Urban Land Institute details plan for downtown, beyond

August 06, 2018


Among its recommendations is to turn State Street into a corridor for tram service, closing off a section of Perry Square to automobile traffic.

Tim NeCastro told the 150 people who gathered Friday morning to hear a two-hour presentation by the Urban Land Institute that the group’s intense week of work would not result in another plan for the city.

Instead, NeCastro, president and CEO of Erie Insurance and chairman of the Erie Downtown Development Corp.’s board, called the block-specific recommendations granular and more stimulating than long-range planning documents like Erie Refocused.

“We’re all here because we sense a lot of excitement with what’s happening in Erie,” NeCastro said.

Though a bulk of the ULI’s work zeroed in on the EDDC’s 12-block downtown area, there were broader themes.

Richard Reynolds, president of the Reynolds Group in Needham, Massachusetts, and chairman of ULI’s Erie advisory group, said that for Erie to turn a corner it cannot focus solely on the EDDC’s footprint or downtown alone. The focus must be broader, he said.

Reynolds said Erie is at a tipping point after decades of manufacturing job losses but has the leadership, optimism, workforce, educational institutions and significant investments from key stakeholders necessary to effect change.

“It can go either way,” he said. “There’s a point of risk inflection, which means you’ve got to work hard, stay with it. You’ve got a chance at it, but you’re not there yet.”

The advisory board recommended the city and EDDC — as well as other economic development agencies — set priorities, clearly define roles, and leverage each organization’s abilities and funds.

During the slide-show presentation, advisory board member and former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy showed a photo of a man with his ear to a safe.

He looked down from the podium to Erie Mayor Joe Schember, who was sitting in the front row of the Erie Insurance Auditorium.

“You need to be that guy, mayor,” he said. “You need to break into the safes. There’s money to be had and you just need to go get it.”

Murphy rattled off a long list of state and federal funding programs, from Tax Increment Financing to Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, Community Reinvestment Act and even parking revenue.

The 11-member panel spent Monday touring neighborhoods and downtown Erie. City leaders briefed them on planning and economic development efforts. On Tuesday, the panel interviewed more than 75 local stakeholders from a broad range of organizations.

Then the panel developed a report of its preliminary findings, which were presented Friday. The ULI’s work is funded by the city of Erie, the EDDC, Erie Insurance, the Jefferson Educational Society and the Erie Community Foundation. It will issue a complete report in a few weeks.

The report will include specific block-by-block recommendations that cover EDDC’s focus area, which is from Sassafras to Holland streets and from Perry Square to Third Street.

Daniel Anderton, a community designer and planner from Rockville, Maryland, highlighted those recommendations Friday. They include the addition of 630 to 715 market-rate apartments in existing and new buildings that are affordable; making parking lots less “distractive” to the beauty of city streets, by using screen walls, for example; adjusting zoning ordinances, and increasing the priority of “complete streets” and other streetscape elements.

The panel also stressed a “one street” concept that runs from the bayfront to Union Station on 13th Street. State Street should include a dedicated route for trams that run north and south consistently.

To achieve that goal, the panel suggests closing State Street to vehicle traffic at Perry Square. The space could only be used by bicyclists, pedestrians and the trams. Perry Square should also be adapted for increased entertainment use, which would include an ice skating rink and dedicated spaces for food trucks, the panel said.

The panel also stressed the need for a better and shorter connection from downtown to Presque Isle State Park.

In the neighborhoods, Murphy said the city needs to take stock of blighted, vacant and tax-delinquent properties, which he said should be viewed as assets.

Panelists Stanley Lowe and Nan Rohrer emphasized communication and accountability.

“If you don’t act swiftly and take action,” Lowe said, “it’s going to be a difficult proposition. It’s time for ‘we’ to crush the ‘me’ and create a collective vision that the entire community advances.”

Rohrer urged Schember to hold quarterly meetings so that key players stay on task, and to dedicate a web page and social media accounts to highlighting accomplishments.

“Brag about what you’re doing,” she said.

Schember said most of the recommendations from the Urban Land Institute are possible.

“I wouldn’t reject any of it out of hand,” he said. “A majority of it I think we’ll do. There may be some things we have to study further. This is going to accelerate the vision that we have for here.”

John Persinger, the chief executive officer of the EDDC, which has raised about $35 million in private investment, said the ULI’s findings “provide a good diagnosis of where we’re at and where we need to go.”

“You heard today that we’re at a tipping point in the city,” he said. “Everyone knows we’ve been in decline for 60 years. This report provides some great recommendations of how we tip forward so we can get out of this decline and get the city growing.”

Matthew Rink can be reached at 870-1884 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ETNrink.