Could a riverwalk change how Allentown views the Lehigh?​

By Meredith Amerman

The Lehigh River as seen from Bucky Boyle park. Photo by CL.

Access to nature has long held importance to many people. That is why there are city parks. City parks were introduced in the industrial era when everyone worked in factories all day. When Allentown was an industrial city, city parks were meant to provide an “escape” from the city into “nature.” When Allentown was an industrial city, you could imagine that a walk through the trees at Trexler Park with a peek at the fishes swimming in the Little Lehigh Creek would be a nice break from the smoke and soot and noise of a factory. People, in general, enjoy being around water. The sound of the flowing water is calming and it simply looks pretty. Artificial ponds are in many parks, like Cedar Creek Park in Allentown. A riverwalk could offer access to a natural water system.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania had the second most number of parks compared to the rest of the states, with California ranking number one. This was because the governor of PA at the time, Gifford Pinchott, had already put plans in place to build parks. Some of these parks were set in Allentown and they are still here today. Cedar Creek is one of these parks. Bringing nature back into cities, and spending time in nature has always been important for both enjoyment and our mental well-being. Considering that the Lehigh River flows through the city of Allentown, creating access to the river can be a great way to connect Allentownians to nature. “If it gets people outside and exercising, it will be win-win for public health and the environment,” said Dr. Richard Niesenbaum, professor and director of sustainability studies at Muhlenberg College. Urban parks are especially important in a dense, formally industry based city like Allentown, that once lacked easy access to the natural environment, as the remnants of the industrial era still linger in the city, especially by the river. The waterfront is an example of this because it is mostly warehouses, lacking easy public access to the river within the city.

This past March, construction of the Lehigh River Waterfront Building was completed. It is named by its address, 615 Waterfront Drive. As the Allentown Voice previously reported, Jaindl Enterprises, a local Allentown family business since 1904, is developing the waterfront. The land in which the building was constructed, used to be a brownfield (industrial site). The EPA describes brownfields as an expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of land that has been compromised by hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. In the case of the Waterfront, the spot where they are currently developing was once home to Lehigh Structural Steel Company from 1919 to 1989. The redevelopment of this site was acclaimed by the EPA. On 10/11/23, a waterfront office building with retail and a restaurant opened. As we previously reported, there were concerns about how the investment would benefit the citizens of Allentown.

According to the city zoning report, the city has plans to build 150,000 square feet worth of retail, entertainment and commercial use. It would be located in three story buildings along a sidewalk and alleyscape. They also plan for outdoor dining and activities to be along the sidewalk. Allentown has built a Riverwalk. However, because of the empty warehouses, there does not seem like a plausible way to build the lush riverwalk depicted in the sketches found on the Waterfront website. It is also currently hidden behind many buildings, is an almost entirely paved area and only stretches for half a mile. Introducing vegetation to the waterfront to replace pavement is important. Donna Kohut, the campaign manager for the Delaware River Basin at the environmental advocacy organization, PennFuture, emphasizes the importance of riparian buffers. The current drawings for the riverwalk seem to only have a small amount of vegetation. Riparian buffers are vegetated strips of land that run along creeks, streams, rivers, and wetlands. Healthy riparian buffers prevent erosion, filter pollutants, slow down and soak up stormwater runoff, and mitigate flooding, which helps to protect the nearby buildings. “Just looking at the [Waterfront] website, it would be great if the riparian buffers were there. They are for the health of the river, but also mitigate any flood impacts in the future. The more vegetation you have there, the healthier the river is going to be, the more protected built structures are going to be,” says Kohut. Riparian buffers do not just protect us from flooding. They also will save the city money because they are more economically sustainable. Kohut explained that a riparian buffer is cheaper to maintain than a lawn. Because riparian buffers mitigate flooding, money will not have to be spent on flood damage. And cleaner water flowing through water treatment facilities reduces maintenance costs on our infrastructure. In addition to the economic and ecological benefits of riparian buffers, they can offer natural beauty.

The waterfront developments are just beginning. Dr. Niesenbaum says the riverwalk will offer accessibility, and continues by saying, “because it is in the first ward of Allentown, which is one of the lowest income wards in the city, so it will offer a diversity of opportunities. It could also attract tourism, because of the scenic views, retail and entertainment. Even if there is litter, it is still a major improvement from industry.”

Kyle Ropski who is a member of Allentown’s Environmental Advisory Council told the Allentown Voice that if accessibility to the river improves through projects such as the Waterfront, the awareness of the positive role the river can play in the community as a resource is elevated. This can potentially lead to community-led actionable change to improve water quality and other environmental protective measures surrounding the river for the benefit of all stakeholders. However it is a tragedy of the commons situation–when we have shared resources such as public parks and rivers. This means people have to respect everyone’s needs without abusing or overusing those places for their own advantage. In this case, providing access to the Lehigh River can make people care more about it, but the increase of human activity by the river might also increase detrimental impacts such as pollution. Ropski also explains that those who are not environmentalists have to be convinced to care about environmental projects, often through economic incentives or utilitarian uses such as the riverwalk.

Currently the new Waterfront building is practically standing alone, with one of the closest buildings being an empty Amazon warehouse next to it, and a partially demolished brewery across the street. It is eerily quiet. There are hardly any people there, if anyone at all. The Waterfront building is not currently accessible to the public. There are no trespassing signs at its gate. There does not seem to be any activity in the warehouses. Further down the street is Buckyboil park. It has a playground and picnic tables by the water, though there is no waterfront access. There are private docks for the boating club. A riverwalk could enhance the quality of the playground, and the waterfront. The playground is tucked between industrial buildings, so if there was more access to nature it could improve the park, like the river. What would happen if the waterfront was more accessible to the public?

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