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Allentown plans $5 million in capital improvements

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 11 2014 06:38:47 AM CDT
Updated On: Apr 11 2014 04:30:04 PM CDT

Allentown is ready to spend some big money to make some capital improvements.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

It was like Christmas morning for Allentown.

Five million dollars’ worth of tantalizing goodies were placed before City Council Wednesday night -- skateboard parks, dog parks, an ice skating rink, another spray park, land to expand city parks and much more.

The proposed capital projects were on a list presented by members of the city’s administration to council, which was meeting as committee-of-the-whole.

The $5 million is part of the revenue from the controversial 50-year-lease of the city’s water and sanitary sewer systems, which began last year.

“This $5 million is an important facet of the water and sewer lease proceeds,” said Francis Dougherty, the city’s managing director.

Dougherty told council the money gives Allentown a rare opportunity to get some capital projects done, “something we’ve been unable to do for quite some time.”

Council vice president Ray O’Connell agreed that it’s been a long time since the city had money to spend on capital projects. He said the proposed projects will improve the quality of life for city residents.

“We have said time and time again that a number of things the city has been lacking have been an ice skating rink, a dog park and a skate park,” said Dougherty. “You’ll find money earmarked for each of them.”

Officials explained not everything on the list – including the dog and skateboard parks -- will be completed this year.

Council member Peter Schweyer explained the funding allocations alone will not be enough to complete all the projects. He explained the city has or will seek matching funds for some of them.

Acting as a committee-of-the-whole, council voted 6-1 to recommend final approval of the $5 million in capital funding allocations. It is expected to take the vote during its meeting on Wednesday.

Council member Jeanette Eichenwald cast the only no vote.

O’Connell complimented the administration for being proactive and asked that it keep council informed as each of the projects comes to fruition.

“Council has to play a very active role in many of these going forward,” agreed Dougherty.

Schweyer said the list of projects was the result of many months of conversations about much-needed infrastructure improvements and other “interesting projects.”

He explained the city has been planning to use $5 million of “unallocated” revenue from the water and sewer lease for capital improvements ever since it realized it would get more than the $180 million it needed.

Most of the $211.3 million from the lease is being used to avert a financial crisis that threatened the city because of skyrocketing pension costs.

Park land and traffic flow

The administration proposes spending the biggest chunk of the money--$2.8 million ---on park land acquisition and downtown traffic improvements.

Each project would get $1.4 million.

The city plans to purchase a total of 16.26 acres for park land, said John Mikowychok, Allentown’s parks and recreation director.

Dougherty said a total of six parcels are involved, but in only two locations.

The largest property –nearly nine acres -- is the large vacant field with an electronic billboard at the southwest corner of Union and Basin streets.

The other property – more than seven acres -- is the site of the former Lebanon fertilizer plant along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, at the northern end of Lehigh Parkway.

Dougherty said the purchase of that “strategic” park land will allow the city to fully connect its parks “under our master plan.”

Mikowychok indicated several planned trails would join in the Union and Basin property.

The downtown traffic improvements include $300,000 for contracted services and $1.1 million for construction contracts.

“We’re looking at the traffic issues that are going to arise not only with the arena but also with the added jobs that are coming to downtown Allentown,” explained Craig Messinger, the city’s interim public works director.

“Our plan is to make sure that it’s done by September.”

Messinger said the area for traffic improvements is between 4th and 12th streets, south to Union Street, north to Chew, plus north on 7th Street “all the way to the city line.”

He explained the project won’t make major roadway changes, but will focus on the timing of traffic lights to improve the flow of vehicles into and out of center-city – including when thousands of people simultaneously will be leaving hockey games and other events in the new arena at 7th and Hamilton.

Messinger said the city has identified 35 intersections that will be included in the project.

Dog and skate parks

The city proposes spending a total of $300,000 to create dog and skateboard parks, but Mikowychok said those parks won’t be created this year.

Dougherty said the parks director is trying to find matching grant opportunities. He said the parks department also is researching what constitutes a state-of-the-art and “hip” skate park.

Dougherty asked for council’s assistance to find suitable locations for the skate park “and a dog park or two.”

Skating rink

The administration proposes spending $200,000 for a portable ice skating rink, with synthetic ice, that would be erected somewhere in center city during winter months.

“We are looking at various locations,” said Dougherty. “What size and where I can’t tell you now. But now we have the money to make it happen for our residents.”

Mikowychok, who in investigating the purchase, said a rink with synthetic ice saves the city the cost of buying a Zamboni to resurface the ice for skating.

