By Antonia Mitman
June 21, 2020
EASTON, PA- In the past twelve months, many planning meetings have been held among Easton’s numerous elected and appointed officials and private investors. Normally that should lead to the right projects for our city. During this public process, countless highly qualified Easton residents and real estate owners with decades of urban planning, design and development experience have voiced objections to proposed changes to Easton’s current and protective zoning laws. If approved, ill-conceived changes to our city’s local zoning ordinance will open up a Pandora’s box for enormous, out-of-scale construction within our livable neighborhoods and along our incomparable location at the confluence of magnificent natural waterways. Everyone wants more quality housing, employment and an increase in Easton’s tax base, especially for our city which is millions of dollars in debt. Economic development must be done well.
This post-pandemic reopening is an unequalled opportunity to accomplish those goals through smart growth and environmentally wise development projects and sustainable design. In the mid-2000’s, our city’s Comprehensive Plan underwent an intensive review process. Citizen involvement resulted in excellent revisions which don’t need to nor should be revisited or altered to accommodate and conform to the needs of large-scale development proposals from any outside or local developers and investors.
The problem with current proposals resulting in ongoing citizen outcry is the lack of transparency. While public hearings and meetings have been held, there remains the sentiment of: “Here are the plans. If you don’t like them, we don’t really care. They are going to built whether Easton residents like them or not.” Expenditures of public tax dollars affords all citizens a voice when it comes to development of public land purchased and cleared with our tax dollars even if that action took place over 40 years ago.
The three key blocks in Easton’s Central Business District being immediately impacted are 185 South Third, the interior parking block at Fourth and Church Streets, and the vacant lot at 56 North Third Street. Before Easton ever begins to build a new parking deck or considers demolishing the Pine Street garage in two years for private development, the city needs a high-quality Parking Management Study.
During the COVID-19 shut-down, someone started posting “View From My Window” photos from all over the world. I began looking out my downtown Easton window where the view consists of a small pocket of civility: ten beautiful, mature trees and a passive, off-street parking lot with a patch of green space between Fourth and Church Streets within our downtown historic district. Easton citizens must understand that the sense of urgency increases as the immediate plan is that those lovely trees will be cut down or transplanted to make way for an overbuilt contemporary multi-level parking structure shoe-horned into that too-small urban block. Dealing with hundreds of cars in and out of that tight urban space would be a whole other disastrous matter which would be best to avoid entirely from the outset.
That is only one of the three massive projects immediately in the works by developers in conjunction with the involvement and blessing of our city’s governmental agencies steeped in bureaucracy. The other two projects are:
- an apartment building at 56 North Third Street, the former site of the historic “Seville”/“Boyd” theatre. The city-owned parking lot was purchased for development just a few weeks ago.
- construction of an overbuilt, very contemporary ‘suburbanesque’ multi-use project on the only remaining 3-acres of cleared urban renewal land at 185 South Third Street.
All three lots in question were acquired and cleared at great expense with public funds; all three of these city-owned lots have been vacant for over 40 years and have laid fallow ever since. That said, what’s the rush? Many local residents have urged the city to slow it down and press the pause button. Construction has not begun on any of those three sites so it is definitely not too late to starting ‘thinking outside the blocks.’ During multiple public meetings, local citizens are actively questioning the urban planning, zoning and approval process, the financial irresponsibility of building a $13 million parking garage and the lack of a current traffic study. This is especially questionable during this time of cautious reopening of a partially shuttered Central Business District. Such an extravagance in a city with blocks of substandard building stock is not good stewardship of public funds or public land and blatantly flies in the face of the public trust. Funds would be better spent on innovative programs to promote investment in underutilized existing structures in all of Easton’s neighborhoods.
This is Easton’s last chance to get it right yet public outcry continues to fall on deaf ears with minds seemingly made up. The next Easton City Council meeting is this Wednesday, June 24. At the June 10, Easton City Council meeting, a forward-thinking Easton resident spoke during the time set aside for public comment. He suggested the extremely creative idea of developers and local government doing ‘a swap’ and made specific suggestions for the Church Street and 56 North Third Street lots. What a fabulous idea! The parking deck, rather than being squeezed into the too-small lot at 4th and Church, the city would build a well-designed, architecturally compatible parking structure on 56 North Third. The developers could then build apartments along the North Fourth Street portion of the city-owned parking lot at Fourth and Church where previous 19th Century buildings once stood. Even with this new residential building, most of the beautiful trees and much of the current metered surface parking could remain intact. The new, architecturally compatible Third Street parking garage would create additional parking on the north side of Northampton Street to serve current and future downtown parking needs including residential, businesses, festivals, and visitors to the Easton Public Market and the State Theatre to name but a few. Design excellence is not difficult when it is expected and required by municipalities.
