Hazleton's brush with 'new urbanism'
By ALAN C. GREGORY
of the Standard Speaker
Hazleton, PA, May 28 - Reinvesting in downtown.
A group of youngsters and young adults hang out at the Pine Street Playground, the recreational centerpiece of Hazleton's groundbreaking center-city housing experiment.
That's what Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta has eyed for the area of Pine Street a few blocks north and east of Broad Street. Just two years ago, that part of the city - a "core" area - was blighted by several old factory buildings, a reminder of the city's industrial past.
Now, though, the Barletta administration's dream of putting residences back into the Pine Street area has drawn closer as crews ripped down the former Geissler Knitting Mills at the corner of Pine and Green streets in April. Barletta believes putting residences back into the area will work because the refurbished Pine Street Playground already serves as a focal point and would be a recreational asset just yards away And the on-going conversion of the historic Markle building along Broad Street into a restaurant, an upscale hotel and associated shops could spur the residential development, with future employees living within a few blocks of where they work.
In Denver, Colo., a city with nearly as many people as the entire Hazleton/Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Metropolitan Area, the city has taken eyesores and converted them into urban highlights. And Denver's formerly dilapidated downtown is now a "land of lofts and nightclubs," the Associated Press reported. With development dollars flowing back into the inner city, Colorado's capital has become the showcase for what progressive urban planners are calling the New Urbanist Movement, which focuses on discouraging sprawling suburbs while promoting the preservation of historic architecture.
Barletta and his team are using a $15,000 stipend from the federal National Mortgage Association, also known as Fannie Mae, to conduct a housing study for Hazleton. "The study will be of the entire city, but the focus will be on the Pine Street neighborhood," Gary Lamont, a member of the mayor's committee assisting with the project, said in October. "The study will look at home ownership, and the supply and demand of existing and new housing."
Barletta and Gene Brady of Housing Development Corp. of Northeastern Pennsylvania, the developer of the Pine Street project, want to create a neighborhood along Pine Street of three-bedroom, single-family homes. "The focus here is on home ownership," Brady said last fall. "We want to see young families continue the tradition of home ownership in this area."
City Administrator Sam Monticello said the 24 homes will be as "green" as possible, incorporating the latest in energy efficient building materials and designs. And the project may be expanded later from the original three-block focus, Monticello said. The project area consists of three city blocks bounded by Fulton Court and Hemlock, Pine and Green streets. Each home will have 1,350 square-feet of living space. And groundbreaking for phase one is drawing near, with construction scheduled to start in late June, according to a project tèimetable from Monticello's office.
That first phase will focus on the block bounded by East Hemlock and East Oak streets. Phase two will shift to the block bounded by East Oak and East Maple streets. And the third and final phase - from East Maple to East Green - will take place in 2003. The homes will be built eight at a time. Each will have a garage, basement and driveway and the garages and driveways will provide the room needed for off-street parking.
Lou Host-Jablonski, an architect with the non-profit Madison-Wis.-based Design Coalition, and Borton Lawson Architecture of Wilkes-Barre, has designed the project. Design Coalition has contributed the overall plan while the Wilkes-Barre firm is the local on-site architect.
Alene N. Case of the 3Luzerne County-based North Branch Land Trust is among the local proponents of the New Urbanist Movement in northeastern Pennsylvania. "Very few people live as close to work as I do to their workplace and can walk to work when the weather is nice. But most people don't have that option," she said. Case, who writes an occasional column for the Land Trust's newsletter, recalled a recent article in which she quoted Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein.
Franklin, she said, noted that the opposite of progress is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. "And then I quoted Albert Einstein, (who wrote), 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
"I think they were speaking about land use, don't you agree?" That closeness to work is among the drawing cards that Hazleton officials said will draw people to buy and live in the new Pine Street neighborhood homes. Cities across the country have turned to several strategies in efforts to both reign in sprawl while encouraging the redevelopment of decaying inner-city neighborhoods.
Social and architecture critic James Howard Kunstler, who has railed against what he refers to as the "fiasco of suburbanism," is an advocate of the New Urbanism. "The confusion out there in America about what is rural and what is urban, what is town and what is country, and what each signifies, has reached an extreme," Kunstler wrote in a recent issue of the magazine Orion. "All the more tragic when you consider that the prime task of people interested in the salvation of any habitat is to answer these questions, and to integrate pthe human ecology with the larger community of ecologies.
"We are never going to save the rural places or the agricultural places or the wild and scenic places (or the wild species that dwell there) unless we identify the human habitat and then strive to make it so good that humans will voluntarily inhabit it.
"As a formal proposition, the human habitat is the town, the village, the neighborhood, and the city. As things stand now in America, these habitats are so degraded and horrible that anyone with the means to do so has fled, shrieking, to dwell instead in either a rural setting or the mock-rural setting represented by suburbia.
"This group, it is worth noting, includes a great many 'environmentalists' who, due to the blandishments of cheap oil, are able to lead urban lives in distant hinterlands, connected to their needs by large automobiles.
"Pine Street Neighborhood Homes is an opportunity for some Hazletonians to achieve the American Dream. Pine Street Neighborhood Homes is homeownership at reasonable prices. Different people, different backgrounds, different age groups - all together in a new neighborhood that captures the best in homebuilding and city planning in one place. Not only will these homes be built at prices that allow people from varying incomes to afford them, they will be easy to access, energy saving and healthier for people. This is what the New Hazleton is all about."
-- Hazleton Mayor Louis J. Barletta
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