innovation

Diversifying Honesdale

A local group advocates for mixed usage

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 10/28/20

HONESDALE, PA — The word “Canaltown” has carried a range of meanings over the past several years of Honesdale’s history. It’s often been the force behind various …

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innovation

Diversifying Honesdale

A local group advocates for mixed usage

Posted

HONESDALE, PA — The word “Canaltown” has carried a range of meanings over the past several years of Honesdale’s history. It’s often been the force behind various borough-based movie festivals; sometimes it’s a publisher of maps, using cartography to tell a specific story about Honesdale’s landscape. Most recently, Canaltown is zooming out a bit to look at community development as a whole.

“It’s sometimes difficult to pin down what Canaltown is,” organizer and cartographer Derek Williams admits readily in the group’s annual report. But it’s a safe assumption that anytime something of local, cultural import is in the works, Canaltown is at the helm, peripherally involved, or at least watching with interest.

(In addition to his work with Canaltown, Williams writes a column for the River Reporter).

With the coronavirus pandemic effectively erasing the opportunity for any large-scale gatherings the past several months, instead of thinking about planning festivals, Williams has shifted Canaltown’s focus toward planning—period: that is, zoning ordinances, conditional use requirements, parking restrictions, etc.

“The health of the town is representative of the greater ecosystem of people, and a healthy town is a healthy place to have festivals, and a healthy place to have festivals is a healthy place to create in,” Williams said. “I see them all weaving in and out of themselves.”

In pursuit of a healthier community, Canaltown recently submitted a review to Honesdale Borough advocating for a new approach to downtown zoning; namely, an approach that allows for a greater diversity of land usage.

Williams said that despite the fact that the downtown district was built to allow for diverse use—shops and restaurants on bottom floors, apartments on the upper floors—residential usage is not explicitly identified in the ordinances for downtown. As a result, requirements that typically come about during the conditional-use process tend to stymie development, according to Williams.

“[Honesdale’s] ecosystem thrives on diversity and our resultant land-use history has gifted us with the cherished building stock we’re lucky to still have today,” according to Canaltown’s review. “Nonetheless, our current zoning requirements do not easily allow the continuation or reestablishment of this land-use mix.”

Most often, Williams said residential projects are halted because the borough adds off-street parking requirements during the conditional-use process. As anyone who has spent much time in downtown Honesdale knows, there’s not much off-street parking to go around.

Williams noted two different upper-floor renovation proposals that the borough considered this year. Since both were residential projects, both had to go through the conditional-use process, and—as a result—both “ended up getting shackled with off-street parking requirements.”

What’s most troubling to Williams, however, is that only one of the projects ended up getting approval.

“On paper [the projects] were effectively the same thing,” Williams said. “It was people who wanted a residential upstairs, and they both provided for parking off-site, and they were within similar distances, and one was approved and one wasn’t… it seems a little inequitable.”

By placing too high a value on parking, the buildings in town are destined for dereliction because there are too many obstacles in the way of development and use, the report concludes.

Williams also has thoughts on the borough’s recent rulings on short-term rentals (Airbnbs), which he feels are too restrictive on the borough’s residential neighborhoods, like the historic district. If potential homeowners aren’t able to supplement their income through short-term renting, Williams feels the houses in these neighborhoods could fall into disrepair or abandonment—with no one being able to afford the upkeep of these large, old homes. On the flip side, Williams thinks these historic homes may also “become exclusive, luxury real estate.”

In addition to those concerns, Canaltown’s review posits that residential neighborhoods just north of town are the ideal spot to foster the short-term rental market anyway.

“If one were looking at conditions favorable for short-term rental development, they’d look for infrastructure access, availability of utilities, and instances of residential units incorporated into existing buildings,” it reads. “Objectively, you’d be looking no further than our residential neighborhoods.”

Williams noted that without being commissioned to review these ordinances, all he can do is offer his thoughts as a citizen. But, having made these kinds of suggestions in the past, he’s hopeful that these will be well-received.

“All I can do is throw it out there, and I’ve had some luck with it so far,” he said. “Festivals and towns are both based on place. It’s a spatial binder for the diverse and dispersed communities inhabiting shared spaces. Honesdale is a place I like creating within.”

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