Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interview with Dennis Lieb, New Project Coordinator for the WWNP

Dennis Lieb, lifelong West Ward resident.

Posted by: Noel Jones

I had the opportunity to interview Dennis Lieb at Porter's Pub recently about his new role at the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership. Those of you who have been following the blog for a while already know that Dennis has been a passionate community watchdog for years--a passion that even inspired him take a stab at a City Council run last year--and a key voice at the heart of most public discussion related to proposed planning projects in Easton. I was glad to see that he was his usual, candid, self when talking about his new job. It was a great chance to learn more specifics about his background, and I have to say, I left feeling pretty optimistic about the direction of the nonprofit with Dennis and Esther Guzman at the helm...

Q: Congratulations on your new position with the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership—what is your title there?

A: Thanks—Project Coordinator.

Q: What does that actual mean?

A: I think they made it as generic as possible so that it could mean almost anything. They’re making me the liaison to the Lehigh Valley Land Trust, and I’m going to be taking over the sidewalk grant program. In general, all the physical planning stuff is going to fall to me.

Q: Could you tell me, for the readers of the blog, a little bit about your background?

A: I went to school for Architecture, I got an Associate’s Degree in Architecture from Northampton Community College and then transferred to Illinois Institute of Technology. I did not finish there, I came back here in 1985 and got a job at The Architectural Studio, so I worked at architectural offices here in the Lehigh Valley for four years—drafting, detailing, figuring out how things went together--two years in both Easton and Allentown. Some of those guys are still around. The Easton office isn’t open any more. I was free-lance after that, worked for various firms, Spillman Farmer being one of them. I got my real estate license in ’94 and have been working with Prudential ever since. So I got into real estate with the hope of learning the development business, and the hope of having enough money to do development on my own. But that hasn’t happened yet, so instead I found a developer who willing to do the same kind of things I want to do, but had the money to do it. So I’m just representing developers at this point—you know--real estate planning, zoning, code in a consultant capacity.

Q: And then the mayor appointed you to the Planning Commission last year, right?

A: I was asked to be on the Planning Commission last summer. Before that I was also Chairman of the Shade Tree Commission from 2003 to 2004. (Mike) McFadden asked me to do that after (Mayor) Goldsmith left, because Goldsmith had let the Shade Tree Commission lapse into non-existence. He stopped appointing people to it and stopped funding it. I served on the board for Alliance for Building Communities from ’03 to ’08, I was on the board for the Easton Heritage Alliance from ’03 – ’05.

Q: You’ve been an Easton resident for life—what things would you like to see come back to the city?

A: I’d like to see neighborhood industry. We had lots of small industry in the neighborhoods, and they didn’t have any negative effect on the town. They were clean industries, like the textile businesses—not that textile industries are going to come back—but there are other things we could be doing on a small scale, manufacturing and assembling in the neighborhood—the buildings are there—we just need to promote it. When we re-wrote our zoning ordinances, we allowed for more uses in the neighborhood. I’m personally of the belief we should have allowed for more. We’re a little too restrictive on industry in the neighborhoods. The kind of industry this country has now is not all smoke stack industry. For instance, I had a client back when Goldsmith was mayor who wanted to buy the buildings at the foot of College Hill, which is now the Lafayette Art Center—that was a former car dealership. He wanted to gut it and turn it into a fabrication plant for high-end stereo cabinets and move his company here from Brooklyn. Could I get anyone at the city to listen? No. You can do that kind of stuff in town and its not going to have a negative effect on anyone.

Q: That’s the kind of thing that you might be able to influence in your role as Planning Commissioner, but in your new role with the WWNP, what improvements do you anticipate being able to promote in the West Ward?

A: I can bring education to the public, who have a lot of issues that come out in the form of complaints, but they really don’t understand the situation well enough to have solutions. I think I have solutions, they just need to be presented in a way that the public can digest easily and get behind. You have to give options to people, so that they can see that there’s a benefit in what they can do, but it’s not going to be shoved down their throats. Everybody knows what to complain about—it’s easy to step out your front door and see what the problems are, but it’s very hard to come up solutions if you don’t know what the options are. They need options. I can do that—I can give people options to improve their neighborhood—choices that don’t necessarily cost a lot of money—in some cases, no money.

Q: Will you be involved in the Urban Ecology Program?

A: Technically, no. I was hired as an employee of CACLV, and I am not a consultant for any program in or outside the partnership. I’m not saying I won’t have input into the things they’re trying to accomplish, because that’s part of our mission statement for the year, to accomplish certain goals within that grant—I’m sure I’ll contribute to that—but I’m not working for them. I’m not associated with that program directly. Whatever they require the WWNP to contribute to that, I’m there to give my input, and Esther will decide what input I give.

