What Does Allentown Need From Ed Pawlowski in His Next Term?

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Obviously if the choice for Allentown Mayor is Ed Pawlowski or crazyperson Dennis Pearson, then you’ve gotta go with Ed Pawlowski. But it is pretty disappointing that Pawlowski won’t face any serious political competition at a time when so many big questions about the city’s future will be in play in the next Mayoral term. Allentown residents deserve a real debate about how best to put the city’s resources to work for maximum prosperity. People deserve to hear more ideas about how to fully capitalize on the NIZ, how to pay for the pension responsibilities, whether to sell city assets, how to raise more revenue, and so on.

That’s not to say Pawlowski’s ideas are bad. I don’t agree with everything he’s done, but I think most of the crap he gets from his critics has to do with people being grumpy that the Hess’s era is over, and lingering anger over the braindead fiscal policies of the Roy Afflerbach administration. It’s not at all clear to me that somebody could have made drastically better choices with the cards Pawlowski was dealt when he came into office.

That said, I do have some issues with Ed Pawlowski’s approach to economic development that I’d like to see his administration move away from in the next term.

I was a big proponent of the NIZ when that debate was happening, but before that changed the strategic outlook for Allentown development policy I was not really a fan of the Pawlowski administration’s economic development strategies. Pre-NIZ, my main issue was that too many of the Pawlowski redevelopment ideas seemed to be trying to leapfrog organic growth, bypassing “gentrification” or whatever, and aiming straight for upmarket amenities.

The strategy seemed to be to make Allentown a “destination” – a word you hear a lot from this administration – the idea being that what Allentown really needs is to attract outside visitors. And of course it does, but this should be a secondary goal to making Allentown a great place to live for the people who already live there.

Rather than focusing on mega-projects and upmarket amenities, the focus really ought to be on lowering the cost of living, and developing deeper markets for the low-cost food, entertainment, and goods and services that are useful to the existing population of poor and middle class folks. That doesn’t need to mean creating a city that outside folks think is just for poor people – it means creating a city that works for all classes of people. Previously I’ve offered some low-cost economic development ideas that focus on lowering the cost of living, and thus increasing the amount of disposable income people have left over to spend on their wants and needs. I think that’s the way to go when you’ve got limited revenue to spend on big flashy improvements.

The other theme I’d like to see Pawlowski take on in the next term is capitalizing on existing resources. For example, Allentown has some great parks. How is the land around those really nice parks zoned? Because it seems to me that much of the land is largely squandered on suburban-style single family homes, when it could support a whole lot of multi-family buildings that would allow many more people to enjoy living next to the parks. Letting people build large expensive buildings on the expensive land next to parks would be a good way to bring in a lot of tax revenue for city pensions and the school district. And best of all, it costs the city no money to rezone that land. Surely there are some other examples of low-cost and no-cost regulatory changes that would better capitalize on the city’s existing assets.

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