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Riverfront proposal: Tough decision

September 10, 2010

The post that follows was also submitted to The Mercury’s online comments for today’s article, “Senior housing proposed for Pottstown’s riverfront.” Some of the major parameters:
– the Borough would sell a 1.5 acre parcel on Industrial Highway to the developer at fair-market value
– the housing would be for seniors making no more than 62% of the area’s median income
– 55 rental units, all 1-2 bedrooms
– the developer would be getting tax credits to build the project
– the developer would pay property taxes

I sincerely hope Pottstown is in a transition toward becoming a community that works together, has public conversations about its future, and then acts on the vision that results from those conversations. This project proposal comes at a time when the town has not gotten its new system into place. This project is forcing the Borough into a corner because it has a fast-approaching deadline for tax credits. (How are tax credits not a government subsidy? Could anyone provide the name of the specific tax credit program the developer is applying to? Are they LIHTC?) Okay, though, sometimes that’s just the way the ball bounces… you gotta deal with what’s in front of you.

Let’s put this conversation into the context of other, very relevant issues that I heard/read were discussed at the same meeting.

(1) The Norfolk Southern line is not likely to disappear from the waterfront anytime soon. In fact, they will likely be increasing their usage of it. Now you’ve got a huge constraint on any waterfront planning. All the more reason to think through what you want at that gateway.

Typically, people with limited economic choices live on top of highways and railroad tracks. I hope that Council is engaging in dialogue with the railroad about its plans, or I fear for the future of the residential area that is being created in the vicinity. Will the current townhouses become investor-owned 10 years down the line? All the more reason to have an unhurried, public conversation about the future of that area and a plan & strategy to encourage more commercial uses.

For the past six months there’s been a lot of talk about the 44% rental housing stock in Pottstown. How does this project help reverse that particular bottom line? And how much new money will people at the projected income level inject into Pottstown’s economy? Property taxes are one part of the equation. Disposable income of the new residents is another. So is the perception that potential visitors, business and home owners have of Pottstown.

(2) A presentation was made by Main Street Manager Leighton Wildrick for the year-round lighting up of a few blocks of High Street. I wasn’t at the meeting but saw a preview of this when I happened to stop by Leighton’s office last week. This is a brilliant idea on so many levels. Relative to this housing proposal and all the naysayers who keep complaining about an empty High Street: if Leighton & the downtown property owners, arts organizations, a re-tooled Borough website & streamlined approvals are given half a chance, you will see High Street make a comeback. You haven’t even given yourselves a chance.

(3) “… and the PAID group was excited about it.” It would be nice if several members of PAID showed up at the next meeting to speak on the record in support of the project. And the School District, too, if that’s the case. Then, since the County Redevelopment Authority is already behind this proposal, the four entities of the new Pottstown Partnership would essentially be speaking with one voice, evidence of the new system of cooperation and unity in action.

I understand how $60-80K in taxes looks good. It would be nice to see some spreadsheets on the projected tax revenues. If the max. income is 60% of median, how many of those units will actually be rented in the lower end of that range? Would be nice to see a projected distribution of units by income/rent levels. How will property taxes be determined: based on final rent levels, building value, or a payment in lieu of taxes? I hope that’s covered in any sales agreement that might be drawn up.

Yes, you need to increase your tax base. On the other hand, I don’t think the Borough should be hasty in giving up even 1.5 acres because someone else is dragging them along their own timeline. I’ve got no problem with springing into action – based on previously-agreed upon strategies and plans – but rushed approval scenarios always raise a red flag for me. In this case, especially when the Pottstown Partnership is supposed to get started in just a few months, which makes me wonder: Will there be another round of funding for these particular tax credits? If so, when?

The Mayor was right – Council has a tough decision on its hands.

