Man-made waterfalls: A vision for Pottstown?

This past Friday, Joe Zlomek, Managing Editor of The Sanatoga Post, published an interesting revitalization story out of Rosemont, Illinois. You can check out the article here: “You can see the Pottstown waterfalls from Illinois.”

Joe describes the way this relatively new town created waterfalls at one of their gateways and at an entrance to a walkway along the Des Plaines River and asks readers to imagine something similar along Pottstown’s Schuylkill Riverfront.

With funding from the Schuylkill River Heritage Area and the William Penn Foundation, the Borough is in the midst of developing a Heritage Action Plan. The plan will lay out a vision, goals and objectives, and a marketing strategy for linking Schuylkill River Trail users to downtown resources, such as shops, restaurants, arts, culture, history and recreation. The River and the Trail are key to any revitalization and economic development strategy.

A working group meeting is taking place this morning, Monday, April 18 from 10:30am-noon. Anyone interested in being part of the planning or implementation of the Heritage Action Plan is welcome to attend this or future meetings.  Please send an email to PtownHAP@gmail.com or check out the Pottstown Heritage Action Plan on Facebook for more info.

A huge “THANK YOU” to Joe for giving us some creative food for thought!

Schuylkill Highlands holding open house for economic development plan

The Schuylkill Highlands is one of seven “Conservation Landscape Initiative” regions in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s a place that includes the Schuylkill River watershed; it’s also a collaboration of people and partners who want to preserve the landscape and promote sustainable economic development.

The Schuylkill Highlands is holding an open house tomorrow from 4-6 pm at Morlatton Village and everyone is invited. See The Mercury’s articlehere.

The open house will showcase the findings, outcomes and recommendations for The Compatible Economic Development Plan: Valley Forge to Reading and The Hopewell Big Woods.

Carter van Dyke & Assoc., Campbell Thomas & Assoc., Susan Huffman along with the Task Force will exhibit their findings on:

– Place -Based Tourism recommendations
– What types of businesses are needed and where
– What types of infrastructure improvements are needed and where
– Next steps to enhance the visitor experience, encourage economic development in this region and preserve our natural, cultural and historic resources
– Next steps to plan for the influx of visitorship to our gateways and river towns as the Schuylkill River Trail is completed.

Pottstown’s Heritage Action Plan, which is in the process of being formulated by a wide range of local Partners, is one piece of the larger, regional heritage tourism/economic development puzzle. I’ll be there tomorrow and hope a few faithful readers and Heritage Action team members from Pottstown can get there, too!

When: Thursday, March 31, 4-6 pm. Come and go as you please.
Location: White Horse Inn, Morlatton Village, 31 Old Philadelphia Pike, Douglassville, PA 19518

Heritage destination location: Pottstown

The Borough of Pottstown recently received a $2,000 Trail Towns and Tours Grant from the Schuylkill River Heritage Area (SRHA). Pottstown resident and biking and greenway advocate, Tom Carroll, and I have been retained by the Borough to implement this grant, and this blog post is meant to kick off that process and give some details about how it will work. Along the way, we’ll keep the community informed via this blog. For a good summary of the purpose of the grants, see Evan Brandt’s article from January 29th here.

The Trail Towns and Tours Grant is to be used to create a 30-page Heritage Action Plan (HAP) by the end of April 2011. It’s a deliberately short time frame in order to get results and for the SRHA to meet the William Penn Foundation’s time limits for spending the funds.

The overall intent of creating the HAP and going through a planning and consensus-building process (however quick) is to identify and leverage existing cultural resources, market Pottstown as a heritage destination, and get Schuylkill River Trail users (and other visitors) into the downtown to spur economic activity. Just as important will be the chance to develop and formalize solid working partnerships among individuals, organizations and businesses committed to promoting downtown Pottstown. This is what we’ve all been talking about for quite a while, and this grant gives the community a chance to try it out – working together and presenting a new image to potential visitors, outside governmental agencies and funders, as well as residents themselves.

It should be noted that heritage tourism IS economic development, but that it should be considered just one prong of a multi-pronged economic development strategy for Pottstown. There is still plenty of room to develop and promote Pottstown as an arts community, or one that values and hosts sustainable technology companies, or whatever other approach comes out of other visioning/planning efforts.

So, what is a heritage or cultural resource? I’ll just give a few examples: the River and its trail; historical architecture, markers & walking tours in the downtown; arts organizations; restaurants, including “heritage eateries,” such as The Very Best and the diner; the Historical Society; The Hill School; Pottsgrove Manor; Riverfront & Memorial Parks; a completed Carousel & mini-golf, etc. Visitors want an authentic experience when they decide on a destination and how to spend their money. Pottstown has loads to offer and the point of this grant is to identify and package it all in a way that will appeal to these visitors.

