DRAFT City Comprehensive Plan

Foreword


Many great things are happening in Reading . Reading continues to have a highly walkable character, with a mixture of uses that allows residents to easily reach everyday goods and services. There is renewed interest throughout the country, particularly among younger persons, in living in interesting historic walkable cities. Reading ’s fabric of historic streetscapes is intact in most areas of the City, with notable historic architecture. Reading ’s compact development patterns allow for efficient public transportation. There also is a large supply in Reading of older brick industrial buildings that are prime for redevelopment into new uses.
The Reading Public Schools are showing major progress. Reading benefits from strong institutions, including Albright College, Alvernia University, Reading Area Community College, Reading Health’s School of Health Sciences, St. Joseph Health Downtown Campus, and the nearby Reading Health complex. There are fabulous entertainment, cultural and artistic offerings, including at Santander Arena, the Santander Performing Arts Center, the Miller Center for the Arts, the Goggleworks, at each of the colleges, and at smaller venues.

New “Live Work” housing for artists is being developed next to the Goggleworks and adjacent to Penn Square, which will allow persons to create and sell art in the same unit in which they live. The new Doubletree Hotel and Convention Center has opened as an anchor in Center City, and a Main Street Program is moving forward to revitalize the downtown.

Mount Penn and the Neversink Mountain provide scenic wooded backdrops to the City, in addition to recreational resources. Recreation trails connect Reading to many surrounding areas, including along the Thun Trail, the Union Canal Towpath and the Schuylkill River Trail.

There are many religious congregations, organizations, foundations and individuals that are highly committed to Reading , and are working hard to improve their community.

Although crime remains a concern, crime has been decreasing by almost every measure over the last several years.


What is a Comprehensive Plan?


A Comprehensive Plan is an overall set of policies for the development and preservation of the City. The Plan addresses Land Uses, Housing, Economic Development, Mobility, Environmental Sustainability, Community Facilities and Services, and Ways to Carry Out the Plan. At the same time, a separate plan is being completed to address Parks, Recreation, Open Space and Trails in Reading .

The Comprehensive Plan coordinates relevant policies in many previous plans that have been completed.

The Plan is not a regulation, but it is intended to provide the basis for an update to the City’s development regulations.

A set of background maps and analysis of existing conditions was completed to provide a foundation for this Plan. Interviews of over 40 knowledgeable persons of various interests were conducted. A Steering Committee of over 30 persons provided overall direction for this Plan. An online and a paper survey was distributed to ask hundreds of persons about the aspects of Reading that they liked the most and disliked.

As part of the process of developing this Plan, a set of four public meetings were held in different areas of Reading to discuss major policies.

The Plan was adopted by City Council after a public hearing, and after a Planning Commission Public Meeting.









The Overall Direction of This Plan


Vision and Mission Statements and Goals


The following Vision Statement, Mission Statement and goals are built upon the City of Reading ’s 2014 Strategic Planning Framework.

Vision Statement

The City of Reading will be recognized as a leading model of sustainable urban living and one of the most vibrant, walkable and innovative communities in Pennsylvania. Reading will offer a shared prosperity among all who live, work, learn, and visit through a thriving local economy, social well–being, and a healthy natural environment.

Mission Statement

The City of Reading will provide leadership and services that are responsive and proactive to the needs of our community. As part of our commitment to policy innovation and operational excellence, we provide real and lasting value through our public services in ways that promote and enhance our economy, society and environment.

Goals

  • To provide clean and safe neighborhoods and business areas.


  • To continue to provide a wide range of housing choices for households of various needs, while seeking to promote higher rates of homeownership.


  • To allow for a range of commercial uses in well-distributed locations that allow access by walking and bicycling from all neighborhoods for everyday needs.


  • To promote compatible mixes of land uses, in a way that reduces dependence upon motor vehicles for everyday needs and encourages people to live closer to their work.


    • To provide for compatible transitions between different land uses and different intensities of development.


  • To expand employment opportunities, generate higher tax revenues and increase family incomes within Reading , including fostering entrepreneurship by residents.