One of my favorite phrases is “…and the willingness to change.” The ability to humbly admit past mistakes and change direction for the greater good is paramount as Easton’s quality of life is at stake. We all agree that increasing Easton’s population and tax base are essential to healthy city coffers now and far into the future. Where we differ is how and where that should happen.
“What if” are two small but powerful words. What if all parties would go back to the drawing board for the betterment of all concerned. That would be a win/win for all and through this process of a ‘do-over’, Easton would receive extremely positive national and international publicity. Everyone knows that investors’ upfront design expenses would be sacrificed but better that than Easton being the big loser.
My vision for 185 South Third Street, a cleared urban renewal lot, will initially meet with intense resistance but will share my thoughts nonetheless. Having lived in the city of Easton for over 50 years and raised our four children here, I am very familiar with the gross lack of flat, open urban green space. Our city’s children, all residents, businesses and visitors would greatly benefit from additional open space to kick a ball, picnic, have fun and relax in the great outdoors. The now-vacant parcel has been vacant since the late 1960’s with the only ‘improvement’, being the Day’s Inn which has recently been demolished. That 3-acre blank canvas awaits the right use and the right design team of urban park designers and landscape architects for the betterment of all. Easton’s future open space is at stake.
Livability and quality of life should be the goal. This is our city’s last chance to learn from the ‘best practices’ of other cities across the United States and around the world. Passive open park space at 185 South Third would be a great triumph for the City of Easton. It would be thrilling to see trees, gardens, a Robert Leathers playground and splash parks materialize in the lot located in a flood plain. These amenities would give true meaning to “urban renewal” and contribute to the Easton area’s livability.
Easton’s surrounding urban neighborhoods, especially the West Ward, South Side and downtown Easton are grossly lacking in open space essential to the well-being of children, families and all inner-city residents and visitors. Imagine a city block of flat open park space with expansive lawns, trees and gardens to bring nature into our city, play areas for sports and passive recreation, and dancing fountains as a way to cool down from intensive summer heat in inner-city neighborhoods. Kids need and deserve a safe place to play.
For a new Plan B to be considered for 185 South Third, a national design charrette is the best solution. The dictionary definition of charrette is ‘an intense period of design and planning activity referring to collaborative sessions in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.’ National design competitions and charrettes are the best planning tools to bring amazing, innovative ideas to the table. Just imagine how really fabulous Easton could become.
Manhattan’s Central Park is a case in point. In 1853, private sector leaders in New York City decided it would be important to create much-needed open park space for Manhattan’s future. The Central Park Commission was New York City’s first planning agency. The City of New York acquired the land through condemnation and eminent domain. However, once acquired, the issue of political control became a contentious issue. Fortunately, that disagreement was resolved and New York City conducted the first design competition ever held in the United States. Frederick Law Olmstead was selected to create Central Park as an antidote to the congestion and crowded conditions of the surrounding city. Central Park has become a social gathering place and a beloved venue for outdoor concerts, the visual arts, sports and passive recreation.
During the past few years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to visit many urban parks, most recently Salesforce Park in San Francisco in January 2020, the year of clear vision. Built atop the city’s new intermodal transportation hub, Salesforce invested in an urban park complete with running track, lush landscaping and free activities for all visitors to downtown San Francisco. Being from Easton, my favorite was the art cart stocked with free Crayola products for budding artists. Several years ago, I visited Houston’s Discovery Green which was developed on cleared urban renewal land. One need only do a Google search for ‘best urban parks’ to see ‘the best of the best’ in many American cities.
My hope is that the view from my window stays just as it is now and far into Easton’s bright future for the benefit of many. To that end, it is essential that all concerned become ‘willing to be willing’ to think outside the blocks. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.