Another key part of this planning process will be looking at what needs to be done to make it very easy for people biking or hiking on the Trail to know what’s available in town and then actually direct them off the trail and safely to High Street. This whole approach is based on the idea of making the Pottstown Business Loop – a stretch of High Street – an official part of the River Trail, since it’s unlikely a right-of-way along the river will be available from Norfolk Southern anytime soon.

We’ll be helped along in this process by using what’s known as the Heritage Towns and Tours Toolkit, provided by the SRHA and created by their consultants, Peter Johnston & Associates of Easton, MD. From a planning perspective, this Toolkit is just amazing, allowing communities (& consultants, I might add) to dive in where they might otherwise be totally intimidated. The Toolkit lays out a step-by-step process to create a HAP with the rationale, forms and examples that make it seem do-able. Even better is that the SRHA grant comes with $5,000 worth of consulting services from Peter Johnston & Associates. They will be in Pottstown at least once for a 3-4 hour workshop to help us work our way through the Toolkit. We’ll also have support from the SRHA staff, who are right around the corner at 140 College Drive.

Basically, we will go through the following 5 steps:

1. Organize & Plan – What do we want for our community as a heritage destination? Form Useful Partnerships; Create a Vision & Goals, and Define Partner Expectations.

2. Identify & Assess – What do we have to offer as a heritage destination? Identify Heritage Resources; Assess Heritage Resources; and Bring People and Ideas Together.

3. Market & Improve – What do we need to market our community and what has already been done? Create an Image; Market Your Community; Improve Effectiveness.

4. Protect & Manage – How do we get there? Build Public Support, Look at Ordinances & Other Regulations, Make Any Recommendations That Will Help Protect Resources.

5. Prepare & Implement – How to complete the Heritage Action Plan?
Define Projects and Activities, Assign Costs, Manage Resources Over Long-Term

By the end of this process, Pottstown will have:
• A List of Partners and Stakeholders
• A Vision, Goals, and Objectives
• A Summary of Stakeholders and Assigned Jobs, Tasks, and Other Duties for Partners
• An Inventory of Heritage Resources, which have been Evaluated and Assessed for the Heritage Program
• A Marketing Plan Summary including an Image/Brand
• A Listing of Current Government Protections for Heritage Preservation and Tourism
• A Summary of Needed Policy and Regulatory Protections for Heritage Resources
• A Project List, Description of Projects, and Budgets
• A Final List of Recommendations or Strategic Actions including projects; and
• An Organizational Structure for the Long-Term Management and Oversight of the Heritage Program

The HAP will then be used to make another application to the SRHA for $25,000 in implementation funding to carry out the top priorities in the Plan. Those activities must be completed by May 2012.

The next step for Tom and me is to get in touch with folks from an initial list of local “Partners,” inviting them to participate in the process and start filling out a Partnership Form from the Toolkit. Please give me a day or so to get that email out. We invite others who want to participate to get in touch with us at PtownHAP@gmail.com.

Obviously, I think there’s a lot of potential here to get some solid forward movement on the economic development front. I appreciate the Borough giving Tom and me the chance to work on the project and rally the community around common goals – an improved local economy, stronger partnerships and more positive exposure and marketing of all that Pottstown has to offer.

Pottstown 101: Required Reading

I promised to put up links to as many reports & studies as I could find, and here they are. I’m sure other people may have more (or less) required reading in order to get up to speed on Pottstown planning issues. My current list is below.

I made a huge score when I found three studies I knew about, but hadn’t seen before, at the Pottstown Citizens for Responsible Government website – items f, j and k, below. Thank you to PCRG for posting.

WordPress has been acting funny today… The “preview” feature isn’t working now. I hope this post comes out okay…

**Added 09/13/2012**

PottstownHAP_FINAL_July2011 – Borough of Pottstown Heritage Action Plan – 2011

a. Pottstown Economic Development Strategic Plan – 2008
b. ULI report – 2009
c. Pottstown Metropolitan Regional Comprehensive Plan – 2005
d. 422 Corridor Master Plan – 2010 (Pottstown Borough-specific brochure)
e. Washington Street Action Plan – 2010
f. Core District Redevelopment Plan – 2003
g. Land Use (multiple sections to choose from) & Zoning Ordinance
h. Health & Wellness Foundation 2008 Needs Assessment Report – 2009
i. Open Space Plan – 2006 (scroll down to Pottstown link)
j. Western Riverfront District Redevelopment Plan – 2002
k. Reconnections: Reconnecting the People of North Coventry Township & Pottstown Borough with Each Other & Their Schuylkill River Heritage – 2004
l. Fire Services Assessment – 2009

