to overcome in this regard is their tax structures, Menzer said. Especially in a small city like York, people can live close enough to appreciate all the city amenitites without paying the higher taxes. York has had a tax abatement program, he said, and the resurgence probably would not have gone nearly as far without it.

A bright spot here is that the new generation entering the workforce and housing market seem to be rejecting the suburban lifestyle their parents and grandparents wanted. They would rather live in an urban, walkable community, the panelists said.

“In the next 10 years, Easton will surpass the suburban communities around us” in growth, Panto said. Still, Panto said, he’s happy to work together with the leaders of his suburban communities. When Porsche recently negotiated a deal with Palmer Township, he helped with the talks. “What’s good for Palmer Township is good for us,” he said, as Porsche employees might want to live or play in Easton.

Several of the panelists said there was going to be a housing shortage in their communities, particularly for updated, urban-style rental units.

Wilmington’s Baker said his city has found a way to increase the number of nice housing units all while punishing the owners of abandoned or vacant properties – something he clearly relishes. “If you hurt my city, I want you out of my city or I want to make you hurt,” he said.

Wilmington charges fees of $500 to $10,000 per unit, depending on how long a property has been vacant. “We have eliminated hundreds of units that were vacant,” he said. “Landlords will now fix them up rather than pay the fines.”

Read PlanPhilly review of John Kromer’s new book: Fixing Broken Cities

Contact the reporter at kelliespatrick@gmail.com


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