Earth Matters: Downtown revitalization integral to Altoona’s allure

It is difficult to oppose historic preservation, environmental protection or community revitalization, yet when it comes to our urban planning and downtown development, our practices and policies would seem to indicate exactly the opposite.

The result has been the decay and depopulation of cities all across America. Detroit may be the poster children for this phenomenon, but many other communities (of varied sizes) have fallen on hard times. Camden, N.J., just across the river from Philadelphia, is proof that medium-sized cities can collapse, too.

Cities have long been challenged by many struggles, yet there have been many advantages to people living within close proximity of each other, and many towns and cities have managed to maintain a quality of life that attracts people to their community.

Why then do places like Detroit and Camden reach the point of near collapse? And why do places like Boulder, Colo.; Boise, Idaho; and Seattle always appear on the “Best Places to Live” lists? What can we do in Altoona and our nearby boroughs to push them toward Boise instead of Camden?

Altoona and its environs, blessed with some of the same things that make Boulder and Boise great places to live, are also cursed with a few of the things that make Camden a much less pleasant place. A number of local leaders (though still not enough) have come to recognize this and have taken action to push us in the right direction.

Like natural ecosystems, our man-made environments are complicated places, and the solutions to our problems are not simple. Among the many things that make a region more “livable” is the vibrancy of its geographic, social and economic center. A vibrant downtown is often the place where many of these things can come together.

Altoona leaders have realized this and are taking steps to recognize and address this and related issues. At an upcoming meeting of the Altoona City Council, a consultant’s report will be presented exploring how the downtown area might be revitalized. The consultant team looked at the practical and financial considerations connected with recycling several downtown architectural treasures and the developing several other new projects.

The report confirms that there is potential to attract business and people to the downtown area while preserving and restoring buildings that testify to our rich history. The great challenge is that it will cost millions to make the dream come true.

Before we discount the report as another pie-in-the-sky delusion, let’s look at some success stories of similarly sized cities not so very far from home. Williamsport has preserved many of its century-old treasures along Millionaire Row while breathing life into its downtown. Staunton, Va., has managed to preserve many dozens of beautiful old downtown buildings, creating a place where people are eager to spend time and money.

Downtown vibrancy is important in smaller towns as well. In Blair County, Hollidaysburg, Tyrone and Martinsburg particularly have proven that an investment in a downtown can make a community a better place to live and work.

It may not be easy, simple or cheap, but this report and these success stories prove that it’s possible.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. Watch the Mirror for details on the city council meeting and its television broadcast on the public access channel.