A Call to Action – No. 2

This has all been shifting and re-shaping in my brain for quite some time. Sorry if it’s like getting hit by a really big wave 🙂

What we know:
– Pottstown has plenty of talented, creative, knowledgeable individuals and groups who are all stakeholders in the town’s revitalized future.
– They need to be working together in a coordinated fashion, doing work that is meaningful.
– There are plenty of laws and regulations, both internally and externally, which determine and affect what can and can’t be done.
– There are public agencies and public and private funding sources that must be aggressively pursued in order to bring the most possible benefits to Pottstown.
– The town must get its fiscal, administrative and enforcement house in order. That is underway; it must continue.
– The town must determine and then assert a positive public vision of itself.
– In order to make a break with the negative perceptions of the past, the town must go above and beyond what is typical when it creatively markets this new vision.

What must be done:

1. Get copies of the following documents, (re-)read them, refer to them often, keep them in front of you. These are the most current documents that guide everything your community is supposed to be doing… until they are superseded by a new study or newly-adopted ordinance or policy. There might be a few more – the District’s facilities assessment, for sure – but these form the foundation.

a. Pottstown Economic Development Strategic Plan – 2008
b. ULI report – 2009
c. Pottstown Metropolitan Regional Comprehensive Plan – 2005
d. 422 Corridor Master Plan – 2010
e. Washington Street Action Plan – 2010
f. Core District Redevelopment Plan – 2003
g. Land Use & Zoning Ordinance
h. Health & Wellness Foundation 2008 Needs Assessment Report – 2009
i. Open Space Plan – 2006
j. Western Riverfront District Redevelopment Plan – 2002
k. Reconnections: Reconnecting the People of North Coventry Township & Pottstown Borough with Each Other & Their Schuylkill River Heritage – 2004
l. Fire Services Assessment – 2009

It would be really helpful to create a kind of “summary library” of what’s in all these studies and documents, so people could have a quick guide to what’s recommended in each of them. I haven’t even seen all of them yet.

2. Engage the community and discover your vision through a series of community workshops. (Off the top of my head; needs refinement.)

a. Get a volunteer facilitator or facilitating team. Decide on the format (structure of visioning sessions, how to put people into teams, how best to convey info & elicit ideas, etc.)
b. Line up dates and large enough venue.
c. Get a summary of relevant information from the above studies & reports out to people well in advance. Set up your own visioning web page on the Borough’s website to put out information.
d. State clear goals, something like:

i. To come up with the top 2-4 essential qualities that define Pottstown (e.g. Pottstown is… the river or steel/manufacturing or pie or small town America);
ii. To choose 1-2 essential qualities that you want to promote;
iii. To come up with and define the top 1-2 economic development implementation strategies that will highlight that essential quality (e.g. We should encourage… arts & restaurants or pharmaceutical manufacturing or Pie City, USA or green manufacturing);
iv. To develop a community mission statement based on that essential quality & those strategies.

e. Get all interested parties – citizens, civic groups, elected & appointed officials, property owners, business owners – in the same large room for 3-4 Saturdays in a row from 8-11 a.m. Always have coffee & food!
f. Stop during the process to overcome obstacles.
g. Decide who is taking notes. Videotape the proceedings & put up on YouTube with link from Borough web page.
h. Have a report of the proceedings written up within two weeks of the final meeting, posted online and available at Borough Hall. Maybe have Council adopt a resolution supporting the document & the strategies.

3. Hold yourselves accountable to the vision. It should not be hard because you will have figured it out yourselves and should believe in it. If there is not enough buy-in, then there was a mis-step earlier in the process or in the community’s commitment to work together, in which case you should not have gone forward. Stop during the process to overcome obstacles!

4. Implement the vision. (More on the nuts-and-bolts of this in future posts.) My first suggestion, though: refer to the Economic Development Strategic Plan; don’t re-invent the wheel.

So, who will do it? And what’s the timing?

The Pottstown Partnership should take the lead on this. For that to happen, the individual member agencies – Borough Council, School District, County Redevelopment Authority, Chamber/PAID – need to finalize their agreements, mission and by-laws and hire someone. It’s been reported that they’re close to that.

On the other hand, maybe this is not how they see their Executive Director or Economic Development Director working. In many other places, an economic development director would be coming into an already functional department. All of this would have been decided, and they would hit the ground running and start implementing incentive programs, targeting funding sources, working with property and business owners, etc.

