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Easton, Sea Isle City Use Smart Growth Formula

Walkable, bikable towns create vibrant communities

Sea Isle City on the Jersey Shore is a lot of things, but it is most certainly the Park Bench Capital of America. Its slogan should be “Sit your butt down here.”

On the town’s promenade – which is essentially a boardwalk without all the rides and games – there’s a bench just about every 10 feet. Each has an inscription dedicating it to someone, often accompanied by a quote about the person’s love for Sea Isle City.  The benches are an amenity for tired pedestrians, a place to stop and talk, and a classy way of reminding people that the town is a great place to be.

It’s just one of the facets that draw people in droves to the downtown for walking, bicycling, shopping and restaurant and bar hopping. The town center also has lighted basketball courts, a gazebo and a band shell where there are events most nights, including concerts, movies and contests like “Sea Isle City’s Got Talent.”

All those things create excitement and build the community. When I was there on vacation last week, the downtown was bustling each night. Little kids tugged at their parents to get ice cream; pre-teens and teens gathered to giggle and flirt.

Twenty-somethings gravitated to the bars and restaurants, and the middle-aged and elderly strolled and shopped, taking advantage of those ever present park benches. A wave of nostalgia washed over me while I watched families gather on the lawn by the band shell for Movie Night.

Now granted, Sea Isle City has a huge advantage called the Atlantic Ocean.  But there are other towns on the shore that haven’t made nearly as good use of public space.

It made me wonder what the formula is for a vibrant downtown and why some of them thrive and others decay. Bethlehem has found the formula and so, it seems, has Easton and towns like Nazareth and Emmaus.

I called Becky Bradley, Easton’s director of planning and codes, to ask what has contributed to that small city’s renaissance. She said first, a town has to figure out the kind of place it wants to be and then plan and revise building and zoning codes to make its goals possible.

After she became planning director in 2005, the city threw out old zoning laws that allowed for more suburban-type development and instead adopted codes that preserved the interesting older architecture while making the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.  

“One of the reasons people come to downtown Easton is it has a character and we wanted to maintain that character,” Bradley said.

The city has chosen to build on its base as a destination for artists and art lovers. In the spring, it broke ground on the 2.5-mile l along the Bushkill Creek. It now offers “Movies at the Mill” at the former at 13th Street, a site it hopes to turn into an arts complex. Easton has renovated several parks, including Riverside Park, and features numerous festivals and events. The State Theatre, Crayola Factory and National Canal Museum continue to draw visitors to the city.
 
Currently, “government spending” are dirty words in this country but Bradley said targeted public money has been key to attracting private investment. “For every public dollar we’re investing in our infrastructure, we’re getting at least $2 in private investment,” Bradley told me. “Since 2005 in the downtown alone we’ve had 12 restaurants open up. The city of Easton is only 4 square miles. Since the economic downturn we’ve had over $200 million in investments in those four square miles.”

Bradley said if Easton wasn’t investing in the parks, water lines and roads, “we wouldn’t have a city, we’d have a third world country. The private money follows the government investment.”

Just don’t forget to add park benches.

Jon Geeting July 11, 2011 at 02:21 PM
Nice column, Margie! Glad to see more writers picking up this important issue. There's been a lot of progress, but the cities need to stop trying to compete with the suburbs on suburban terms. As I've been writing here and on the blog, policies like mandatory minimum parking requirements, height limits, minimum lot size requirements, and maximum lot occupancy rules limit infill development opportunities in the LV cities. Easton's planning department gets it, but Bethlehem and especially Allentown are much further behind. Main Street in Bethlehem is a great place because of how it was originally designed, but if you look at how they're managing land use on Southside, parking requirements are hampering infill development. You couldn't build something like the Sigal Museum on an empty lot if you aren't able to add a bunch of extra parking spaces. They're also wasting valuable Steel land by filling up a significant area with enormous surface parking lots. It's ridiculous.

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