Sue Repko
Positively!Pottstown

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6 Comments
  1. September 10, 2010 11:27 am

    Borough Council president Steve Toroney has been in talks with Norfolk Southern for quite some time. Where he is in that conversation he did not elaborate on but he is in talks and aware of the situation you spoke of. I can say from experience and conversations with the county, they want to see Pottstown do” Something”. We are not in a favorable light with the county because too many projects are started and not followed through in a timely manner or ever brought to fruition. Maybe the proposed adult community is not the perfect answer but I feel it should be looked on as a positive action. As for the project from the Main Street Manager, I, too, think it is a wonderful idea and the proposal stated that this lighting company would not replicate this within a 40 mile radius of Pottstown, which includes Easton, Bethlehem and Allentown who are light years ahead of us. The downside of this is how will Pottstown market this? We are notorious for not marketing what we believe is the best kept secret in the county, our wide streets, wide sidewalks, wonderful architecture and now a unique lighting scene only found on Boathouse Row. But no one knows this because we do not market. We need someone actively looking for renters for the empty storefronts and we need to get the property owners to be actively seeking renters for their property, business rentals. I think in a designated business district this is not too much to ask. Then there will be conveniences for those who buy into the townhouses and rent the apartments…..a walkable community which is how the trend is going. Pottstown has everything it needs to be successful, we just need to get up and do it.

    • September 10, 2010 12:35 pm

      Hi, Cathy – thanks for commenting. I’m glad to hear the Council President is in talks with NS. Obviously there’s a lot going on that I’m not aware of. I totally get the impetus to “do something now!” pressing in from all sides. While I do not agree with rushing proposals through, if this one goes through, the town will just incorporate it into its future planning and move on. If that comes to pass, I’m certainly not going to be griping about it forever! But my instincts are to hold out for a couple more months with that uncomfortable “do something now!” feeling. By November, say, there should be an announcement of a search for the economic development director for the Partnership, shouldn’t there? A January start date has been mentioned often.

      Besides, you all are “doing something now” whether you realize it or not. That’s what the Open Doors event is, the River Festival, the plan to light up High Street by the holidays, etc.

      We are certainly on the same page as far as marketing the arts, the town and High Street. Between the PACA website and (hopefully) some serious content changes to the Borough’s website – including PDIDA’s – things will pick up speed. Also, I hope Leighton is just getting warmed up with ideas and action (no pressure there, Leighton!) that will result in the kind of business attraction/retention that you describe. Keep the faith!

  2. Tom Carr0ll permalink
    September 10, 2010 3:44 pm

    It’s all good; a phrase that I hear some times.
    I believe the ULI mentioned our river front as our number one asset and getting the railroad track off the river front property as a priority goal.
    Help me. Are there more than two choices? The way I see it:
    1: The railroad sells or gives the land to the Borough and gives up use of the track.
    2. The railroad relocates the track back to the main line at another location, maybe on the Bethlehem Steel property and continues to provide the freight service.
    Go to Google Earth and check it out.
    OK; the land has the track or the land doesn’t have the track.
    No track; I can vision WOW, a miniature Kelly Drive. It’s in Philadelphia. Boat House Row is on Kelly Drive for those that would like to see WOW.
    Now, let’s do back to the senior housing and wonder if the track is there or not there.
    Gotta go. : )

    • September 11, 2010 10:27 pm

      Hey, Tom – Thanks for the heads-up on this. I’ll check out Google Earth. It would be nice to know the reality of what NS is intending with those tracks and what the possibilities are. No tracks mean much more WOW potential.

      Just got home after being away from email for more than 24 hours – a long stretch for me. Sorry I didn’t get to talk to you today – it was totally awesome, wasn’t it?!

  3. September 11, 2010 7:18 pm

    Sue and Cathy,

    Make no mistake, I can think of nothing that would move us further down this bumpy path of revitalization than a well designed marketing scheme and interesting shopping alternatives on High. Crime and criminals are out of control in our core neighborhood. If the Borough does nothing to get this under immediate control investors will not buy property here and occupy buildings downtown. It won’t matter if you have pretty lights or great marketing if people don’t feel safe.

    I cannot see the benefit in making a committment to a senior housing project that has been foisted on our community with the urgency you’d expect from a land shark who has a “mountain for sale in Florida”. “The kind of opportunity you’ll never see again but it will be yours ONLY if you sign on the dotted line by 4:00 pm today!

    This project has not been presented to the community in a way that allows for questions and answers and yet we have council members who are ready to sign on the dotted line? Don’t they represent us?

    Why would the County encourage development that flys in the face of the ULI Report? They need to get behind this report too and do everything they can to encourage our town leaders to lead, and to involve the people who elected them in these processes.

    • September 11, 2010 10:34 pm

      Hi, Katy – I agree that High Street’s revitalization is necessary for improvement in any of the areas radiating outward from it, including your neighborhood. And the timing and the rush to put through this housing proposal is troubling. I’ll stop right there since I”m not in a position to actually answer your questions!

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