For readers who don’t know, I live in Allentown, County Seat of Lehigh, in the Lehigh Valley region of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Allentown has been getting all kinds of attention lately for two reasons. First is the urban redevelopment program happening here. It is, I presume, the largest-ever public-to-private transfer of wealth in the history of Pennsylvania besides the Walking Purchase. You can read about it all over The Morning Call in articles by Scott Kraus and Emily Opilo.
The second reason relates to the first. Allentown’s Mayor, a sometime would-be governor and/or senator, is being investigated by the FBI. You can read all about that at The Morning Call, too, and on the local blogs.
The extent to which Allentown’s revitalization is working is hard to pin down. There are new restaurants, some new retail (not the hoped-for 30 new stores by Labor Day), and some new jobs. There is a (licensed) Starbucks where workers receive none of the benefits Howard Schultz gives to Starbucks employees. Frankly, I’m surprised he allows these kinds of arrangements. But hey, I get it. Enlightened as he may be, he’s no Bernie Sanders.
I mention Fauxbucks because of what its presence says about reality. Median incomes are simply not high enough downtown to convince national retailers to come here. They’re not even enticed by free rent. No Trader Joe’s. No Whole Foods. Not even an Aldi’s. Three City Center can’t even fill out its storefront space with local merchants.
On one hand, Allentown’s even-less-than-hesitant gentrification is great. I’d prefer local retailers and service businesses in a heartbeat over the pre-fabbed national chains. The problem is that like those phony hipster-havens, and like the phony brick facades of all of our new buildings, the downtown phase of Allentown’s renewal hinges on gentrification. Commercial is supposed to beget residential, and residential is supposed to beget more (“better”) commercial. But with no real economic infrastructure to speak of in most of the downtown neighborhoods, it’s not clear what’s exactly begetting what.
One scenario is that local merchants, enticed by free or near-free rent, will set up shop downtown and provide the kind of authentic, local, walkable vibe middle-class millennials eat up with a spoon. Having proven the concept, even through some lean years, these local merchants will be rewarded with higher rents they can’t afford. The Green Pepper will become Chipotle, and so on.
This scenario assumes that these new merchants find sustained success even with all of the obstacles and even with the built-in competition looming on the Waterfront.
One thing I know. The City’s school district is broke. It’s not yet broken, but it’s broke. Where are the plans to fund it? Where are the millennial residents of Strata supposed to send their kids to school? No year-round gym, no year-round music or year-round art for kids living above the so-called Arts Walk? You can’t fix the City without fixing the schools. And you can’t fix either of them by forking over tax dollars to a handful of developers.
If the downtown phase of Allentown’s renewal fails, look to the total disregard by developers and some City leaders for the school district, the lack of real living wages, and the ascendance of the mixed-use Waterfront as some reasons why.