But that’s not the case here. In fact, because of the complicated and failed history of trying to change Pottstown’s economic future, I would caution against anything other than an initial, all-out engagement of the community. People need to be brought in, in a meaningful way. That’s something I forgot – one of the first steps in the visioning is to list your assets. If I did a chart of the community’s assets, I’ll bet you’d be surprised at how good you look on paper! Remember way back when we talked about the work of the community? I used a basketball analogy to describe everyone moving in a coordinated way, creating space and openings for each other so that everyone participates and looks good. That’s an ideal to continue to strive for. I have also said that I don’t think there’s any “savior” that’s going to perform any miracles. If enough people don’t buy into some economic development czar’s vision, you’re going to be bumping up against the same old limitations.

This visioning process doesn’t have to take more than 2-3 months to reach some consensus and then you’d rally all your resources behind that. There is urgency here, after all.

But what if the Partnership is not ready, or doesn’t come to fruition, for whatever reason? There is actually nothing to stop citizens from organizing and carrying out all of this planning and visioning activity – it’s just that there will be no underlying commitment that the elected officials will adopt it or pay any attention to it or implement any of it. That’s why there’s got to be an officially-sanctioned forum for all this to take place.

Frankly, I have no idea if this is something that the community or the leadership of the community even wants to pursue. Again, my m.o. is to throw out (reasoned) ideas and see what sticks.

I’ll look around and post a few suggestions for books that describe how to do these visioning projects. Of course, anything can be adapted for the needs of a particular community. Oh, yeah… then there’s the money. Usually you pay top dollar for a consultant to come in and run things. My take on that is to get a facilitating team that’s a cross-section of the community – not too large & no one controversial! – who will organize and run the sessions. In fact, there is some other economic development groundwork that you could take on as a community and not pay for. You could even use this “fiscal responsibility” in your future marketing materials. “Doing more with less… and doing it well” – that kind of thing.

Now you see what I mean about this only being the beginning of the real work that desperately needs to be done.

A Call to Action – No. 1

This post and the one that will follow today are ostensibly the last in the planning series I started on August 5th. Outside of the blogosphere, though, in real life, these posts are calls to action. Not an end, but a beginning.

Because last night’s Council meeting is in the news and on everyone’s minds, I feel I have to weigh in. I am not going to comment on the particulars of the housing development and the rental ordinance, which are no small matters. Instead, I will point you to a previous blog post about process in the public sphere. Any public body is well-served by doing the bulk of its work in the public eye and with adequate and clear time – in advance – for input from any interested party.

What I would like to do now is highlight what I have heard/read about last night’s meeting that shows positive initiative being taken on several fronts:

– If the process continues as planned, the economic development director position for the Pottstown Partnership could be advertised in November.

– As a result of the First Suburbs initiative Pottstown, Norristown and Coatesville are talking about Section 8 housing issues such as vouchers and inspections with HUD.

– On October 20th, Norristown and Pottstown will have a joint council meeting in Pottstown to discuss joint issues.

– There is a cooperative effort between the School District and the Borough to rehabilitate 22 E. Second Street, now owned by the Borough, with students doing some of the work.

– The motion to authorize the submission of the Pottstown Skyline Lighting Project to the Montco Community Revitalization Board was approved and the project was made the #1 priority as part of the vote.

– There will be a store front decorating contest downtown for Christmas.

– Jason is trying to organize a joint meeting between Council and PDIDA to work with existing downtown business owners.

– Council chose to paint the Mrs. Smith Foil building and pocket an additional $45K for now.

– Motion to approve the submission of an EPA grant for Brownfield cleanup at Bethlehem Steel aka the Pottstown Industrial Complex was approved.

– Construction has begun on the Norfolk Southern bulk transfer station on South Keim St., which should result in an upgrade to the railroad crossing.

DO NOT DISCOUNT ANY ONE OF THESE! Some – like the lighting project – might be “flashier” than others, but they are all signs of positive, forward movement.

I would also like to direct you to an editorial in yesterday’s Mercury: Riverfest shines in town’s trifecta of outstanding events.

DO NOT LOSE SIGHT OF THE CHANGING TIDE THAT YOU HAVE ALREADY INITIATED! This editorial apparently did not inspire people to write in to acknowledge the collective success that you, as a community, have already shared. The whole town should take pride in that success… and not forget to thank each other and acknowledge each other’s roles in it.

For the most part, you ARE headed in the right direction. There will always be a decision that anyone from any side of a given issue will consider a setback. No one has to give up on their principles or their freedom of speech, as long as there is a fundamental agreement to come to the next issue in a cooperative spirit of doing what’s best for the town as a whole.