Q: So you’re not involved in the Canton Program at all?

A: No.

Q: What do you think about Esther Guzman as the new Manager of the WWNP?

A: I think Esther has a good handle on things, from the short time that I’ve known her. She understands what needs to be done. She understands what she can and can’t do on her own. She building alliances with people she thinks can help.

Q: And she’s looking to you for your physical planning experience?

A: Yes. And the thing I try to emphasize is, planning in this country for a long time has been about rules, regulations, legal language—it needs to get back to being about good design. There was a time in America when lay people who owned businesses knew how to do good buildings. It was a civic responsibility to do good buildings. Today we have a corporate mentality where we take a cookie cutter design and build it every place, and unless local communities have the wherewithal to say, “no, we want something better than that,” then it turns into a generic place that looks like everything else.

Q: Do you think it’s important for residents to have a voice in terms of design and the way their streets function?

A: I think they should. The biggest obstacle to that—apart from the fact that we don’t normally include them—is that we have very little education in this country, on any level, on what good design is. How does someone give input on something they’ve never been taught about? There is a certain basic level of understanding you have to have to know what works and doesn’t work. There’s function, there’s beauty—something can work perfectly well, and be hideous to look at, and that’s not good civic design, because everything that’s part of the public realm has to honor the city. This is a classic example: people complain every time a taxing authority wants to build a new courthouse or firehouse, or a new school—the argument becomes, “Why are you spending all our tax money on this Taj Majal?” instead of saying, “We deserve a quality building that looks good. It honors the public, it honors the people that work there every day.”  That’s how we used to think 100 years ago. Our civic buildings represented what our society was about—it wasn’t just about cost. You have to strike a balance between cost and quality.

Q: There’s also common sense offered by residents, about things that aren’t working and things that could possibly work. For instance, there’s a parking issue in the West Ward, and residents have asked if we can open up the fire alleys for parking—there’s a creative idea from citizens.

A: It’s a very obvious, good idea. We have neighborhoods that were designed before the car became ubiquitous, and now, because of the way we’ve allowed the neighborhood to change over the years from single-family residences to multi-family units--we haven’t made any arrangements to deal with the additional cars. So all that off-street parking in the fire alleys, which is just being wasted…on top of the fact that we now have twice as many people living on these blocks than they were designed to accept…so you’re bringing all these new vehicles into town, what are you going to do with them? We have to come to some kind of consensus as a society as to what you’re going to promote. Are you going to promote a neighborhood, or promote car storage?  You have to pick what you want to do—you can’t just turn everything over to the car, otherwise you lose your neighborhoods—we’ve made our neighborhoods into highways. That’s why good people leave—they don’t want to live on a highway, so they move out.

Q: I talked to a resident that other day who had come across a book on the history of Easton that belonged to his uncle and he was surprised to see that there used to be trolley’s in our neighborhood. Do you think trolleys could make a comeback?

A: There’s a photograph in our office of Northampton Street from 5th Street looking east, with a big “Re-elect Roosevelt” banner, looking downtown toward the circle. All the storefronts are occupied—a marquis on every building—and you’ve got these big hulking 1940s sedans going both directions, but we still had plenty of parking on both sides of the street, and a big swathe down the middle with trolley tracks going both directions. So we could accommodate that today, especially since trolley cars are narrower now.

Q: How open are you to residents coming in to the office and telling you their ideas? How can they reach you—are you going to be at the office on a daily basis?

A: I want people to proactively come after me. I’m sure there are going to events that I can go out to meet with people too. I want proactive citizen input on a constant basis. They can reach me by phone, by email, by stopping by the office or just talking to me when they see me out and about in the community. I would like to be able to meet with people in informal settings, one-on-one, a normal conversation. They can throw out what they perceive to be the issue, and if they have solutions, fine. If they don’t, I can tell them what some of them might be. If I think they have solutions that are detrimental to what they’re trying to accomplish, I’ll try to educate them as to why that’s not such a great idea. When I was running for city council, I was walking the neighborhoods, and on Northampton Street between 13th and 15th Streets, it’s all parked up during the day because the teachers park on the street and you get a lot of complaints from residents who live on Northampton Street. I told them some of the solutions to that, such as metering the street, so that at least the people that work there have to make a conscious decision as to whether they’re going to drive alone to work, car pool, or find another place to park. So then the wheels start turning in their heads and they start to think that metering might not be a bad idea after all, especially if you can keep the revenue from the meters in the neighborhood. It’s called a “parking benefit district.” You can have areas of the city that suffer from “overflow parking” when you have other things besides housing where a lot of people park during the day—like a school, or The State Theatre, for instance—where people are going to park in what would normally be residential spaces. You can’t reserve the street, because it’s public space, but you can make people pay for the privilege of parking right in front of your house, so you’ll have the peace of mind as a resident that if you can’t park in front of your own house for a certain part of the day or night, at least you know the money is coming back to your neighborhood for other improvements.

