During the 1970s, there was an uncommon level of consensus in Reading politics; almost everyone agreed that downtown Reading was once the best location on Earth. Obviously, by that point, the downtown area had been transformed into parking lots as building after building had been demolished to make way for development. Some people who were in favor of urban renewal called it that, while those who were against it called it pretty much anything else.

It was clear that action was required; after all, suburban areas like Shillington and Antietam had begun to see the construction of strip malls in the 1950s, and residents, particularly the influx of new suburban homeowners, were rushing to shop there. Shop owners in the downtown area complained that consumers were flocking to suburban malls for the convenient parking.

The original plan was simple: demolish some dilapidated buildings and replace them with surface lots, which would entice shoppers from the suburbs to return to downtown Reading. In the process, certain long-term nuisances might go, and it wouldn’t hurt if any of those neglected places happened to be in the city’s infamous red-light district.

That was the dream. The truth was that the parking lots were only of interest to city workers traveling from the suburbs; these workers would rather stop by the malls on their way home from work than spend the evening downtown. Downtown businesses were suffering from more than simply a lack of parking, though. Most stores on Penn Street were built for retail on the ground floor, for offices on the second floor and apartments on the third and higher floors. Compounding a general decline in retail trade, those upper-level rental incomes began to leave, and not just for the suburbs.

Reading had a lot of opportunities for low-cost housing, offices, and storefronts from 1950 to 1970. During that time, the city held half of the county’s jobs and a population of 110,000. By 1970, though, the city had lost about 30,000 residents and its job dominance. That left a lot of merchants in the high-cost downtown trying to support multistory buildings solely from ground-floor incomes, and once the pigeons got in upstairs, deterioration was rapid.

For several of the older boroughs, such West Reading, Womelsdorf, Kutztown, etc., the downtown commercial districts were experiencing the same problems. However, Reading accomplished a great deal, whereas they did very little. But smaller cities were never given the chance to be as bold with their revitalization as Reading was.

For many communities, Reading included, the abundance of government actions that ensued from the near-panic in those larger urban regions was too much to handle. Civil rights, racial inequality, and the spread of urban blight as a result of white flight to the affluent suburbs were all brought to the forefront during the 1960s urban unrest. This issue reached epic proportions in Reading in the late 1960s, when construction of the Berkshire Mall began.

The Reading Parking Authority, Reading Housing Authority, and the Reading Redevelopment Authority were already well-established by the 1970s, but the Economic Opportunity Council and Model Cities were newly-formed federally-sponsored organizations that joined forces with the Reading Parking Authority and Reading Housing Authority to combat poverty and blight.

Most people remember the urban renewal years as a time of failure, characterized by ferocious personal rivalries, power struggles in politics, unrealistic plans that never materialized, excessive political favoritism in the form of exorbitant consulting fees, hordes of consultants from out of town attempting to dictate policy, a hint or two of corruption, and a deluge of federal funding used to keep all the politicians, consultants, out-of-town experts, and patronage employees in a state of perpetual squabble.

The majority of that, however, was caused by two main areas: the redevelopment authority’s Downtown East urban renewal project and Model Cities, which virtually ground to a halt as a result of the intense animosity that split its highly politicized citizens council from its equally politicized professional officials. The redevelopment authority chose to respond aggressively to the threat that the Berkshire Mall posed to downtown shops.

An enclosed, suburban-style mall, spanning both sides of Penn Street from Court to Cherry streets, was envisioned as part of the Downtown East proposal. The mall would be anchored by the Pomeroy’s building at Sixth and Penn and would extend all the way to Eighth.

Despite numerous critics’ predictions to the contrary, the project failed to attract the required commercial interest. However, despite significant protests, the redevelopment authority cleared the area save for the Astor Theatre site and constructed the pedestrian entranceway that the mall design had requested. This necessitated the removal of traffic from Penn Square and its replacement with gardens, fountains, benches, and terraces—an idea that was, incidentally, universally beloved or reviled from the start.

Below: Penn Street Pedestrian Mall.

Penn Street Pedestrian Mall

Despite the swift demise of the shopping mall, the Penn Square pedestrian mall persisted for over a decade. Eventually, the city listened to its residents and reinstated traffic flow while preserving the park-like environment. At the time, a cynical official from the renewal group said that it was vital to keep up the appearance of change, when asked why this was happening despite the mall’s dwindling prospects.

Below: Back of the Astor Theatre (center) on Cherry Street facing Northwest surrounded by surface lots (mid-1970s).

Astor Theatre

In spite of the widespread belief that the vast majority of the tens of millions of dollars spent on this conflict had been frittered away, Reading can really claim a good return on investment. Additionally, it is easily visible to everybody who looks.  Renewal land was used to construct nearly all the new buildings in downtown Reading, including the County Services Center, Penn Square Center Building (Northeast corner of 6th and Penn), General Battery Building on the North side of Penn Street between 6th and 7th Streets, Santander Arena, and the $67-million DoubleTree Hotel.

Below: Construction of the Penn Square Center Building (Northeast corner of 6th and Penn), 1977.

Penn Square Center Building

Below: Construction of the General Battery Building on the North side of Penn Street between 6th and 7th Streets (bottom right of photo), 1978.

General Battery Building

Below: Construction of the Santander Arena in the late 1990s (Eisenhower residential high-rises, built during the urban renewal era, in the background). Santander Arena
Below: Construction of the DoubleTree Hotel (2014).

DoubleTree Hotel

As part of the revitalization efforts, even Cherry and Court streets were enlarged. The Court Street project helped to promote the development of Washington Towers, Plaza Madrid, the WEEU Building and eventually the Chiarelli Plaza parking garage. The Court Street Urban Renewal Project also included a bank building at 6th and Washington streets and 5th and Washington (now home to the Shuman Development Group), a new fire house for two companies, and municipal parking lots, including the large one at 3rd and Washington streets.

Below: M&T Bank Building, 50 North 5th Street Reading, PA, built in 1964 as the regional headquarters for Peoples Bank.

M&T Bank Building

The Cherry Street Project provided land for the Fourth and Cherry Streets Garage, off-street parking in the 600 block of Cherry Street, the South Penn Garage, Franklin Plaza, and the Rhodes and Eisenhower residential high-rises.

Demolishment of flood-damaged riverfront properties, relocation of town residents, construction of the Riverfront Industrial Park to the south of the Penn Street Bridge, and filling of land to the north of the Penn Street Viaduct with new housing were all part of the renewal system that was put into motion after Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

The Economic Opportunity Council, which was involved in one of the most successful programs of the War on Poverty – Head Start – and which was renamed to the Berks Community Action Program, is still tackling numerous poverty-related issues.

Many who lived through Reading’s renewal in the 1970s look at the thriving boutiques along Penn Avenue in West Reading housed in all those restored historic structures and wonder if the town would have been better off in the long run if its leaders hadn’t spent tens of millions of dollars demolishing the past to make lofty plans that never materialized.


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