But what is “best for the town as a whole?” That has yet to be decided or even discussed or even scheduled for discussion. This is the heart and soul of community planning, and I’m relieved and psyched to have gotten this far in laying out what I hope has been an understandable framework for how to talk about and plan and envision the future. To be continued…

The regulatory framework for land development – Part 3

This post picks up from where we left off on Sept. 7, when we looked at how website content/organization might influence potential home buyers/investors.

Since then, let’s give credit where credit is due. The web pages of the Parks & Recreation Department have been updated and they look great!

Our first look at the regulatory framework for land development tried to set the context in which land & building development take place. There are laws and ordinances that tell property owners what they can/can’t do with property they own or are considering purchasing. They make financial decisions based on their best guess as to how easily they will get approvals and be able to move on their projects. Time is money. Potential investors usually choose the path, or location, of least resistance.

In our second look, we went to the Borough’s website as though we were a potential business/property owner to get a sense of what incentives or regulations might impact our decision to locate in Pottstown. We found information that was confusing & not designed to entice people to town.

Now let’s go a little deeper into Pottstown’s actual ordinances and processes. I will only be spotlighting a few examples because to sort these out actually requires a complex and longer-term investigation, which is already underway to a certain extent by a committee that includes the Planning Commission, county planner and Borough staff. My understanding is that they are looking at ways to clarify and streamline some parts of the zoning ordinance and their approval and inspection processes. This is very good news.

Most people who are tuned into Pottstown’s ongoing land use discussions will have heard complaints about “codes,” “enforcement,” “HARB,” and “the zoning ordinance.” What do they really mean by this? Again, I am just going to give a few examples.

1) Just looking at some of the required inspections & their forms makes me worry what I might be getting into. It says here that a permit is required for a change in occupancy. That’s a good requirement. When I click on “Homeownership Property Transfers,” I get a 2-page form that has to be filled out for an inspection, I suppose. I see in bold, capital letters at the top of each of the 2 pages, “PLEASE ALLOW 3-4 WEEKS FOR APPOINTMENTS.”

Now I have to wonder if this is the beginning of some convoluted red-tape that I won’t get through for several months. Do I really have to do this? The 3-4 week warning is a red flag – what is it about this government’s process that requires that amount of time to get an appointment?

2) HARB = Historic Architectural Review Board. In a town with historic architecture and designated historic districts, this is a good and necessary Board. But I’m not clear on why their approvals/denials go on to Borough Council for another round of review, especially when anecdotal evidence points to the Council never really reversing a HARB decision. If you keep HARB well-stocked with a mix of knowledgeable professionals and citizens, maybe they could be converted to a decision-making body (rather than an advisory one) and entrusted with the final decision, leaving Council available for appeals only.

3) A zoning ordinance is supposed to be based on a Master Plan. A Master Plan is THE community document that spells out the vision for the future across all planning areas: housing, land use, open space, transportation, recreation, historic preservation and more. Pottstown has not updated its own Comprehensive Plan since 1986. It now uses the Pottstown Metropolitan Regional Comprehensive Plan as its guiding document; that is in the process of being updated.

With all due respect to the intent & spirit of regional planning, without a thoughtful, public master planning process and Master Plan that is very specific to Pottstown, it will be hard to get a handle on what you want your zoning to do for you today, not 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Today.

As an illustration of how zoning might impact investment decisions by outsiders as well as current property owners, I’m only going to talk about one facet of the ordinance – the Conservation District overlay. It covers three zones: Neighborhood Residential (NR), Traditional Town Neighborhood (TTN) and Downtown (D).

The Conservation District rules are designed to do just that – conserve what already exists. Again, with all due respect, it is wonderful that Pottstown provides modest homes to a range of income levels. But virtually all of the North End, East End and West End – all the “Neighborhood Residential” (NR) areas on the Zoning Map, fall under the “Conservation District” overlay. If you look at the stated intent of the Conservation District in Sec. 302 on page 27-14 of the Zoning Ordinance, you can see how a discussion of actual historically-significant properties somehow morphs to include properties that just happen to be more than 50 years old.

First, just because a building is more than 50 years old doesn’t mean it’s worth “conserving.” Second, having such a tight rein on what property owners can do with their own property (that is NOT in a Historic District) results in a dampening effect on the reasonable movement of the free market, which includes outside investors as well as current property owners looking to increase the value of their asset.

I am in no way advocating for a free-for-all, teardown/McMansion scenario. But ordinances can be written to facilitate, rather than hinder, appropriate, planned redevelopment of at least some areas where the existing housing stock may never appeal to the higher-income consumers you say you want to attract to the Borough.

