Reading has a great opportunity in a huge challenge
Efforts to revive Reading city center have been going on for more than half a century, with some successes and many disappointments.
But it is no exaggeration to say that the city is at a particularly important time.
The University of Alvernia just celebrated the opening of College Towne located 400 blocks on Penn Street. It is a very promising development. The regular presence of downtown college students and employees is expected to impact economic activity in areas in desperate need of it. The university and its local partners deserve great credit for having completed this project very quickly, despite the challenges of the past 18 months or so.
But more needs to be done for the project to reach its potential. Buildings in Albania look great. There is no surrounding area. City Council Member Donna Reed said someone at College Towne’s ribbon cutter pointed to a nearby building with broken windows and peeling paint and wanted to know what would happen about it .
That’s a very good question. If the city does not provide a comfortable environment, Albanian students and staff may be reluctant to leave the building. This has been happening in Reading office buildings for many years.
There are other factors that worry us that want to see downtown come back. Some city council members reported signs of drug-related activity and an increase in the number of homeless people. This year we will meet in the center of the city. Crime has always been a problem of reading in general, and a recent spate of shootings has particularly warned. Of all the problems the city faces, the perception that it is a dangerous place is one of the most difficult.
The related problem is cynicism. For many years, residents have seen many plans for downtown revitalization come and go. I have looked at research after research without getting much concrete results.
NSHe is the latest research presented to Berks County leaders in late September. The consulting firm gave its take on what it takes to create a thriving downtown area.
Some recommendations sound painfully familiar, like the reconstruction of the Fifth Street and Penn Street intersection again. However, the study authors highlight some particularly interesting points about the challenges cities face at this particular time.
For many years, creating office space and attracting employers have been key factors in a successful urban renewal effort. Bringing in workers advances the theory and provides a place for other businesses to come to eat, shop and be entertained. COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the way people work, and there is an urgent need for innovation in urban planning beyond the office.
Stantech Consulting Services, who wrote the report, says the key now is to make it a place where people live and want to spend their time and money. Living in an urban environment where one can enjoy various activities within walking distance is always of great interest. The city currently has a few, but not enough.
City-owned apartment building in Pen Square Those that have been dormant for many years can play an important role in increasing attractive housing options and creating the kind of business and activities that people seek. Other developments already underway in response to the Albanian movement may do the same.
But it must be done quickly. The Albania project provides strong evidence of what can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. We urge leaders in government, business and nonprofits to continue working together to prove the cynics ultimately wrong, based on the momentum generated by the university.
Other cities with similar problems have succeeded. We are convinced that Reading can also do it with the right plan and the will to make it happen.