Monday, April 14, 2014

A Plea for My Downtown

The Uphill Battles and Rewards of Saving Your Town 

This is what I want: A downtown with businesses, activity, and people.  Altoona in 1953.

On the evening of Wednesday 9, 2014 I attended a presentation by Fourth Economy Consulting at my local city council chambers in Altoona, PA.  This firm has had great success in revitalizing numerous downtowns that have fallen upon hard times--especially here in the former Rust Belt.  My city needs this.  I am not ashamed of this sad truth.  In fact, I embrace it.  That is the only manner in which the situation may improve.  With the growing dominance of higher education and the healthcare industry in my community, both Fourth Economy and I suspect there is vast potential to revitalize historical structures rather than tearing them down (which has been the unfortunate pattern in my city for decades).  I went to the meeting to proclaim my support for their initiative.  Below are my comments plus an accompanying article from our local Altoona Mirror on the issue.  I share this tale because I sense the story of my downtown may also be the story of your downtown.  Cities grow from within, not from outer sprawl.  There is still hope.  In the end, we must demand vision on the part of our local elected leaders--even visions involving expensive but needed investments.  In the meantime, a little bit of historical literacy and appreciation might be the antidote to a problem endemic in many of our towns.  Share the wealth.


"On behalf of the Blair County Historical Society and myself, I would like to announce our enthusiastic support of the Housing Strategy & Downtown Investment Plan we heard this evening. From both commercial and historical preservation standpoints, this proposal is a remedy long overdue in resuscitating the sustainability of our once-vibrant downtown.

Those well-versed in the study of the past often comment about history that those who don’t recognize it are always bound to repeat it. Sadly enough, one only needs to look down 11th Avenue of our city to notice just how true that maxim is. We have seen the same tragic pattern repeated time and time again throughout the last forty years of Altoona’s history: Historical structures and other icons of local identity have been ravaged by the wrecking ball in the name of “progress.” Other properties have been purchased by regional investors but have been left to decay in the wake of neglect and ambivalence. In the interim, the heart and pride of our community has decayed with it, resulting in a rise in urban blight, unsightly sprawl, and an exodus of native young people from our city.

As a professional historian, I can appreciate the merits in revitalizing and repurposing historic structures for cultural purposes alone. However, I can also acknowledge that such preservation does not exist in a vacuum.  Economic and commercial advancements must coincide with this undertaking.  In this regard, adaptive reuse of our vintage buildings and districts is an ideal solution. Speaking with young professionals and students on a daily basis, I know they too have a strong desire to see a downtown renaissance. Student housing in the city is urgently needed to accommodate the influx of the growing campus. Where student housing goes, businesses will follow.  Therefore, efforts aimed at our downtown have great potential in our desires of broader community revitalization.

In making these momentous decisions, I ask you to recognize the patterns of our local history.  I beg you to observe the truth that demolition has not equated to growth or progress in our city.  New does not necessarily mean better.  With this thought in mind, I respectfully ask you to look to the city’s past to build its future. Help preserve our culture as well as our economic vitality. To ensure this, we as citizens require the vision, foresight, initiative, and leadership of individuals such as yourselves.  As you contemplate your options for the future, I hope you will consider your place in the future history books of Altoona.  What will your legacy be?  Thank you for your time and consideration on this matter."

This is what I do not want: Over fifty years later, my city is a shell of its former self.  I want my history to stay and be appreciated.  Only local citizens can make it happen by voicing their aspirations.  Photo by Scott Conarroe.

Consultants bet on full house
Group: 500 young professionals would pay up to $1K to live downtown
April 10, 2014
By William Kibler (, The Altoona Mirror

After seven months studying the feasibility of reviving downtown through creation of market housing, mainly through rehabilitation of older buildings, a group of consultants from Pittsburgh presented their findings Wednesday to City Council.

"Awesome presentation," Councilman Eric Cagle said of the Act 47-funded study, who nevertheless wondered whether the 500 mostly young professionals the consultants predicted would pay up to about $1,000 per month to live downtown would find enough there to do for entertainment.  A similar plan worked in Pittsburgh, and the amenities followed -- after years of failure when the amenities came first, said Steve McKnight of Fourth Economy Consulting, one of the firms in the consultant team.

"All the elements are there," McKnight said, arguing that existing amenities, including one high-end restaurant, bus service and cultural facilities like the Railroaders Memorial Museum and the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, would suffice to start, he said. "The only thing missing is the housing component."

But there's a funding gap of a third or a half of the project costs that a combination of the city, other agencies, banks, and lawmakers will need to work together to fill, according to McKnight and the other consultants, who were from Pfaffman & Associates and Fourth River Development.  Ultimately, it will be up to property owners, the consultants said.

Fortunately, there are models for them, including Legacy Suites in Lakemont, which is successful, and the Artificial Limb and Appliance building and the Casanave building downtown, which are in development, the consultants said.  Based on surveys, the consultants predicted a market for 500 units a year and proposed projects that could develop 218 units in the easily foreseeable future.

Those include rehabilitations of Brett Central Court, the Penn Central building, the Vipond building, the Gables building and new construction projects with traditional style housing in the UPMC Altoona and Little Italy neighborhoods.  There was talk of the need for up to three new parking garages and of possible demand for a downtown hotel.
"We focused on the next generation," McKnight said.

Urban living appeals to many of them, he said.  "We're trying to jump start a market," McKnight said. "Then let the private sector take over."  Council needs to offer leadership and moral support, to lobby lawmakers for capital help, be willing to apply for grants and loans in support of projects and do what it can to provide infrastructure, according to Pfaffman and Miller.

Councilman Bruce Kelley wondered whether the low cost of mortgages in the area could be an obstacle to people paying the market rents.  The surveys identified a different group than those who would go for those inexpensive mortgages, McKnight said.
The owners who are willing to make the next move may do so after finding out how the ones doing it now made it work, said John Watson of Fourth River.  "Get a success story, document it and move on," Pfaffman said.
Jared Frederick of the Blair County Historical Society praised the city and the consultants for the report, which can reverse an unfortunate legacy, he said. "Demolition has not equated to growth," he told council.  "Look to the community's past to rebuild for the future," Frederick said. "Consider your place in the future history books of Altoona."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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