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40 years later, Rep. Robert Freeman still has public policy on the brain

State Rep. Robert Freeman
Tom Shortell
State Rep. Robert Freeman stands in front of one of his prized possessions, an aerial photo of Easton from the early 1960s.

EASTON, Pa. — A large black-and-white aerial photo of Downtown Easton hangs on the wall of state Rep. Robert Freeman's district office.

It's one of his prized possessions, capturing a moment in that time that first led him to Harrisburg 40 years ago this month.

The photo shows Easton in the early 1960s, before a misguided urban renewal project demolished much of the downtown south of Northampton Street. A thriving immigrant neighborhood was leveled to make way for office space, senior housing, parking lots, a movie theater and a Perkins Restaurant & Bakery.

  • This year marks the 40th anniversary of Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, first taking office
  • Admirers consider him one of the leading experts on municipal planning in the General Assembly
  • He says Easton's misguided urban development in the 1960s inspired him to enter politics

Many observers today agree the federal project set Easton back decades. The move came as suburban shopping centers attracted shoppers away from urban communities. The downtown department stores and five-and-dimes withered without a customer base within easy walking distance.
Freeman said the disastrous results inspired him to pursue a career focused on public policy, urban renewal and municipal planning. Those 36 years of service — he was out of office four years in the 1990s after losing a state Senate race — are the most of any current member of the House.

"Seeing [Easton] kind of slide under urban renewal and then slowly come back?" he said. "It's just wonderful, and I'm glad that I've been able to be a part of that."

A focus on home

Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said Freeman has made a difference, through his legislation and his contributions in the city.

For instance, Panto said Freeman helped save Easton Farmers Market in 2002, when the last vendor was dying of cancer. The state representative and a group of volunteers breathed new life into the market by finding 15 new vendors with assistance from the Penn State Extension.

"He was instrumental in revitalizing that entire market," Panto said. "Today we have a waiting list for vendors. That is something that is really important. That brings thousands of people to the downtown."

He's the only guy in the universe that could run over your cat, knock on the door to tell you about it, and he's so nice that you'll invite him in for dinner afterwards.
Rep. Mike Schlossberg on Rep. Robert Freeman

Today, the 271-year-old market has more than 40 booths. It's moved out of Center Square to Scott Park, which provides much-needed space. The market is among the few places city residents can buy fresh produce without driving out of town, Panto said.

For Freeman, though, his career highlight is the passage of his "Elm Street law."

In the early 2000s, the state government was dedicating millions of dollars in grants for small business districts across Pennsylvania. The money would beautify downtowns and improve commercial properties, but the love was contained to Main Street.

Then Gov. Ed Rendell promoted it as part of his first budget, and it unanimously passed the General Assembly. Rendell signed it into law during a ceremony at St. Anthony's Youth Center in 2004. Almost 20 years later, the state dedicates about $3 million for the program, now known as Keystone Community Grants.

Bob Freeman and Ed Rendell.jpg
Courtesy of the House Democratic Caucus Information Office
Then Gov. Ed Rendell shakes hands with Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, after signing Freeman's Elm Street law Feb. 19, 2004 at a ceremony at the St. Anthony Youth Center in Easton.

Freeman said accomplishing longtime goals like that make the partisanship and gridlock of politics worth it.

"It's a great opportunity to achieve something for the greater good of community," he said.

Rethinking planning

Freeman has been able to celebrate his fair share of policy victories. In 2000, he helped pass legislation that created multi-municipal comprehensive plans, which allow neighboring municipalities to collaborate about growth.

He envisioned legislation that was more practical for how we live and work. Do you know how many people you need to convince to do something like that?
Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, on Rep. Bob Freeman

Normally, Pennsylvania law requires every municipality to zone for every conceivable use. For instance, small boroughs need a spot where a developer could theoretically build an airport, and rural townships have to allow for high-density housing.

Multi-municipal comprehensive plans let municipalities team up. One township doesn't need to offer high-density housing if a partner community does, and small boroughs don't have to zone for industrial parks if a partner zones for it. They still can if they want to — it's just not mandatory.

Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, said the plans are an important tool for municipalities across Pennsylvania. The LVPC sees the partnerships as an effective way to control where developments such as a warehouse can go, limiting the negative consequences that come with them.

Few Pennsylvania lawmakers over the past 50 years have matched Freeman's contributions to state planning laws, Bradley said.

"He envisioned legislation that was more practical for how we live and work," she said. "Do you know how many people you need to convince to do something like that?"

Freeman has had a personal impact on her life, too, Bradley said. She said that 18 years ago, she and her then-fiancé were debating whether she would move to the Lehigh Valley or if he would move to Delaware County, where she worked. She happened to catch an address Freeman made at a planning conference, and decided she wanted to work with someone with his passion for thoughtful planning and improving his community.

"He was one of the deciding factors of why I came to the Lehigh Valley," Bradley said. "I don't if he knows that."

Freeman said such wonky topics are usually on his mind, and he doesn't shy away from them. He's grown used to seeing people's eyes glaze over after they ask him at parties what he's up to.

"I'm pretty boring, and I was pretty boring at 26," Freeman said with a laugh, citing the age he first took office in 1983.

Reaching across the aisle

Freeman's mastery of municipal planning and his approach to politics have earned him respect from both sides of the political aisle.

J. Michael Dowd, a Republican and former Northampton County councilman, said he's considered Freeman a friend for more than four decades. They've had a healthy number of debates in that time, he said, but their conversations have always been cordial: Dowd said he's never heard Freeman shout.

In the 1990s, Dowd, a member of the Easton Area Chamber of Commerce, opposed expanding city's historic district, which Freeman supported. At the time, Dowd thought the extra regulations would handcuff property owners trying to modernize or repair their buildings.

But today, with tourists coming for Bacon Fest, the Crayola Experience and the State Theater, Dowd believes the historic buildings such as Hotel Easton add to the city's character.

Even in cases where Dowd feels time has proven him right, he acknowledged Freeman was onto something. Freeman tried to kill the eastern extension of Interstate 78 in favor of widening Route 22, believing it would lead to sprawl and harm the environment. Meanwhile, Dowd and business leaders believed it would bring needed jobs and development to the region.

Dowd still views the project as a boon for the region, but he feels the loss when he spots another farm field or green space being ripped up for development. And he misses the days when it took 15 minutes to get from Easton to Allentown.

"In his earliest years in the House, Bob would have been considered pretty darn liberal," Dowd said. "Maybe it’s a sign that I've changed, but I don’t see him being that liberal these days."

Freeman brings that same soft-spoken, cordial approach to Harrisburg, said Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh County. While Freeman will speak his mind, he's more concerned about getting results than scoring political points, Schlossberg said.

"He's one of the General Assembly's most intelligent members," said Schlossberg, who a student of Freeman at Lehigh University. "When he speaks, people listen."

It doesn't hurt that he's a mild-mannered guy who's easy to get along with, Schlossberg said. His genuine interest in public policy and charming personality win people over so they can work on common interests.

"He's the only guy in the universe that could run over your cat, knock on the door to tell you about it, and he's so nice that you'll invite him in for dinner afterwards," Schlossberg said, reciting a joke that Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, once told him.

Forty years after getting his start, Freeman still describes himself as a work in progress. He has no plans to step away from the 136th District, and he has a list of bills he intends to introduce this session.

Whether those come to pass is another question. He said 36 years in the statehouse have taught him the importance of perspective.

"When it comes to the laborious nature of the legislative process, it takes time, and sometimes you measure success in terms of yards instead of miles," he said.