  • To continue to strengthen Center City Reading as a mixed-use urban center that serves the region, with a mix of office, retail, service, civic, arts, cultural, entertainment and residential uses, as well as a variety of events.


  • To work cooperatively in partnerships between City officials, institutions and residents to proactively address housing, transportation, parking, security and quality of life matters.


  • To maintain an attractive and walkable historic character throughout Reading , with new development that is similar in scale and setbacks from the street to existing development in historic areas.


  • To emphasize historic preservation, building rehabilitation that respects historic features, and suitable adaptive reuses of older buildings.


  • To promote good stewardship of natural resources and environmental sustainability by protecting steeply sloped woods and waterway corridors, encouraging sustainable practices, promoting use of renewable energy, increasing groundwater recharge, expanding community gardens, and increasing the tree canopy throughout the City.


  • To retrofit streets to incorporate "complete streets" principles, which place a priority on pedestrian and bicycle travel, encourage use of public transit, address stormwater management, provide room for trees and greenery, and moderate traffic speeds.


    • To make Reading more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly, and seek safe connections to the colleges, Center City, stores, schools, parks and trails within Reading and neighboring municipalities.


    • To promote expanded use of public transit, while also promoting greater use of carpooling.


  • To improve the quality of life for residents, including expanding recreation and arts opportunities, improving access to the waterfront, and encouraging active and healthier lifestyles.


    • To operate the Reading City Government in an open and transparent manner.


  • To continually work to put this Plan into action, through a program of inter-governmental cooperation and updated planning and many short-term actions within a long-range perspective.


    • To promote substantial citizen input, including making sure residents are well-informed about community issues and have plentiful opportunities to provide their opinions on City matters.



Executive Summary


The following summarizes the major recommendations of this Plan:


  • Carry out the policies in the Land Use Plan and Land Use Plan Map. Many of the categories in the Land Use Plan generally correspond to zoning districts. Zoning regulations are the main tool that a City has to guide land use and housing.


  • In areas shown on the Land Use Plan as Residential-Light Commercial, promote a mix of housing and low-intensity commercial uses that are compatible with homes. The intent is to make it easier for residents from many parts of the City to walk or bicycle to reach everyday goods and services. To reduce the number of nonconforming existing businesses and to encourage appropriate mixes of uses, this category is proposed to be extended into multiple additional blocks where there is already a wide mix of uses.


  • Strictly regulate or prohibit the conversion of existing one-family homes into two or more apartments. Seek to de-convert buildings back into single family homes in overly dense neighborhoods.


  • Promote first floor commercial uses with upper story housing. In commercial and mixed commercial-residential zoning districts, place an emphasis on promoting buildings with at least one commercial use along the primary street frontage, and with upper story housing. The goal is to promote an active streetscape, while making best use of the limited buildable land in the City.


  • Continue to improve Reading ’s housing stock, in the most cost-efficient manner. If any CDBG funds can be made available for housing rehabilitation, it would allow a much more flexible housing rehab program that could serve many more residents. An Essential Systems repair program could be established with a much lower cost per housing unit. These types of Essential Systems rehabs could be accomplished while existing residents continue to live in a home.


  • Establish a Land Bank to provide additional powers to address blighted and foreclosed properties. A 2013 State law allows the City or the County to establish a “Land Bank” to focus on converting vacant, abandoned, tax-delinquent or foreclosed properties into productive uses. One of the main tools available to a Land Bank is to be able to resolve unpaid taxes and tax delinquent liens. The Land Bank process can remove tax liens on abandoned properties. A Land Bank can be provided with certain advantages in purchasing properties at tax foreclosure sales.


  • Consider the Market Value Analysis in housing policies. The 2012 Market Value Analysis (MVA) for the City of Reading is a tool developed by the Reinvestment Fund (TRF) to provide assistance in making best use of limited public resources to stabilize and revitalize neighborhoods. Because public dollars are scarce, they must be prioritized to provide the most leverage in terms of private investment and spillover activity.


