READING, PA (July 10, 2019) – In an earlier entry in The President’s Journal, I discussed the Community Foundation’s project to identify and catalog all of Berks County’s current and former houses of worship. It’s a big project that’s likely to take a while. It’s also part of an even larger approach to thinking about the community just a bit “differently.”
A community like Berks County is rich in resources. It has human resources — the people who make up the place. And there are natural resources — our amazing natural scenery and the rivers and streams that course through the county. Another type of resource that we’re trying to think about more deliberately is our built environment — the buildings and other infrastructure that dot our landscape. Those structures can be a source of pride and inspiration or, in some cases, angst and frustration.
We’re looking at ways to help Berks County and its component communities think about how that built environment can better serve us in the future. There are an endless number of issues to consider. How will automated vehicles affect the way people interact with their community? Changing demographics are sure to have an effect as our population becomes more diverse. And the way we transact business is changing rapidly and in ways we didn’t foresee 25 years ago. How many of us have even been to a bank branch lately?
Broadly speaking, we’ve divided the work into three categories that we’ll be looking at long term.
The first is the Sacred Places Project discussed in the earlier entry.
We’re also focused on spaces that were built to support retail. Berks County, for instance, was once the home of three indoor shopping malls. Two of them — Morgantown Outlet Mall and Fairgrounds Square — were closed. (Fairgrounds ceased internal operations in 2018, but some stores with external access remain open.) The third mall (Berkshire) has lost two of its three anchors and is suffering from what the news media has called “the retail apocalypse” with chains seeming to announce closings every month.
Interestingly, since we began thinking about this, the enclosed mall problem seems to be working to correct itself. The Morgantown Outlet Mall has been repurposed as a classic car dealership that is reported to be wildly successful. The owners of the Fairgrounds Square Mall recently announced plans to demolish the building and redevelop the site.
We presume that given the value of the land, market forces will lead to some repurposing of the Berkshire Mall as well.
But market forces haven’t worked everywhere and blighted former retail sites plague municipalities like Shillington, Exeter Township and Muhlenberg Township. With a radically decreasing demand for retail space, the community is going to have to think carefully about how we deal with those sites. Vacant storefronts could bring down surrounding property values and become centers for criminal activity.
There’s no clear plan yet at the Community Foundation for how to approach this issue. But we will likely explore how other communities are reacting and then educate policymakers about options to encourage redevelopment.
The final part of our thinking revolves around governmental and higher education facilities. This work will come further down the road. It will probably involve another effort to catalog all that exists in this category and then engage the community in thinking about what it wants to do. Facilities like the Hamburg Center and the Wernersville State Hospital are examples of abandoned or under-utilized facilities that could be redeveloped or put to better use. These institutions also pose a risk of becoming a problem for their surrounding neighborhoods.
One bright spot in the reuse of old public buildings: Saucony Creek Brewery is planning to open a restaurant this summer in the old Franklin Street Station in Reading. That’s a fantastic jolt of energy for the revitalization of downtown and turns an unused building into a community asset.
The work of the Community Foundation in thinking about the built environment is long range and will probably never end. The dynamics of what a community needs will change as it grows, shift with changes in society and the economy, and inevitably reflect changing expectations. The Community Foundation is uniquely blessed to be able to help Berks County think about the next 50 or even 100 years so that we can make smarter decisions about how we use all of our resources to make the community a better place to live.
Kevin K. Murphy, President
Berks County Community Foundation