History of City Planning in Johnstown, Pa.
From: History of Cambria County, Pennsylvania
By: John E. Gable
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis, 1926


Johnstown is a valley town now grown beyond the confines of the narrow bottom lands and extended up the slopes and on to the plateaus around and about the original location at the meeting place of the Conemaugh and the Stonycreek. The old town was well planned, as were some of the boroughs later annexed, but the topography was difficult, the growth was larger than the plans, there was no real relation between the various plans, the times demanded that employees be housed near to the mill gates and the flood of 1889 confused street and property lines and forced hasty building with whatever material was at hand and in whatever locations were available.

So Johnstown was ready for planning by 1914, when an ordinance creating a planning commission and defining its duties was introduced in City Council June 20 by H. H. Grazier, superintendent of streets and public improvements, and passed by council July 7. This council was the first to be elected under the commission form of government for cities of the third class. It consisted of five members, Joseph Cauffiel, mayor; and Messrs. Nathan Miller, Enoch James, H. H. Grazier and John Berg.

Strong public sentiment, expressed through the Chamber of Commerce and other civic bodies, and in the vote of the people at the preceding election, gave effect to the planning idea. Perhaps the principal thought was that the old bicameral system of government, under which the city council consisted of two bodies, common and select, with each of the 21 wards represented in both branches, had naturally and inevitably lent itself to the "grab-bag" system of municipal improvements, each councilman logrolling for a little work to be done in his ward, and that the new legislative body of five members, each man the head of a department of administration, and the five so made familiar with the city's needs, would do away with alternate patches of paving and seas of mud and other forms of patchwork. Many strong men had sat in the old councils, men much bigger than half a ward, and a large number of these were among the advocates of a change in system. September 8, 1914, council elected as members of the Planning Commission, Edmund Overdorff, for five years; Peter L. Carpenter, four years; Harry W. Miltenberger, three years; Samuel G. Fetterman, two years, and David Ott, one year. The commission organized by electing Mr. Overdorff president, Mr. Carpenter vice president and Mr. Miltenberger temporary secretary. At the first business meeting, November 4, 1914, Leo J. Buettner was elected secretary. A committee representing the Johnstown Chamber of Commerce was present and offered its assistance and co-operation to the commission. The commission began to function broadly, adopting from the beginning a policy of informing the public concerning its work. Dr. John Nolen, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was brought to Johnstown to deliver an illustrated lecture on city planning.

The commission soon decided it could not act intelligently in the matter of approving plans of lots submitted to it without first making some standard general plan by which to work. In January, 1916, after a change in the city administration, Hon. Louis Franke having been elected mayor, the commission made a report to council and submitted a suggestion that council appropriate $5,000 for the making of a comprehensive city plan. The funds were made available and in May, 1916, Hornbostel & Wild were employed to make the plan and Victor A. Rigaumont, of Pittsburgh, became resident planner. The commission and the planners held many conferences.

The commission saw that studies in other cities contained many illustrations showing what had been done in similar conditions elsewhere. It advised that the Johnstown plan be popularized or at least made effective in arousing interest by using only illustrations of local conditions as they are and as they should be with the details of the plan carried out. Photographs were used, with white lines indicating changes to be made. This scheme was a great success, not only in gaining popular support, but later in carrying the plan into the schools of the city.

The League of Third Class Cities held its 1916 convention in Johnstown and planning was the principal topic. Johnstown surveys were almost complete. Of great service were the maps which had been made by the sanitary sewer engineers in planning a complete system for the city. With the sewer maps and others from the office of the city engineer, the planners constructed a comprehensive map, about 10 by 15 feet, of the entire city and surroundings.

The comprehensive plan and report of the commission was submitted to council in December, 1917, and was later printed and distributed. The commission then prepared to carry out a campaign of education on the plan. A complete set of lantern slides of the maps, photographs and drawings in the plan was made and the commission and its secretary showed these slides and explained them to clubs, Sunday schools, lodges, social organizations, parent teacher and any other gatherings that desired them. In the fall of 1920 Secretary Buettner suggested to Miss Mary J. Cooper and Miss Mary L. Wilson that the plan and report be made the subject of study in the schools. Prof. J. D. Ripple approved the idea and adopted the plan as an eighth grade study in English under the title "Future Johnstown."

