Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton Invest in Downtown Districts

Public and private investments are pumping new energy and economic vitality into downtowns across the Lehigh Valley.

Robert L. Sample
On Thursday, December 19, 2013 - 14:26

For many years, the heart of cities in the Lehigh Valley could be found in their downtown business districts — and that is once more becoming true. After decades of disuse and abandonment due to suburban sprawl, the urban cores of cities like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are experiencing a reawakening.

An increased focus on redevelopment from local leaders, along with new public and private investments and energy, are transforming the Valley's downtown districts into sought-after destinations for offices, retail, dining and entertainment.

In Allentown, construction is booming downtown, with more than 900 workers assigned to various projects. A tax incentive created by the Pennsylvania Legislature for downtown developers, known as the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, has been the catalyst for redevelopment.

"Our urban core was dying, and downtown is the heart of our city," says Mayor Ed Pawlowski. "We needed to redevelop and replace that heart, and the tax incentive program is allowing us to do in about two years what would have taken 20 years."

The city currently has more than $1 billion committed in new development projects, says Mayor Ed Pawlowski, including the PPL Center arena, which will house the Lehigh Valley Phantoms hockey franchise and provide seating for up to 10,000 people for concerts and other entertainment and sporting events.

The arena is part of the larger City Center Lehigh Valley project, which consists of four complexes being developed by J.B. Reilly. Alongside the arena is the seven-story One City Center building that includes retail on the first floor and a sports performance fitness center run by Lehigh Valley Hospital on the second and third floors. Other City Center complexes nearby will include multipurpose facilities with hotel, retail, residential and office space.

In addition to new construction, businesses are also contributing to the vitality downtown, Pawlowski says. Several firms are moving into renovated historic buildings. New York City-based Ruckus Brewing Co. is investing $30 million to revamp the former Neuweiler Brewery along the riverfront, and high-tech fiber optic firm United Fiber & Data is spending $6 million to renovate a former furniture store into office space. National Penn Bancshares Inc. is also moving its headquarters downtown. All this development and redevelopment is bringing nearly 4,000 new jobs downtown, Pawlowski says.

In addition, plans were recently approved for the first phase of a $285 million development project along the Lehigh River waterfront, which will eventually include a river walk development and 10 buildings with space for offices, retail stores, restaurants and apartment lofts.

Adapting the Past to the Present

In Bethlehem, the steel industry may be part of the past, but the city is using some of the most visible remnants of that heritage to build a bright future.

The shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant has been redeveloped into SteelStacks, a 10-acre site that hosts more than 1,000 concerts and eight festivals each year at the foot of the former blast furnaces. The campus is also home to the ArtsQuest Center, a contemporary performing arts center that offers music, comedy, cabaret, dance and other performances year-round, along with a cafe and a theater that shows independent films.

Also located on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel ore yard is the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, a $743 million hotel, casino and entertainment destination that will soon connect with SteelStacks via an elevated walkway constructed above an old railway trestle.

Along with the city's success at redeveloping historic industrial sites, Bethlehem has also been recognized for preserving its colonial history. Bethlehem's historic Moravian District, a 14-acre settlement of 18th-century European immigrants, was recently named a National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service.  

Building on its rich history isn't the only thing Bethlehem is doing right.

"We have so many specialized festivals and events that we really are becoming a go-to destination for many types of people," says Kasara McLaughlin, manager of the Downtown Bethlehem Association. "If you're a vegan, we have VegFest. If you're a beer-drinking, music-loving guy or gal, we have Musikfest. Heck, if you just came to the U.S. from Ireland, you can feel right at home with Celtic Classic. All in one city!"

Downtown Rebound

Easton's downtown has also made a turnaround, thanks to the Easton Main Street Initiative launched five years ago by the Greater Easton Development Partnership.

"In the beginning, one of our challenges was to overcome the perception in the community that we were not a fun and safe downtown," says Kim Kmetz, manager of Easton Main Street Initiative. 

A downtown hospitality program, followed by public and private investment and development and volunteer-driven community events, helped transform the area into a destination for shopping, dining, working and living.

In 2005, the historic Easton Farmers Market had dwindled to one vendor. Easton Main Street cleaned it up, hired a manager and added a Wednesday night market as well as an indoor winter market to the traditional Saturday warm-weather market. Today, the market draws 40 vendors and has a waiting list for more. It's a hot spot for socializing, listening to live music and sampling local food.

Easton's growing population of young adults is fueling the demand for new dining destinations, retail and residential spaces. Developers are meeting this need by renovating historic properties into mixed-use sites, including the long vacant Pomeroy Building and the former Simon Silk Mill.

Another newly restored historic building, Two Rivers Brewing Co., serves local craft beer and farm-fresh comfort food. With "everything from a Brazilian steakhouse to a French brasserie," Easton has become "the hottest foodie town in Lehigh Valley," Kmetz says.