Open houses gather info on comprehensive plan process

Altoona Mirror, William Kibler

Original Article

December 5, 2023

Related project work

All Together Altoona Comprehensive Plan

The city’s comprehensive plan consultant is holding a second pair of open houses this week to learn how city officials and the public feel about what’s been done so far and to provide an update.

Two priorities have emerged through czb’s research and discussion: the need for “better public spaces designed with people in mind” and the need for “neighborhoods (that have both) pride and opportunity,” according to Peter Lombardi, czb’s director of revitalization planning, who spoke Monday at the first open house and later at City Council.

Making improvements on those big things will be needed if the city is to succeed in attracting and retaining young people, while also bolstering its workforce — two of the major themes that czb found this summer as it gathered information for the plan, Lombardi said.

Attracting and keeping young people and bolstering the workforce is seen almost universally in recent times as the key to community economic development, according to Lombardi.

Decades ago, economic development agencies stressed the need to lure companies by creating accommodations like industrial parks, factories, warehouses and office buildings, Lombardi said.

Now the emphasis has made a pivot to attracting people.

That involves making communities desirable for individuals, families and businesses that can locate anywhere, he said.

Nice public spaces, including streets, parks and public buildings and nice stable neighborhoods, with minimal blight, help to accomplish that, he said.

Economic development in the form of business investment and willing workers will follow, he said.

The firm’s research has documented the need for improvements. A survey of homes found that 14% of Altoona’s housing stock shows visible signs of distress.

Observations show that most of the major corridors through the city are “mediocre” in design and unpleasant to walk along; while statistics show that spending on parks is very low, compared to peer cities.

Furthermore, the city has lost more than 5,500 people and 7,700 jobs since 2000.

While nice weather and fewer unions have helped the South and Southwest grow at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest, there are cold weather and/or union-friendly communities, including the Twin Cities, Chicago and Boston, that have bucked the tide, according to Lombardi.

Locally, places like Ebensburg and Bedford have thrived, largely by following a recipe that emphasizes preserving and accenting historic assets in their core areas, he said.

Altoona ought to be able to do some of the same, he said.

The effort at the open houses this week includes gauging the willingness of people in the city to help pay for what’s needed — including, perhaps an “AllTogether Altoona Fund,” Lombardi said, with a play on the name of the comp plan.

The firm did this by asking attendees to paste dots onto posters to indicate that they would consent to put “skin in the game” by paying additional property taxes to help create the improvements the city needs to compete more successfully with other communities.

Such additional funding could go toward public space improvements in the downtown; rehabilitation of streets and sidewalks throughout the city; subsidies for private development; and capital and maintenance investments, according to czb.

It could also go toward neighborhood improvements like rehabilitation of blighted but salvageable buildings, demolition of buildings beyond repair, help for people who can’t afford property maintenance code compliance, rental rehab support and homeownership assistance, according to czb.

Altoona residents could perhaps afford it, according to czb.

At its current millage, Altoona is collecting $216 a year in real estate tax per capita or $148 less than the average per capita, for Pennsylvania’s 15 largest cities, Lombardi told City Council Monday.

Increasing the millage enough so that Altoona property owners would pay the average amount paid by property owners in those 15 largest cities would generate $6.5 million a year for Altoona, according to czb.

While the city’s median income is only 67% of the national median, it has remained fairly steady since 2000, according to czb.

To get different results, the city needs to do things differently, Lombardi said.

The firm hopes to have a draft plan at the end of February and a completed plan for council to approve in April.

The company will hold the second open house from 6 to 7:30 p.m. today at the Trolleyworks building on the campus of Amtran, 3301 Fifth Ave.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.