Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Pursuit of Revitalization: Where Has it Worked?

Many of the things present in revitalized area across the 
country are present right here in  Pottstown. We just 
need them running on all cylinders.
Downtown "revitalization" has long been a largely unrealized watchword in coverage of Pottstown.

There have been some successes however. Things like the Steel River Playhouse, the 100 block of High Street, VideoRay in the old Levitz building are all accomplishments to be proud of and to be built upon.

A recent web article in Forbes magazine also got me thinking.
Some places have used
restaurants and art centers.
Like we have.

It is a list of 10 revitalized neighborhoods in major U.S. cities and a somewhat abbreviated explanation of how they got that way.

They didn't just do it on their own. Forbes had input from the American Planning Association and their choices are as interesting as the ways in which the revitalization occurred.

As I've been telling people lately, I've begun to be less interested in political doctrine and more interested in what works.

Others have expanded college campuses into
their downtowns. Like we have.
I may have to move to Missouri, because about the only thing I want to say to anyone who comes to me with a great idea is "Show Me."

Where has it worked? How did it work? Show me how it could work here? Who is ready to take this up and run with it?

So, the new year being just around the corner, this seemed like a good opportunity to look at something we want -- downtown and neighborhood revitalization -- and how it has been achieved.
Others have worked to capitalize on their 
Victorian housing stock. 
Like we have.

What struck me most about the explanations is how often the thing that brought about success took years and years of steady dedication to a course of action.

In few cases did I see one explosive project that turned everything around.

Rather, it was more like turning the Queen Mary, it took time and many, many small adjustments in course to get where you want to go, all the while staying true to the course.
Still others have tried to bring upscale,
market-rate housing to the 
downtown area. Like we have.

Of course that's always been the problem here in Pottstown, agreeing on a course. Everyone wants to be the captain of their own little part of the ship.

We've got some new leaders in town this year, let's hope we can all put our fiefdoms aside and agree on a course.

Because, judging by the examples of success outlined below, that is the only thing that has ever been shown to work.

Here is a look at the Forbes sampling:

Montrose In Houston, Texas

The neighborhood lying west of downtown Houston, Montrose has reaped the rewards of a $2.6 billion revitalization project installed in the late 1990s, with home values well above Houston’s other neighborhoods.

Downtown Salem In Salem, Mass.

Once a locale that drew more tourists than residents, the storied site of witch trials has welcomed dozens of retail stores and restaurants and more than 400 newly built residences in the past decade.

Downtown Greenville In Greenville, S.C.

Three decades went into the business district’s revitalization, much of which centers around Main Street. Luxury residences have popped up in the past decade and business has been helped by the relocation of a baseball stadium in 2006.

Borough Of Collingswood, N.J.

This “dry” Philadelphia-area community has reaped the rewards of a new light rail station along Haddon Avenue. Development initiatives kicked off in 1996 when the Borough began buying and cleaning up properties for residential use.

Browne's Addition In Spokane, Wash.

After a half century of decline, Spokane’s oldest neighborhood underwent a long planning process during which Victorian-style street fixtures were installed to play up the historic neighborhood’s buildings, parks were cleaned up and an increasing number of residents resulted in a mini-building boom in the past six years.

The Paseo In Oklahoma City, Okla.

Non-profits and the local community led the cleanup efforts for this revived artists’colony just north of downtown, where more than 15 art galleries have opened and real estate prices climb despite the nation’s housing market woes.

Downtown Fargo In Fargo, N.D.

Since 1999 more than $100 million in investments have poured into the so-called “Renaissance Zone.” Building values rose 100% from 2000 to 2009 and North Dakota State University’s expansion in the area has led to a growing young adult demographic.

Charles Village In Baltimore, M.D.

An enclave plagued by high crime rates, local alliances and residents got a benefits district passed through the Maryland State Assembly to up security and sanitation measures. Crime has been cut in half and cleanup competitions to beautify homes have revamped the aesthetic.

LoDo In Denver, Colo.

Formerly a rundown warehouse district, Denver’s lower downtown area welcomed a restoration renaissance after $240 million in public funds were designated to cleaning up the streets and more than 100 Victorian warehouses and buildings were restored.

