Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Déjà vu?

Camden, NJ's recent urban reinvestments

By Greg

The Philadelphia Daily News ran an article last week about the changing tides of Chester, the long-beleaguered Pennsylvania city near the Delaware border. The article noted Chester’s former industrial golden age, its recent reputation for drugs and crime, and a number of recent investments in the city that give hope for Chester’s future. These investments include the new Harrah’s casino, the soon-to-be-built Major League Soccer stadium, the University Crossing project (including a hotel, apartments, and a bank), a new recreation center, and the city’s planned river walk.

The article argues that in the midst of a recession, all of this construction is not just welcome, but highly encouraging for “Pennsylvania’s dark horse city.” Of course that progress is relative considering the above-mentioned bank will be the city’s first in 15 years, and Chester still lacks a supermarket. Much of the new construction is and will be highly subsidized by taxpayers. The question: Is Chester truly turning around or is this just the latest futile attempt to shock life back into an abandoned and dying city?

As I was reading the article I felt pangs of déjà vu. The language of the article and the types of investments seemed remarkably similar to another struggling small city near Philadelphia – Camden, NJ. Certainly Camden and Chester are very different cities, but they also have many things in common:

  • They are both small cities (Camden is 8.8 square miles with 79,000 residents, while Chester is 4.8 square miles with 37,000 residents).
  • They are both waterfront cities along the Delaware River.
  • Both are home to a university (Rutgers Camden and Widener University).
  • They were both old industrial cities that sunk so low that they were taken over by the state.
  • In both cases highways speed travelers past their borders, giving just a glimpse of the city’s face.
  • In both cities local police have been recently lobbying to remove residency requirements for the force.

And now they share the commonality that state and local officials are favoring the same general strategy for their revitalization. Camden built a baseball stadium, aquarium, and a major outdoor music venue, lined with a river walk – much of it built with major public subsidy. Nearby some private developers built a modest amount of new housing and retail. All of it was surrounded by a sea of parking lots so that out-of-towners could easily find a space and would not have to see the real Camden.

Today in Camden, the riverfront is bustling with activity (when there is a game or concert), but there are few promenaders on the river walk, and almost none of the visitors venture into the city. The downtown streets, just blocks away, are as depressed as ever, separated from the development by a moat of parking lots. Last I checked, Habitat for Humanity was still Camden’s biggest housing developer.

Chester’s reinvestment seems suspiciously similar. In place of the aquarium and music venue is a casino. In place of the baseball stadium is a soccer stadium. Granted, the casino and MLS stadium are going to attract more dollars from patrons than their counterparts in Camden; however, the basic equation is the same: stand-alone projects, plenty of parking, no connection to the heart of the city.

In a city like Camden or Chester that seems to be bleeding to death, some may argue that there is little room for pushing the envelope on urban reinvestment. To many it probably seems that any means justifies the end of attracting outside visitors and their economic development dollars. However, I would argue that this investment strategy of attracting visitors to auto-centric destinations, cut off from the city, is a shortsighted approach that will end up bringing in some revenue, but very little in the way of true urban revitalization.

With all of the money thrown in by the public sector and local charities in Camden, the city has seen too little improvement outside of the tourist-laden waterfront. I fear Chester’s foray into the spotlight will similarly stall in a few years unless the city takes a different track. Some could blame Camden’s unimpressive comeback on the current housing market. However, that is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. The main reason that Camden is not doing better is because the new developments did not follow the basic equation for reviving a city and its neighborhoods.

Presumably the ultimate goal is to restore the city and its neighborhoods so that Chester is no longer reliant on major state support. If this is the case, then projects that attract tourists to come for the day and leave will not cut it. Investments need to be targeted at restoring neighborhoods and supporting local business. This is a much tougher equation than building a stadium on vacant land, but it is necessary.

Rather than building stand-alone projects surrounded by parking, Chester should build linkages to connect these new projects to existing commercial streets. Stadiums in cities like Pittsburgh and Denver abut neighborhoods with new businesses serving as gateways, rather than parking lots. Even if there are few businesses now, these physical connections will allow entrepreneurs the chance to capitalize on the new projects, allowing the revitalization to eventually spread.

On-site parking must be consolidated and reduced as much as possible. If tourists can walk from their car right into the stadium or casino then there is absolutely no hope for spillover economic development. We cannot plan for how the city looks now – rather how it can look years down the line. Physical connectivity between the investments of today and the thriving neighborhoods and corridors of tomorrow is key.

Community investments can start in areas around assets like Widener University or the new waterfront developments, and work their way inward. These investments should focus on building new economic opportunities while restoring the physical plant of neighborhoods so that they can ultimately attract outside development and individual homeowners. Public investments must be made in ways that trigger a larger private reaction.

From the public side, investments can include elements like special services districts to clean and green; targeted, high-visibility projects like neighborhood parks; grants or low-interest loans for business owners; incentives for developers and for individual homeowners. To make an impact, all of these investments must be focused on a shared geographical area, rather than spread out across the city. That geographical area cannot be a tourist-only zone, rather neighborhoods targeted for revitalization.

Chester has two SEPTA rails stops and a transportation center. The City should utilize these assets to build new commercial corridors through transit-oriented development. Patrons will be arriving to the soccer stadium by train as well as by car. Their journey from the train station to the stadium should be lined with shops and restaurants. Once this corridor starts to transform, it is a key location for new housing near the station. The City is currently working with the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and SEPTA to look at the possibilities in this regard.

As the state and city invest, it is critical that local residents guide the revitalization, and do not feel like their elected officials are trying to attract newcomers to push them out. The public sector should empower and work with local community groups to plan for their communities and to implement these plans. Programs should be put in place to protect existing homeowners and make them feel comfortable that they will be able to enjoy their neighborhood’s future. The public sector should invest in programs to build entrepreneurship, and provide residents with access to capital and resources to benefit through new business opportunities.

Investing in planning and development is not enough. Public safety, education, and recreation are critical pieces of the urban revitalization puzzle. Major investments in these areas can payoff only if the other investments are coming as well. The idea is that over time crime will reduce and the schools will improve as the city’s neighborhoods rebound. Again, it is important to invest in these areas focused geographically. A comprehensive set of investments in a shared physical area has the best chance for making meaningful impact.

This complex mix of strategies and programs is certainly more difficult to implement than a few new single developments on the riverfront. Their impact takes much longer to be realized. However, if Chester does not want to share Camden’s fate of a half-baked revitalization that barely touches the city’s residents, then it should do things differently. Both of these cities have tremendous assets and potential to tap into a new national interest in downtown living. It’s up to Chester’s leadership to get it right. Urban reinvestment is expensive, and second chances can be decades in between.


Brandon said...

Great commentary! I really agree with you that Chester (and Camden) need to invest in what made them great: urbanism.

Dan Pohlig said...

Great work, Greg! I haven't spent much time in Chester. I couldn't even tell you if there is a "downtown" or a cluster of retail/residential which could eventually be the anchor for the whole city. My recent Camden experience (walking around looking for a newspaper on Saturday of XPN Fest) showed me just how dire the situation is there. I hate to say it, but I don't think that city is EVER coming back. The rest of the city that's not part of the waterfront (at least the several blocks to the east) have been so de-urbanized with wide expanses of road, parking lots, etc. that there really isn't anything around which to do many of things you suggest. Hopefully Chester is different. I'd have to get down there and walk around to see for myself.