Imagining Easton: College and city discuss expansion plans

As Lafayette College grows over the next few decades, the city of Easton hopes to grow alongside it, according to a comprehensive plan produced by Urban Matrix Architecture and Planning PC of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The plan, which details a vision of Easton’s future for the year 2035, cites specific goals of transforming Easton in the next 20 years, including establishing Centre Square as Easton’s premiere business district, developing the Delaware waterfront, managing and reducing housing vacancies across the city and discouraging irresponsible development and renovation.

According to some Lafayette administrators, the plans did not take into account the full role of the college in the community and the effect the expansion of the school might have on the city in the next 20 years.

President Alison Byerly said that the first draft of the 20-year plan made some references to Lafayette, but that there had not been enough conversation between the college and the consultants drafting the plan for them to know about the idea that we might grow as an institution.

According to Byerly, the school hopes to add 300-400 students, 25-30 faculty and some employees in the next six to eight years. Meanwhile, the city hopes to bring Easton’s population up by nearly 10,000 people by 2040.

The fact that Lafayette is expanding its student population is a big issue to keep in mind in the 20-year plan, said Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Roger Ruggles, who has served on Easton’s city council for nine years.

“It means that there’s going to have to be more employment here and more employment here means more revenue for the city,” he said. “But it also means that you can’t expect to expand student numbers and not expect to have more building developments. Students have to live somewhere.”

According to Byerly, expanding the college would mean eventually building new dorms on property already owned by the college. But that would not necessarily have a direct impact on the infrastructure of city-owned buildings.

“We already own most of the property that we would be building on so it’s not going to have a direct effect on, it’s not going to make any major changes in the landscape or anything of that nature,” Byerly said.

But as the school slowly expands there will be a need for temporary housing as the number of students increases, and that may come from apartment complexes downtown as Easton continues to develop.

“There will be a period of one or two years where we are adding students but won’t yet have opened a new residence hall,” Byerly said. A potential option for these transition years, Byerly said, would be off-campus apartments downtown for students.

Filling housing vacancies was a proposal mentioned in Easton’s 20-year plan, which stated that in 2012, residential vacancy in downtown climbed to 20 percent. The plan suggested partnering with Lafayette to assess the possibility of “developing homeownership programs for postgrads, young professors and non-faculty staff in revitalization zones.”

A survey sent out to the campus community by Lafayette College Residence Life last week attempted to gauge the interest of current students in potentially filling those vacancies downtown. The survey asked how students would feel about suite style buildings, what amenities students would want in that type of housing and whether or not they would be interested in living downtown in the first place.

The college also surveyed faculty and staff members who live in college-owned housing, Byerly said.

“We also thought it would be useful to get a sense of how many of our own employees who currently live on College Hill might actually like living downtown, because that might free up some college houses that are currently rented [by staff and faculty],” she said.

Vice President and Liaison to the Lafayette College Board of Trustees Jim Krivoski said he would move back to downtown Easton from Forks Township in a heartbeat. Krivoski, who planned to move to Easton for three years and is now finishing his 31st year in the Lehigh Valley, said he stayed because of the community.

Twenty years ago, that community was not one that many people wanted to interact with, according to Ruggles, who said that people used to avoid the downtown area, but now go often for shopping and restaurants.

According to Ruggles, a potential reason why the consulting firm that wrote Easton’s 20-year plan did not know about the college’s expansion plans is that they started their process of collecting data about the city two years ago.

“So by the time that the report rolls around, many of these things have been accomplished or legislation has been put in place to address them,” he said.

“You’re caught in a rough position because typically, most municipalities do not have the expertise in that field, especially smaller municipalities like Easton, to develop a strategic plan,” Ruggles added. “But on the other hand, people who [consult] don’t have the expertise of the local community.”

According to Easton Mayor Sal Panto, Lafayette’s expansion is not the only thing that was left out of the report.

“I think the plan was very vague in a lot of areas. It doesn’t have transportation, it doesn’t have environmental concerns in it, you know, what we should be doing with our storm water, what we should be doing about water and flooding,” Panto said. “But there’s a lot of things that we’re missing, not just Lafayette College.”

Still, Panto said that the city should be recognizing that the college is growing.

“Lafayette College is still the largest employer and the largest tax payer in the city and I couldn’t even imagine a city without Lafayette College so it has to be a vital part of the plan,” Panto said.

According to Panto, Easton City Council will be hosting committee meetings soon to fill in the gaps left by the document.

 

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