I've left off the last, which is Lower Manhattan, because New York City is, in so many ways, a world of its own when it comes to real estate.

But for the rest, look at what worked folks:

1) Public/private funding partnerships;
2) Recognizing and spending money to restore historic buildings;
3) State partnerships and funding to fight crime and blight;
4) "Renaissance Zones," sound familiar don't they. Can anyone say "Keystone Opportunity Zone?"
5) Local colleges expanding into downtowns;
6) Measures to attract artists and young people;
7) Local government taking over dilapidated and abandoned properties and fixing them up for re-sale;
8) More market-rate homes downtown.

So what worked? Yes.

It all did, in some way or another and its all things we either have going now, or have identified as something that will help downtown Pottstown.

The economy is slowly turning around, let's set the course, stick to it, and capitalize on it for the good of us all.


  1. Great analysis and worthwhile reading. Belongs on the editorial page for New Year's Day, Evan.

  2. I have to tell you...I've seen it happen first hand. I went to school in the Wissahickon school district. I hung out in the Ambler area a whole bunch once I got a car. (I lived in Blue Bell. Not exactly the easiest biking roads to get between the two areas.) Ambler in 1998, when I graduated high school was where Pottstown is now in terms of downtown area. I don't exactly know what the crime was like or what the homeless situation was like, but I'd assume it was there. Then things started happening. First, the Act II Playhouse opened, followed by a high level restaurant or two. They attracted a good amount of money from Blue Bell and Maple Glen. Then, the old christian movie theater was sold, renovated and turned into an artsy independent movie theater, attracting more restaurants. Then the boutiques started opening. What used to be filled with newspaper stands, shoe stores and other typical small town stores only, now became filled with large spas and high end clothing and accessories boutiques that attracted people from outside the area. They turned Ambler into a destination. There are people walking around the downtown. There's a new parking garage, IIRC. It's turned itself into Glenside.

    Maybe West Reading fills that spot in the tri-county area, but there's nothing that says what happened in Ambler can't happen here. I don't know the specifics of what happened monetarily or government-wise to make that happen, but I'm sure it can happen here if the right things are in place. Will the development surrounding the carousel, including the mini-golf course and the possible passenger/tourist train line between Boyertown and Pottstown help the downtown area? Will the Beech Street Lofts project finally get started and create an artists collective of sorts in town? Will the Steel River Playhouse be able to attract the crowds and productions it needs to become a true destination playhouse and attract more restaurants and shops to town? Will the crime situation finally be brought under control to the point where people feel safe walking down High St? Who knows what the future may hold, but the potential is here.

    1. Why does this always show me as unknown?! The name is Julia Zion.

  3. A lovely dream to build on Evan, thank you!!

    I frequently walk through the downtown neighborhoods and it occurs to me that there isn't a lot of time left to figure this out. So many of the homes are clearly in dangerous condition and much of the original architectural features are lost through neglect and poor building/repair practices. As time goes on, it becomes less practical for most of us to save these buildings as the costs to renovate increase.

    Yet, the State of PA has given Pottstown, and all municipalities, three very effective tools that can help save our blighted buildings. It requires a dedicated effort on behalf of local govt. and legal council to learn how to use these tools, other communities are figuring it out and we can too.

    The tools include: Act 90 Blight and Reclamation, The PA Conservatorship Law, and most recently The Land Banking Law. For additional information the PA Housing Alliance maintains an incredible resource library:

    I witnessed the turn around of LoDo's in Denver and Greenville, S.C. as well as many smaller town transformations. It is true, regardless the good intentions of the citizens, non-profits, and other interested groups, without a vision, a plan, competent and knowledgeable municipal departments and an "inclusive" leadership at all levels - revitalization will remain a remote concept.

    There are many bright, knowledgeable and talented people in this, and surrounding communities, that are just waiting for the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and get together with borough leaders, "if " they will only open the door and invite them to participate, share knowledge, information and connections - in other words, work together.

    Imagine what can be accomplished if people are included and not excluded in this important, creative journey !! Happy 2013, Dream Big!!