Thursday, December 5, 2013

Brooklyn Firm to Draft Easton's New Comprehensive Plan

By Christina Georgiou

Easton's new comprehensive plan, which affects not only
zoning, but lays out a vision for the future of the city
and its neighborhoods, will be drafted by the Brooklyn-based
planning and architecture firm Urban Matrix, Planning
Commission members unanimously agreed Wednesday evening.

Easton's new comprehensive plan is once again moving forward with the city's planning commission voting unanimously Wednesday evening in favor of contracting the undertaking to a Brooklyn-based architecture and planning company.

Urban Matrix Architecture and Planning PC beat out 13 other firms' proposals and will draft the city's new comprehensive plan for $160,000. The price includes not only the plan itself, but also an executive summary, and an interactive website outlining the plan when it's complete. The firm will also work with the city's engineers, Pennoni and Associates, said the city's Chief Planner Carl Manges.

Submitted proposals and bids ranged greatly, he noted, with the highest coming in at $630,000. The next highest was $200,000, he added.

The $160,000 cost of the work to be done by Urban Matrix will be borne by funding from the HUD Sustainable Communities Program, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development Municipal Assistance Program, and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, grants the city has already been approved for, though some of the funding is set to expire if it's not used by mid-2014. Some of the funding too is tied into the silk mill revitalization project, which also needs to move forward in order that those funds do not expire as well, Manges said.

The process of selecting Urban Matrix involved two rounds of interviews. Thirteen initial proposals were narrowed down to five, and then a steering committee comprised of city staff and planning commission members worked down to two finalists.

"It actually came down to two firms that we really liked, and I locked them in a room and told them to fight it out," Manges said, adding that the firm that was ultimately passed over occasionally subcontracts for Urban Matrix and that he'd have been happy to work with either of the two companies.

"They were really impressive, and I'm really excited to work with them," Manges said of Urban Matrix.

Planning Commission chairman Charles Elliott said he's confident the city's comprehensive plan rewrite is in good hands.

"I think it was our sense that Urban Matrix understood Easton more than the other firms did," he said. "They have an experience working with complex issues and a great attention to detail...I think they're going to give us an excellent product."

Representatives from Urban Matrix will attend at least four planning commission meetings next year and work closely with planning staff as the new comprehensive plan is drafted. Public input that has already been gathered from members of the community and selected stakeholders toward the project will be incorporated into the final product, and Urban Matrix will also be gathering more input from the public during the process, Manges said.

Planning commission member Ron Shipman praised Urban Matrix, noting that the firm was also engaged by the City of Allentown in May for its planning expertise, for their vision and attention to detail.

"I was really impressed that they worked on Battery Park City," he said. "I don't think that project is anything like this, but it's beautiful."

Planning Commission members Robert Sun and Dennis Lieb, along with Shipman, said that the new comprehensive plan needs to consider the needs of the whole of Easton equally and also consider the individual needs of the city's different neighborhoods. The propensity for crime, public transportation, and individual neighborhood characteristics are all factors that need to be considered as the new plan is drafted, they said.

Manges said Urban Matrix seems particularly receptive to the wants and needs of their clients, and that all the factors the commission deemed important could be worked into the new document.

"This is not going to be a cookie cutter comprehensive plan," he said.

Manges estimated the plan will be complete by December of 2014.

The city's comprehensive plan hasn't been updated since 1997, and though such documents are meant to typically cover a 20 year span, Easton's growth and numerous changes in the last 16 years have left the current plan outdated, city planners have previously said. The planning department has attempted to outline an updated vision for the city for the last several years, only have the project set back by more pressing issues.

Last year, a new push by the planning department to complete the new plan in-house was begun in earnest, and headway towards that goal was in fact made. However, the departure of city Planning Director Becky Bradley to head the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission  and chief planner Brian Gish leaving to pursue advanced academic goals this past summer left the department short of staff and resources to complete the task in time to take advantage of grant funding earmarked for the undertaking, city officials said.

Those wishing to participate in an online survey about Easton's future, the results of which are expected to be considered for the comprehensive plan rewrite, can do so by clicking here.

Updates on the progress of the comprehensive plan rewrite are also expected to be posted on the Easton Planning Department's Twitter account.

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