“You actually live in downtown?”
Because I make my home in downtown Wilkes-Barre, I hear that question a lot.
During the past few weeks, I’ve been particularly bemused as the local skeptics have responded to announcements of two new downtown residential projects with doom and gloom and pronouncements that “no one would ever want to live in downtown Wilkes-Barre.”
Well, I hate to break the news to them, but they couldn’t be more wrong: The proof is in the developments and the residents that are already here and transforming Wilkes-Barre’s center city for the better.
The 21 condominiums at Elevations Lofts, next to Movies 14 at the corner of Northampton and Main? They’ve all been sold and occupied for two years. The 16 new rental lofts in the South Side Bank Building? They’re full. So are all of the 17 apartments in the Luzerne Bank Building. Twelve more units are coming online at the Hampton Park Residences on East Northampton Street – and two already have been sold.
The newest residents join those who live in the rehabilitated Victorians of downtown’s River Street National Historic District, the modern townhouses on Jefferson Lane, or the Provincial Towers, B’nai B’rith and Washington Square high-rises. Downtown Wilkes-Barre might be Northeastern Pennsylvania’s oldest neighborhood – people have been living here since 1769 – but it’s never stopped being a neighborhood. There’s even a Downtown Residents Association, which provides a vehicle for neighborhood advocacy and camaraderie.
In Wilkes-Barre, unlike many other cities, downtown living isn’t a novelty – it’s a longstanding tradition.
Downtown has certainly become one of the Wyoming Valley’s most diverse neighborhoods. There are a lot of college students: the median age of the downtown’s residents is 22. There are also a lot of senior citizens: one-quarter of downtown’s residents are 65 or over. However, my neighbors also include an increasing number of people who don’t fall into either of those categories. Many are fortunate enough to be able to live wherever they choose – and they have chosen to live in downtown.
Why? Because, without a lot of fanfare, downtown Wilkes-Barre has emerged as the region’s neighborhood of choice for anyone seeking the convenience and amenities of a walkable urban place: workplaces, colleges, restaurants, stores, the Kirby Center, Movies 14, galleries, the River Common and more. The U.S. Census reports that 32 percent of wage-earning downtown residents now walk to work – compared to 3 percent in Luzerne County as a whole. New developments, like the new investments by King’s College and Wilkes University, will only increase the activity and add to the downtown’s walkable appeal.
In fact, downtown Wilkes-Barre represents our community’s singular opportunity to participate in a national demographic shift — one that’s critical to the region’s ability to compete in the “knowledge economy.”
We know that there’s a very strong correlation between educational attainment and economic growth, and as a Forbes article noted recently, “there’s one place … college-educated professionals between the ages of 25 and 34 tend to want to live: tight-knit urban neighborhoods that are close to work and have lots of entertainment and shopping options within an easy walk.”
If you’re skeptical, consider the following, courtesy of the U.S. Census: in 2000, 17 percent of downtown residents aged 25 and over had earned a bachelor’s degree – slightly greater than the 16 percent in Luzerne County as a whole. Ten years later, Luzerne County’s adult educational attainment had risen to 20 percent - but, in downtown, that figure had shot up to 28 percent.
To drive home the point: the 2010 Census also notes that 75 percent of downtown’s residents aged 25 to 34 years have a bachelor’s degree – compared to 28 percent of the 25- to 34-year-olds in Luzerne County as a whole. Increasingly, when well-educated young people are choosing to live in our community, they are choosing to live in downtown.
Now, I know that downtown living isn’t for everyone – nor does it need to be. However, the national trends are clear: City centers have again become desirable places to live.
Not only is downtown Wilkes-Barre, with its long residential tradition and its enviable collection of assets, well positioned to capitalize upon that fact, but, with about 3,000 people already living in downtown, the transformation is already well underway – and that’s good news for our entire region.