York and Adams Smart Growth Coalition

Building York Summit Addresses City Redevelopment

2/11/2011
 

Building York summit addresses redevelopment, finding York's identity

By EMILY OPILO
Daily Record/Sunday News

York, PA - Before York can attract new residents and development, city officials must decide what identity York should have.

That's according to Bill Fontana, executive director of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center. Fontana and several other experts in downtown revitalization shared similar advice with a sold-out crowd Thursday during the Building York summit.

The summit has been billed as an opportunity for local leaders to identify opportunities and challenges and to brainstorm ways to collaborate and accelerate community development. Offerings included a half-day session and keynote lunch at the Yorktowne Hotel, as well as the screening of a film Wednesday night at the Capitol Theatre about Pittsburgh's attempt to reinvent itself. Thursday's session sold out several days in advance, and at least 260 people attended.

York, like many third-class cities, has limited resources, Fontana told the group. To avoid wasting them, officials have to decide what direction they want to move the city and focus their money on a target group.

Fontana gave the example of several communities surveyed in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. Seven of 15 towns said they hoped to establish an arts community. That's more than one area can support, he said.

Fontana advised York officials to plan carefully about the city's role in the broader geographic and economic region.

"A big part of establishing that identity is determining what kind of residents are desirable for a revitalized city and assessing what their needs are," Fontana said. The most-desirable housing for a young Hispanic family will be different from that of an elderly white family, he said.

Adapting housing can be as simple as replacing carpet with hardwood floors, but it could also require a whole new way of thinking about the city's historic housing stock, Fontana said.

"The reason that IKEA is so popular with young people is that they sell things with very clean lines, and you don't have to spend your time every two weeks taking your finger on a dust rag going through the scroll on the woodwork," he said. "In lots of our older houses, that's exactly what we have. . . . It's not always a desirable characteristic."

The community also has to be prepared to handle the impact that those desirable residents could have on the city, Fontana said. A vibrant nightlife, like the one on Second Street in Harrisburg where Fontana works, often leaves nuisance remnants on the streets the morning after.

"If you are targeting an audience that isn't prepared to deal with that reality, then there is going to be a tension," he said. "And one of those is not going to last."

What's next

Here is the to-do list that Chris Leinberger, an urban land use strategist and land developer with the Brookings Institution, suggested for local officials:

· Visit some successful downtowns such as Lancaster.

· Determine where walkable places should be. York's proposed zoning ordinance targets adjacent communities and would zone them as mixed use.

· Consider expanding the geographical reach of Downtown Inc, a group that promotes businesses and events in downtown York.

The brownfield advantage

In aging urban centers such as York, defunct industrial sites or brownfields are often a neglected reminder of better times come and gone, but they are actually among the city's most valuable land, said Denise Brinley of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Brinley, who has worked to rehabilitate former industrial sites across the state, including York's Northwest Triangle, spoke to the participants in Thursday's Building York summit about the benefits of brownfields. Despite the sites' reputation, they are often poised to help with economic revitalization, she said.

Brownfields frequently are located along valuable assets such as the city's rail lines or water supply, and they were often built adjacent to residential areas, Brinley said.

"They are large land holdings," she said. "For a city that is land-locked, that's room to grow."

In York, the Northwest Triangle project will bring commercial and residential development, including a regional charter school, to a site bordered roughly by George and Philadelphia streets and the Codorus Creek. Some of that work has already begun.

Sovereign Bank Stadium, which opened along North George Street in 2007, was considered a key component to the triangle development.

Brinley urged city leaders to take a closer look at the inventory of brownfield sites across the city and look at a comprehensive plan for developing them in connection with one another.

"You have the opportunity in front of you to realize what is unique to you," Brinley said.

Zoning near colleges

Chris Leinberger, an urban land use strategist and land developer with the Brookings Institution, shared examples with the group Thursday of successful downtowns, including Lancaster, and talked about the importance of a partnership with area colleges and universities.

Leinberger said York should identify and encourage development in neighborhoods across the city, particularly those adjacent to downtown, and zone them appropriately to allow a variety of uses. In some cities, success in those adjacent neighborhoods led to an improved downtown, he said.

York is in the process of updating its 20-year-old zoning law, and the new ordinance formally allows full-time students who are not related to share a house. Current law prohibits more than two unrelated adults from living together in a single-family residence, though it hasn't been enforced for years. York College has said the new zoning ordinance will allow the city and college to have a greater hand in ensuring quality student housing.

Read more

The summit kicked off Wednesday night with a movie and discussion. Read about it here.

Also, Read more about the effort.

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