  • Develop neighborhood parking lots within the denser neighborhoods. The shortage of parking decreases the livability of many of the denser neighborhoods in Reading . In these areas, the Parking Authority should be encouraged to develop neighborhood parking lots. A modest monthly permit fee would be charged, which would be intended over time to compensate the Parking Authority for the costs of improving and maintaining the parking area.


  • Continue to emphasize assertive code enforcement. The City’s rental housing inspection program has been a major initiative for several years. There were 8,865 rental housing inspections in 2013, and the goal is to inspect every rental unit every three years.


  • Seek CRIZ Tax Incentives for Center City. Pennsylvania periodically accepts competitive applications for designation under the State’s City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) program. Reading applied once, and intends to apply again for designation. The State’s application process requires that specific development projects be proposed, with cost and revenue analyses, and with projections of expected employment and new tax revenues.


  • Seek to gradually reduce tax rates that interfere with economic development. One of the difficulties in attracting new investment into Reading is that two tax rates are much higher than in competing areas. The 3.6 percent local earned income tax rates for Reading residents and the 4 percent local real estate transfer tax rates for property sold in Reading are much higher than what is paid in nearby municipalities. As Reading ’s financial situation improves, there should be a commitment to gradually reduce the earned income tax and real estate transfer tax rates in phases, so that Reading will be more competitive.


  • Consider establishing a “land value taxation” system. One option to make up some of the lost revenue from reducing the earned income and real estate transfer tax rates would be to shift towards a land value taxation system. Under this system, the City’s annual real estate taxes would be structured so that the value of land is taxed at a higher rate than the value of buildings and improvements. This system is also designed to discourage speculation in vacant or underused land, because it would cost more in taxes to continually hold onto vacant or underused land. This system is also designed to reduce tax disincentives that can increase taxes after investments are made to improve buildings.


  • Vary parking rates based upon demand. The Parking Authority should be allowed and encouraged to vary parking rates based upon demand in various areas and time of day. For example, it should be cheaper to park in the most underused parking decks. This will provide an alternative for the most price-sensitive persons. Also, it could help to reduce east-west traffic across Center City because the decks with the most unused spaces are closer to the Schuylkill River bridges.


  • There is a need to improve the attractiveness and functionality of much of Penn Street, starting with Penn Square. The streetscape of Penn Square needs improvements, with additional on-street parking. The existing streetscape of Penn Square was designed primarily to serve public buses, but much of that bus transfer activity has moved to the BARTA Transportation Center. Areas occupied by unneeded bus stops should be redesigned to allow for short-term customer parking, and possibly some space for special events or outdoor cafes.


  • Use the new Main Street Program to strengthen the Downtown, building upon the work of the Downtown Improvement District, while emphasizing special events. The Main Street Program is part of a nationwide effort that has been successful in many cities and towns. It emphasizes design improvements, economic revitalization, joint promotions, special events, and historic rehabilitation. This type of program works best with a dedicated staff-person to oversee the efforts.


  • Carry out the recommendations of Greater Reading Tourism Report. In 2015, a report was completed entitled “Destination Research and Recommendations for the Greater Reading Area.”


  • Continue to protect Reading ’s historic resources with historic districts, as well as demolition controls in additional areas.


  • Consider requiring approval of demolition of key older buildings in areas that are outside of the currently regulated Historic Districts. It would be desirable to enact a basic set of controls on demolition of the principal buildings within the most important historic blocks of the City, in areas that are not currently protected by the four Local Historic Districts and the Heights Historic Conservation District. These types of controls could also regulate removal of certain architectural features from the front facade, including porches and cornices. This type of limited control of demolition on historic blocks could be added to the City’s Zoning Ordinance, without requiring pre-approval by PHMC or the completion of expensive additional studies.


  • Work with the Reading Area Transportation Study (RATS) and PennDOT to obtain funding to improve the most crash-prone and congested intersections. Most of the crash-prone intersections involve State highways. State and/or federal funding should be sought through the RATS process (which is staffed by the Berks County Planning Commission) and the PennDOT Transportation Improvement Program to address these intersections.