What specifically is in the Conservation District language? Take a look at the Zoning Ordinance. At the bottom of page 27-15 and the top of page 27-16, there’s a description of the review procedure for any work proposed on any building in a Conservation District. It specifically includes the installation of fences.

I’m not sure if this is actually carried out this way. I have heard that fence applications go to Planning, which is a problem right there. I don’t think I can name any other place where a fence application goes to a Planning Commission. In Pottstown’s ordinance, because Planning is an advisory body, not a decision-making body, a final fence decision seems to have to come from Council. It says it at the top of page 27-16. I doubt this works this way in real life. Regardless, it should be taken off the books.

Moving down the page, the restrictiveness of the Conservation District becomes apparent when you look at the Conservation District Summary Chart. The general requirements are to “conserve,” to keep additions or new buildings in scale, size, and materials consistent with what already exists. This makes perfect sense for districts or zones with truly architecturally significant buildings. This does not make sense for an entire town. Basically, next to no housing in Pottstown can ever break out of the mold that was set in the 1940s and 1950s in all those neighborhoods that are not even near any Historic District.

To conclude… it seems like there’s an unraveling and across-the-board re-thinking that needs to take place regarding what the town wants to be/look like. Then, the town can re-consider all of its zoning and land use approval processes in that light. It looks to me like the land use and development areas could benefit enormously from a process similar to the one the Borough undertook to analyze and re-order its financial systems. These efforts bring clarity, streamlining and accountability. It’s good government.

Visioning & master planning help you to articulate what you want your community to be in the future. The changes that need to be made to land use ordinances and systems will become more apparent if you know what you want to achieve as a community.

Next up: Current planning documents, or the reports that everyone needs in front of them if they want to talk about revitalization & development in the Borough.

Getting back on track

I don’t know about you, but I have not forgotten about the tail end of the planning series, which was started on August 5th with “How one planner thinks.”

Here’s what we’ve covered so far:

How one planner thinks
The work of the community
Beyond the Borough’s borders – Part 1
Beyond the Borough’s borders – Part 2
detour… US 422 Corridor Master Plan
The regulatory framework for land development – Part 1
The regulatory framework for land development – Part 2
detour… Process in the public sphere: It matters

Here’s how I would like to finish this series to bring us up to date:

The regulatory framework for land development – Part 3
(Land use ordinances, HARB, codes, approvals, inspections. The Borough already has a committee reviewing most of these; I just want to offer a quick explanation to readers who may not be familiar with some of the stumbling blocks.)

Current planning documents
(The reports that everyone needs in front of them if they want to talk about revitalization & development in the Borough.)

Here’s the thing: Positively!Pottstown is teaming up with the Pottstown Area Health & Wellness Foundation to run a 6-week series about parks & recreation opportunities in Pottstown and surrounding municipalities, and I am feverishly pulling that together. It launches this Sunday with links/coverage graciously provided by The Mercury.

So… I’ll be keeping the last two posts in the planning series short & sweet, and will try to get them up on Friday and Saturday. I’ll also be keeping my fingers crossed that we will all be (mostly) on the same page as we continue talking about what the future may hold for comprehensive planning, land use and economic development in the Borough. Thanks for coming along for the ride so far. 🙂

Process in the public sphere: It matters.

Last night Council unanimously pledged support for a low-income rental housing tax credit application tied to a 55-unit senior housing development on Borough land near the riverfront. In a kind of post-game analysis, here I step back from the project itself to talk a bit about process.

1) Ideally, a town would have adopted land use and economic development plans that spell out what they want in each area of their town. Then, when any authorized municipal representative is talking to any developers about that area, they are on the same page with what the community planned and agreed to.

2) Ideally, if a town is looking to develop land that it owns, it would put out a Request for Proposals and seek competitive proposals/bids. The RFP and this process would all be public. There would be no private conversations with any developers during this process.

3) Opening the bids: here’s where it gets sticky. In most places, negotiations involving land transactions and real estate development by governmental entities are not subject to right-to-know laws. All parties need to know that they can work out the financial end of a deal without the press & the public breathing down their necks. Confidentiality is paramount. Here’s where you have to have faith in your elected officials to agree to what’s in the best interests of the community and select the top bidder(s) accordingly.

4) If there are no clear frontrunners, in an ideal world, the top 2-3 bids/plans would be publicly presented and community input would be sought at that point.