He said it will have to be at least 70-by-90-feet for basic family skating.

“It’s certainly not a hockey rink,” he said. “This is for recreational skating.”

The parks director said it is too soon to say if the ice rink will be operational by next winter, because site selection work still has to be done.

City officials hope the rink will be free, although Mikowychok said there could be a rental concession for ice skates. He said it’s not yet been determined if the city will need to hire someone to manage the rink.

Stevens Park renovations

A total of $300,000 is earmarked for Stevens Park at 6th and Tilghman streets.

Half that money will be used to add a spray park so children can play in water in the summertime.

The other $150,000 will be used to rehabilitate the park, including a new pavilion and playground, security improvements and landscaping.

“Stevens Park is long overdue for its renovation,” said Dougherty.

Mikowychok said the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is contributing $250,000 to that project, which he anticipates will be completed in 2015.

Dougherty explained Stevens is owned by Allentown School District, but leased to the city on a long-term basis.

Lights in the Parkway

The city plans to spend $75,000 to improve Lights in the Parkway, the annual Christmas season drive-through illuminations in Lehigh Parkway.

“It needs new lighting,” said Dougherty. “They haven’t replaced any of the scenes over a number of years. There used to be a regular cycle of replacing the displays.”

Dougherty said there was much debate about whether Lights in the Parkway should continue. He said Mayor Ed Pawlowski has decided it will, because it has become an annual holiday tradition for many people.

“That said, you have to reinvent it,” said Dougherty. Some old displays will be sold and “replaced with appropriate modern pieces, including a new marquee display. This stuff is not cheap.”

Resident Glenn Hunsicker recommended the city also should install permanent restrooms at Lights in the Parkway, especially for visitors from out of town.

Other projects

* The administration is proposing spending $600,000 to demolish blighted properties.

Dougherty said the city will combine that with $400,000 in proceeds from the sale of a city-owned parking lot to allocate $1 million for blight demolition this year. “That’s a huge allocation, a major step forward,” said Dougherty.

Dougherty indicated where that money will be used has not yet been determined.

* The $5 million capital budget includes $100,000 to make improvements at Alton Park in south Allentown. Mikowychok said that project will include parking lot and sidewalk improvements, landscaping and the installation of crosswalks on Oxford Drive.

* The administration is proposing $100,000 for street improvements.
Dougherty said $100,000 is not even nearly enough. “I would need $10 million to do what I need to do on the streets, but it’s something.”

* A separate item is $100,000 for improvements on Chew Street between 5th and 7th streets, like improvements already made between 4th and 5th on Chew.

* The plan includes $200,000 for a surveillance camera system for the city police department.

* A total of $150,000 will be used for repair and maintenance supplies, as well as pipe and fittings, for Allentown’s four remaining swimming pools.

(No money was allocated toward reopening Fountain Park Pool, which has been closed since 2009. Mikowychok has said replacing that pool could cost at least $1.5 million.)

* Dougherty said a $50,000 project labeled Livingston Water Shed “is better known as our flood-prone area on Allen Street.”

After heavy rain caused flooding in many west Allentown blocks in late August 2013, angry residents demanded action from City Hall.

Dougherty said that money will be spent to do a study the city promised West End residents it would do to fully understand the reasons for that flooding.

* The administration plans to spend $25,000 to do an initial engineering study on repairing the leaning WPA project wall near the Robin Hood section of Lehigh Parkway.

Dougherty said an organization called Friends of the Allentown Parks will provide a matching $25,000 for that study. Schweyer predicted actually repairing the stone wall will cost a couple hundred thousand dollars

Some oppose spending

Only a handful of people attended the Wednesday night meeting and at least two of them were not happy with the capital spending proposal.

Resident Bonne Bosco told City Council the city was on the verge of bankruptcy less than a year ago. Now she said the Allentown School District is bankrupt but the city plans to spend money on “frivolous things that only certain people will use.”

She considers that a smack in the face to the school district and its students who are losing teachers and aides. What about their quality of life? she asked.

“Is this money burning a hole in our pockets?” asked Bosco. “Do we need to spend this right now?”

O’Connell noted the city and school district are two separate political entities. He also noted young people appeared before council a couple years ago to ask for a skateboard park.

Resident Rich Fegley also criticized the city for “wanting to blow $5 million in one year on random projects.” He claimed the money belongs to city residents and told council “this is not your money to spend. This $5 million should not be spent on any of these projects.”