Q: So residents would get a pass?

A: Residents would park for free.

Q: What would you like to see happen on the 600 block of Northampton?

A: There’s this fancy term in New Urbanist zoning called a “transect”—it basically breaks down the landscape of a community into the most urban, the most rural and everything in between--suburban, urban neighborhood, urban downtown, urban core—which has the densest activity—it’s the most dynamic place. Every one of them has a different physical environment. When you’re out in the country, you don’t necessarily have sidewalks along the roads, you don’t have formally planted trees. It’s all natural. When you get into town, things are designed for a reason because they are supposed to function certain ways. So you have to understand what transect you’re in when you’re designing a street. This whole wildflower thing, it’s great from an ecology point of view, but it’s been abstracted out of nature and forced into the most urban neighborhood. One of the issues with the Urban Ecology Program, so far as I see it, is a fixation on the aspects of "greening" the city and that is certainly a noble effort in and of itself; this whole idea of what we normally think of as ecology being wrapped up in images of plants, animals and the natural world. What has been missing though is the idea of a human ecology in it's own right, which is to say a built environment that supports the life of humans in a civilized manner. We need to understand there is an urban ecology of buildings, street grids, public spaces and the like that nurture human interaction, social networking, public health and safety. You can’t bring isolated aspects of the country into the city and similarly you can’t take aspects of the city and inject them into the country without causing problems. This lack of differentiating city from country - mixing them together incoherently - is the overriding reason why suburbia is failing as a sustainable living arrangement. You have to understand where you’re at. What makes sense to me is to look at that block as the transition between the West Ward, which is primarily residential, to the downtown, which is primarily retail. This block was at one point a transitional zone of small businesses with storefronts and housing above. We’ve had a lot of conversions into first floor apartments where the storefronts have been closed up with substandard materials. Over time I would like to see us facilitate a return to that mix of retail and residential and make it the most attractive part of the procession into downtown. Right now as you’re coming through Easton toward downtown and you’re coming up the hill, you don’t see downtown until you get to the peak. What you see is this neighborhood that has been going backwards for the last 40 years—I’m saying that as someone who has watched it happen. A lot of it is in the hands of absentee landlords with properties that have been stripped-mined for rent. Architectural details have been lost, poor materials have been used, with the bottom line being, “let’s get as much money out of this property as we can.” We have to create incentives here to get it back to what it was. When I was a kid, I felt that downtown started at this intersection right here (Northampton and 7th Streets). That’s been lost, and I’d like to get it back.

Q: Do you feel the presence of the WWNP is a beacon in the neighborhood, and is there a way to make it more visible to residents?

A: You always have to strive for more involvement. It’s universal—no matter what community you’re in—there’s going to a core of people that are involved, and they’re a small minority—3-5% of the population. You have 11,000 people living in this neighborhood. If you get 500 people to participate even on a minor level in the course of year, you’ve done a good job. I don’t think the expectation should be any more than that. In a city the size of Easton, if you got 300-500 people in a neighborhood who participated consistently, they could change this whole place. It doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but when you have a history of very low participation in anything, a critical mass of people of 300-500, can create amazing changes. I mean, we know 50 people off the top of our heads here, who if they all got on the same page, could probably get a hell of a lot done in this neighborhood. I think the perception has to change too, that just because this is a low-income neighborhood and requires assistance, that there aren’t people here that are just as smart and just as energetic and capable of achieving amazing things as anyone else—College Hill, Downtown, South Side—it doesn’t make any difference.

Dennis Lieb can be reached at the West Ward Neighborhood Partnership by phone at (610) 515-0891 and by email at dlieb@caclv.org --or by stopping by the office located at 668 Northampton Street in Easton.


noel jones said...

For concerned about the fate of the 600 block of Northampton, the 2nd public input meeting on how to fix this project is happening tonight (Wed) and it's also a good time to talk to Dennis about other ideas or planning concerns you might have in the West Ward--




Esther Y Guzman
Program Manager
West Ward Partnership Program
668 Northampton St.
Easton PA 18042
(610 515-0891"

Anonymous said...

Dennis, congratulations on your new assignment. It's even better you are directly employed by CACLV. I hope they can stomach your bluntness. Alan can to some extent if there are no other people whispering into his ears. You are focused and I am hoping you will survive the hot water politics of CACLV. You might want to call Gary up and learn his survival skills in that area.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Anon...see my comments under the 600 block post.



Tim Pickel said...

Good luck Dennis. I think you will do a great job. I am not always around, but if you need help, let me know.