Four necessary components:
• community-approved land use & economic development plans
• a clear & transparent RFP process
• time and timelines
• community input on selected proposals

Obviously, none of this protocol was followed in this case, which really is not unusual in many small towns and even larger towns where no one’s paying attention. Or where there’s an entrenched way of doing things: This is how we’ve always done it. But it has the whiff of a back-room deal that was foisted on the public pretty late in the game. All I’m saying is, there’s another way to do things, where leaders and the community are engaged in more meaningful ways througout the entire process.

Imagine this: 55 units of low-income, senior rental housing in the middle of a comprehensive waterfront plan that includes a few hundred upscale condos, commercial development and recreational uses. Then the low-income housing is a mere blip in the middle of that; no big deal. You wouldn’t have heard a peep outta me!

Imagine this: There are multiple economic development initiatives underway across town that involve County funding, and this housing is a trade-off in some way in the context of a larger plan that may not even specifically include the waterfront. That could be fine too. Trade-offs – compromise – that’s how things get done.

It’s the fact that you’re leading the way, selling off your own land, with no vision or plan, for what? Low-income rentals? That doesn’t compute.

My frustration comes out of the Borough not being in charge of its own destiny in the first place – not having a clue what the community wants, not having an economic development leader on your team, not doing your due diligence, not making people answer your questions straight-up, not demanding a printed handout of the project proposal & parameters — basically, not asserting yourself. And then being forced to settle. Settle for whoever shows up. It doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t.

Unearth your vision – plan – strategize – set goals – implement with a vengeance.

The regulatory framework– Part 2: Walking a half-mile in a property owner’s shoes

I am so sorry for writing really long posts! Please try to get through this one. I feel it’s getting to the heart of the question: Why is High Street empty?

In previous posts, we’ve done an overview of the various documents, ordinances, and maps that dictate land use in Pottstown. We have a sense of the outside agencies and funding sources that are available to help make development happen. We know that the private sector prefers to know exactly what it’s getting into. In this post, we’re walking a half-mile in a property owner’s shoes… into the Borough’s website.

Over the past nine months that I’ve gotten re-acquainted with my hometown, I’ve been to the Borough’s website hundreds of times (no exaggeration) to look at maps, regulations, etc. It’s taken me quite a while to even begin to figure out how the heck things work, and I admit I’m still unsure about a lot of things. It’s kind of a bummer to admit that I can’t get through the maze more easily. And it is a maze.

Being a writer/communicator, I’m really big on websites that serve their purpose. The Borough’s website is not only for current residents, it’s also the point of entry for outsiders who are considering becoming insiders, i.e., potential homeowners and the business community. The website, in and of itself, should be a user-friendly, logical “document.” The fact that it isn’t gives the first hint that the functioning of the government and the approval processes might not be user-friendly or logical either. If your land development systems can’t be communicated clearly for the average citizen, then there’s probably something wrong with your systems.

Let’s go to the Borough’s website now.

1. First thing, I want to know what this town is all about. I click “About Pottstown” and go to “History.” The town’s “story” stops in 1964. That’s a little scary right there, and stops me in my tracks. I want to know about Pottstown today, but I can’t really find it anywhere on the site. Also, it looks like there’s only one photo on the whole site. (Picture = 1,000 words.)

I here confess that I wrote a bunch of the web copy for the PACA website. On the home page, they come right out with their mission, give three sentences about history and then move into the vision of the arts community for the present & future of Pottstown. I like to think these words create an image, draw people in, and make them feel the potential old-school coolness of this place. The Borough can have more about its history on its website, but at some point it needs to bring visitors to the present day.

So now you’re thinking, “What does this have to do with land development?”

Everything the Borough does and how it presents itself to the larger world is part of its redevelopment efforts. Successful land development is all about telling the story, selling a dream, a vision. It’s about the Borough selling itself.

2. Again, we’re developers or potential home owners now. The Borough’s website is chock-full of information about its ordinances, maps, etc. There’s a lot there. But it’s not enough to say the information is all there. It has to be presented in chunks that help a user make sense of the land development process itself.

On the main navigation bar on the left of the home page, I click on “Departments,” to see if they have a planning or community development department. I’m drawn to “Inspections and Permits.” There’s a huge amount of useful information – what you need a permit for, which zoning & planning applications are relevant to specific kinds of projects, residential property transfer and rental registration/inspection requirements.

If you go in this order through the website, this is where you first run into mention of the Homeowners’ Initiative Program. I guess it’s under “Inspections & Permits” because it will involve an inspection and a permit. (Okay, but that seems kind of random.) “It” turns out to actually be two programs (homeowner loan and rental conversion loan). They are also mentioned on the Economic Development page.

