King trades paid work for volunteering

A city man who chronicled the destruction of Altoona’s downtown heritage and later advocated the preservation of such heritage – as a better antidote to suburbanization and a hopeful strategy for renewal – has retired.

Karl King was a radio news director in the 1970s, when urban renewal led to the well-meaning demolition of many of the characteristic buildings of Altoona, even as business owners fled to Pleasant Valley’s new shopping areas, designed for cars, rather than pedestrians.

Then, after a stint on City Council, King moved to heritage preservation, heritage tourism and eventually advocacy for development of infrastructure to encourage a return to walking and an appreciation of bikes – for both practical transport and recreation – a formula that has helped cities elsewhere remain or become vital.

In doing so, King has been an outlier, according to John Frederick, like-minded advocate for “sustainable philosophies” such as pedestrian and bicycle access – identified by economic development experts as a key to drawing people and retaining them, and with them, companies and jobs.

Pedestrian and bike access has been “part of the mix” for progressive and successful cities that have gone against the prevailing trend of decay – including Pittsburgh, Seattle, Portland, Washington DC and Minneapolis, plus the borough of State College – and all have touted that access as a “badge of honor,” Frederick said.

“The tradition and enthusiasm for [sustainable philosophies] can run very deeply,” Frederick said. “For whatever reason, it has not run as deeply in this area.”

But it’s catching hold, thanks to people like King, who brought biking and pedestrian access closer to the radar screen,” Frederick said.

Evidence of its taking hold is that the last two city mayors – Wayne Hippo and Bill Schirf – and the two candidates to replace Schirf, are advocates for bike and pedestrian access, Frederick said.

That wouldn’t have been “imaginable” 20 years ago, he said.

When King worked for WRTA and WVAM in separate stints between 1972 and 1984, the city Redevelopment Authority used federal Housing and Urban Development funds to raze downtown buildings – taking some by eminent domain – as part of urban renewal, King said.

The idea of remaking the “stodgy old downtown” was appealing to many, he said.

“It seemed like a good idea,” he said. “It seemed exciting.”

There had been three theaters, a toy store, a camera shop, men’s and women’s clothing stores, lots of interesting architecture and crowds of shoppers on 11th and 12th avenues.

Gables was the big anchor store.

But the downtown businesses operated on schedules that didn’t jibe with modern times, closing most weekdays at 5 p.m., so women newly in the workforce had trouble getting to them, he said.

And downtown wasn’t designed for cars.

So the retail vibrancy headed to the valley.

The expectation was that new businesses would come downtown to replace the old ones that left or were removed.

“But that part of the equation didn’t work,” King said.

As a result of the demolitions, downtown “lost its cohesiveness,” its “sense of place” and identity, he said.

It got parklets instead.

“It’s easy to say in hindsight” that it wasn’t the best idea, he said. “[But] that’s a lesson that comes with time.”

In 1990, after serving five years as a councilman in the city’s then-commission form of government, in charge of public works and engineering, King took over as project manager for construction of a new visitors center at the Horseshoe Curve, funded by America’s Industrial Heritage Project, a regional federal heritage tourism program.

In 1992, he began working for AIHP directly.

During that time, the program morphed into the Westsylvania Heritage Corp., a nonprofit.

In 2005, he began working for the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission as director of its regional tourism confederation, and in 2007, he moved to the Allegheny Ridge Corp., working as Mainline Canal Greenway coordinator.

He retired this year but continues to serve as a volunteer.

“His work continues on greenways and trails,” said Jane Sheffield, executive director of Allegheny Ridge.

He is vice president of Rails-to-Trails of Central Pennsylvania, which owns and operates the Lower Trail, whose original trailhead is in Williamsburg.

He works on the 9-11 Trail Committee, which aims to create a trail connecting the Flight 93 site in Shanksville to the Twin Towers site in New York City and the Pentagon.

He is on a subcommittee of that group charged with hiring a consulting firm to evaluate requests for proposals for designing the 9-11 trail, according to Sheffield.

And he’s on a technical advisory committee for the Southern Alleghenies commission for recreation transportation projects.

The initial idea was to identify, preserve and celebrate the efforts of people who built the steam engines, mined the coal and made the steel in the cities, towns and countryside of southwestern Pennsylvania, so that tourism based on exploration of the heritage resources, visiting the museums and using the trails would enhance the economies of the area, according to King.

“I think we did some good things,” King said of the heritage work. “There was a feeling that if those things were not preserved, we would lose them.”

And the la0st of those relics and stories would “make us poorer,” he said.

There was criticism of the millions spent.

“If you want to call it pork, OK,” King said. “[But pork tends to be] money spent in someone else’s district.”

The good included the enthusiasm and engagement of communities, including Altoona, Johnstown, Windber and Saltsburg, he said.

There is empirical justification in terms of research that shows the effort generated millions in tourism revenue and taxes, he said.

There’s subjective justification in terms of helping to reinforce our sense of place, of who we are and of where we and our families come from, he said.

“I’m not one to say we have to put everything under a bell jar,” he said. “[But] on the whole, I don’t regret any of the funds spent.”

Recent evidence that his later advocacy for bike and pedestrian access is the unanimous City Council support for pressuring PennDOT to include pedestrian crossings at one of the county’s busiest intersections – 17th Street and Pleasant Valley Boulevard – despite PennDOT reservations about the challenge.

Speaking in general about where the area has come in terms of respect for that kind of thinking, Frederick said: “I think Karl is as responsible for that as much as anybody.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.