  • Work to improve the West Shore Bypass, and reduce congestion at the Lancaster Avenue interchange. There is a study underway that is funded by PennDOT of the West Shore Bypass. It is particularly difficult for traffic to enter onto Route 422 using ramps that enter onto the left lane of the highway. The Lancaster Avenue / Route 422 interchange and adjacent areas include the most congested areas in Reading . However, it is extremely difficult to find solutions because of the constrained land areas next to the river, and because of the proximity of the Route 10 intersection to the ramps.


  • Implement “Complete Streets” policies, with an initial emphasis on 2nd Street in Center City. Complete Streets involves fully considering all users within a public right-of-way, instead of placing the full emphasis upon moving larger volumes of vehicle traffic at higher speeds. Complete Streets involves full consideration of pedestrians, bicyclists, persons in wheelchairs, and persons using public transit. It also considers users of the public sidewalk, such as for cafes, bicycle parking, street trees and other uses.


  • Complete the River Road Connection to Schuylkill Avenue. The River Road connection project east of the Schuylkill Avenue bridge is currently funded and is now in final design. This connection is essential to improve truck access to 50 acres of the Riverfront Industrial Park along Opportunity Drive, which is east of the river.


  • Continue to provide efficient public transportation, and continue Sunday bus service to reach employers.


  • Over the long-run, seek passenger rail service to Philadelphia. A short-term alternative would be to extend SEPTA rail service from Norristown northwest to Pottstown.


  • Continue to improve public education in Reading . The health of the City of Reading is extremely interconnected with the quality of the Reading public schools. This is true not only because of the importance of young people having the skills needed by employers, and to make sure students will be ready to succeed in college or technical programs. The quality of the public schools are also important because it affects whether middle-income families with children decide to move into or out of Reading .


  • Carry out the City’s New Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan. Issues involving parks, recreation and trails will be addressed in detail in the City’s new Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan, which is currently being completed.


  • Improve public access to the Schuylkill River and the Tulpehocken Creek, and complete trail links. There are some missing links in the recreation trail system, and a need for additional trailheads to provide public parking and information to persons using the trails.


  • Prioritize and schedule needed capital projects in the City. There are extensive capital needs within Reading . For example, many City-owned buildings need major roof repairs or roof replacements, a number of streets are in need of reconstruction, and several fire stations need major repairs or replacement. A comprehensive analysis of these needs and costs should be completed, so that they can be prioritized and scheduled in phases in a Capital Improvements Program (CIP).


  • Improve or replace outdated fire stations. The fire apparatus of the City is generally in good shape, but many of the stations are not. It may be possible to reduce the number of stations with one or more properly located new stations. Several fire stations are in need of major repair or replacement.


  • Continue to aggressively reduce crime. Although Reading still has a crime problem, there has been great progress over the last 8 years in reducing the crime rate. The Police Department maps the locations of crime on a daily basis, to find patterns that can be used to stop future crime.


  • Seek funding to add Police Officers inside the larger public schools. It would be extremely beneficial to have the specific officers regularly based inside the larger schools to develop relationships with students and to intervene before incidents become more serious.


  • Increase use of recreational natural areas by City residents. It would be highly desirable to expand use of natural areas along the waterways and mountains by City residents. The Berks Nature organization is expanding programs that are aimed towards encouraging City residents to enjoy the natural environment, through guided hikes and through a new environmental center in Angelica Park.


  • Carefully manage woodlands on Mount Penn and Neversink Mountain and avoid erosion.


  • Address compliance with Federal Stormwater Regulations, and promote green methods of managing stormwater, and possible levying of stormwater fees. Like other urban municipalities, Reading faces increasing requirements to comply with Federal Municipal Separate Stormwater Systems (MS4) stormwater requirements. The MS4 program emphasizes reducing pollutants in stormwater runoff. In addition to public education efforts, the program requires instituting pollution control practices in public works operations. The City also is facing expenses to repair old storm sewer systems, and to reduce pollution from those systems.