Before we go there, though, click on the link to the “Redevelopment District Map” at the bottom of the “Inspections & Permits” page. If I’m a redeveloper or a business owner, my ears perk up: What is the “Redevelopment District”? What are the rules and incentives there? But, no, it’s just a link to a map, and I can’t find anything more about it. On the entire website.

(Out of the blue, in an email, someone recently mentioned a “Core District Redevelopment Plan” from 2003. Is this where the Redevelopment District Map came from? Why have I never seen this plan before? Is it still relevant to Borough land use policy and programs? I need to call someone at Borough Hall to get to the bottom of this.)

3.a. So, let’s jump over to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. Scroll down under “Homeownership Initiative Program.” Click on “Click here for the Step-by-step application process and to view the Boundary Map” You end up here. Click on Homeownership Initiative Program – Boundary Map. You end up here. This Homeownership Initiative Program Boundary Map is not the same as the Redevelopment District Map.

So why is there a link to the Redevelopment District Map under the Homeownership Initiative information on the Inspection & Permits page?

Are you confused just reading that last sentence? Welcome to my world.

What I’m saying is that I really need the dots to be connected for me.

3.b. Go back to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. At the very top – no heading, nothing to draw your eye to it – there’s a link to information for businesses in the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District. Up pops what is essentially a whole other website with its own logo. The text says it’s still part of the Borough… a Main Street Program… a special assessment district. I can’t find a map… would my property be in this district?? There’s the Pottstown Downtown Foundation to support their activities. They have funding for their own façade programs… or do they?

I start to wonder if this program is still operating… Under the “Business Opportunities” link, I’ve been reading the same message for nine months. This may be the only place you can find the name of Pottstown’s Main Street Manager… well, the former Main Street Manager. (The current Main Street Manager is Leighton Wildrick. Leighton & I had a great chat last week. I’m sure other people want to talk to him too!)

Eventually, I find the PDIDA map on the Borough Maps page, which is under “About Pottstown,” but not on the PDIDA pages… Did I miss it there?

… From what I can tell by toggling back and forth between the two maps, the PDIDA district is not the Core Redevelopment District… still curious about that…

3.c. Go back to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. Okay, so there’s an economic development plan. That will tell me what I need to know. Oh… wait… the link goes right to the document. It’s 145 pages. I have to read a 145-page report just to find out what their economic development strategy is? Forget it! I just want to know what programs they have to help me NOW!

3.d. Go back to the Economic Development “Information & Links” page. Click on “View the Maps.” Up pops a map from the Economic Development Strategic Plan. The first map is: “Development Areas and Opportunity Sites.” What do those red and blue boundaries mean? Is there special funding programs for those areas? They don’t seem to match up with the other maps I’ve seen. Geez, I guess I have to dig into that report.

Let’s review:
– Redevelopment District Map
– Homeowner Initiative Program Boundary Map
– PDIDA Map
– Development Areas and Opportunity Sites (from Economic Development Strategic Plan)

And add a couple more:
– Keystone Opportunity Zone (does a map exist?)
Historic District
(We’ll talk about the Historic District and HARB in the next post.)

Why aren’t businesses coming to High Street?

I’m just trying to get a sense of what this town has to offer me and/or my business. I’m just trying to get my bearings. I didn’t even get to any of the actual development or building approval processes yet.

Look, who has time to do all this? Save staff time, residents’ time, business’ time by straightening out the message and getting it up on the website. The website is the entry point to your community and to your land development approval system. It has to be friendly, simple and clear to attract new people and businesses, not tearing their hair out and running in the opposite direction.

What is needed on the Borough website:
– A vision statement that inspires and tells potential homeowners and businesses what you’re all about and where you’re headed.
– Simple summaries of land use incentive programs and regulations, possibly sorted by specific user groups: current residents, potential home owners, potential business owners/landlords, potential developers.
– Examination of maps to see if they are all absolutely relevant. If they are, then there has to be some simple way to explain or graphically depict the overlaps. People purchasing real estate need to know what incentives they are eligible for and what regulations or special assessments apply to their property.
– Clear, logical visuals of the incentive programs, along with their funding sources, to show how they are related to each other.

For now, you could keep the same website design and just start consolidating and simplifying. (Simple is always better.) This could use the attention of a small, working committee of knowledgeable, local minds to sort this out. 🙂 I’d be glad to work on the writing and organization with them. This doesn’t have to take long. In the end, visitors to the Borough website should have a clear sense of what they have to do to become a home owner, business owner or developer in Pottstown and feel welcomed and inspired to check it out further.

Next up: The regulatory framework– Part 3: Walking another half-mile in a property owner’s shoes

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