By Carly Giacoio
Every city has its Main Street, and for Allentown, that’s Hamilton Street. From the courthouse to the library as well as a host of shops, restaurants, and offices, Hamilton Street comprises the heart of downtown Allentown. This is why in 2009 the city decided to embark on an ambitious plan to revitalize 128 acres along a stretch of Hamilton Street. The Neighborhood Improvement Zone, or NIZ, was marketed as a revitalization of Allentown, to reshape the landscape of the city, bring new people in and create a better area for its residents. Construction has been booming and Hamilton Street is now home to corporations such as the Renaissance Hotel, Tim Hortons, ADP, as well as the PPL hockey arena. There are also a bunch of new high-end apartment buildings including the NINES, Center Square Lofts, and Cityplace apartments. If you build a new project in the NIZ you have access to a pot of money generated by taxes that can be used to pay off construction debt. But this has come at a cost.
“We need to know who in our community, those who are born and bred here, is occupying that 128-acre space?” says Jeani Garcia of Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley. “We’re getting pushed out for parking lots, our apartments are getting destroyed to build a parking deck for these new apartments or this business here in the NIZ that we can’t even walk in, we can’t even work in, we can’t even afford to live in these new buildings.”
“We know that people in our community are not going to be able to have the same access,” explains Garcia who is in charge of the Reentry program at Promise Neighborhood. “Some apartments should be allocated to Allentown residents that lived in that geographical area on one of those 128 acres, they should be allowed to come back. It’s like ‘ok, you bulldozed my home, so there should be an option to come back and rent one of those properties.”
Although the NIZ is open for potential business owners to contact them if interested in opening a business in the NIZ area, acceptance is not as simple according to Garcia. “If someone in my community wanted to be in the NIZ planning area, they have to go to a bank, determine financing, so they can get approved for a project, but we know that’s not going to happen with people in our community. We know it’s going to be harder. There’s going to be systematic barriers that are set up for somebody who wants to open something in the NIZ.” In an Allentown Vision 2030 survey from 2018, the number one community concern/goal was “reduce inequality for neighborhoods in and around the NIZ.” But in 2022, Garcia is observing the same lingering issues.
Since the pandemic began, the building of the NIZ is ramping up. At this point, Garcia is interested in how or when Allentown residents could benefit from the change. “I think somewhere down the line, maybe 20 years, that there will be a housing development at some point. That’s the only way the Allentown residents will be able to get in. In 20 years it’s going to look like ‘we got the best of it, now let’s give it back to the residents’. I feel like that’s going to happen, but it is going to be old. We don’t get anything new. We are not a part of the new planning and development as a neighborhood organization.”