The plan was divided into six parts: Jurisdiction, duties and object of the commission, the plan as a whole, thoroughfares, rivers and bridges, parks and playgrounds, municipal buildings. One part was assigned to each one of the grammar schools. Each school then attended an illustrated lecture on the plan. Every child was required to make first an oral and later a written report on the studies. No printed matter was used in telling the pupils about the plan. Teachers knew little more about the subject than did the pupils. The boys and girls then went home to ask dad or mother innumerable questions. They flocked to city hall with interrogations and they deluged the newspaper offices with inquiries.

January 21, 1921, grammar grade commencement exercises consisted of six illustrated lectures on city planning from six schools. Much the same program marked the commencement exercises for Garfield Junior High School, four of the pupils speaking on phases of city planning.

This introduction of local planning into local schools was widely commented upon by housing, zoning, planning and other magazines. It brought Invitations to Secretary Buettner to speak at the American Civic Association convention in Chicago, 1921, and the Recreation Congress at Atlantic City, 1922.

Many of the features of the plan and subsequent recommendations of the commission have been carried out or are being carried out. In some cases there was modification or enlargement, as in The Point improvement. In several instances the recommendations were ignored. Notable among these was the construction of the Haynes Street bridge over the Stony creek, at grade, instead of the structure from Adam Street to Dibert Street recommended by the plan, clearing the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and creating a crosstown thoroughfare of primary importance.

Napoleon Street bridge, with improvement of Napoleon Street and its connection with Franklin Street, is part of the plan. Bids on the bridge were opened October 2, 1923, and the bridge is now in use, greatly relieving traffic conditions on Franklin Street. One of the first recommendations of the commission was that Butler Alley, in the Morreilville section, be widened. Another was for a change of plans for the new concrete bridge at Walnut Street so as to provide additional width. Moving of the trolley tracks to the center of Franklin Street between the Sixth and Eighth wards has been accomplished, through the widening of the thoroughfare by the building of a river wall has not. The commission recommended the purchase of Luna Park and other land for park purposes in the Roxbury section.

The Planning Commission urged the appointment of a Shade Tree Commission. City Council adopted the necessary legislation and a Shade Tree Commission, with a strong ordinance, came into being. Its work has been hampered by the vast amount of laying of service lines, storm and sanitary sewers, regrading and paving which has been done, but results of tree plantings are apparent in many sections of the city. There is greater regard for the value of trees and the existing trees are being kept in much better trim and general condition than formerly.

The Planning Commission backed zoning legislation at Harrisburg and when a zoning act was secured in 1923, the Planning Commission promptly asked City Council to authorize zoning regulations for Johnstown. Thomas J. Harris, superintendent of parks and public property, sponsored a resolution of council enabling the City Planning Commission to prepare zoning.

When Johnstown was planning to zone itself, zoning laws were still quite new, but not rare. New York state enacted a law, the first, in 1916. Twenty six other states and the District of Columbia had followed. In thirteen of these states the enabling acts were comprehensive and permitted zoning of all forms in all municipalities. One hundred and sixteen cities, ranging in population from nearly six million to a few thousand, had established zoning plans of some sort. Eighty three cities had comprehensive ordinances and of the others, 31 related to the use of buildings and two to height of buildings only. Pittsburgh was the only city in the state which had enacted a zoning ordinance comprehensive and complete in character.

Edward M. Bassett, counsel of the zoning committee of New York, says the first comprehensive zoning in the United States was done in Boston. A building height of 80 feet was allowed on some main thoroughfares and a limit of 125 feet was imposed on new buildings on all other streets, thus opening up the question of restriction and also that of discrimination. This ordinance was at once attacked in the courts for unconstitutionality, but was upheld by the highest court of Massachusetts and affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States. Los Angeles, California, growing with magical rapidity, found itself unable to say with any degree of certainty that any section of the city would be residential or non residential in character. It adopted an ordinance zoning the city into residential and non residential districts, making the legislation retroactive in form and effect. Under the ordinance the city authorities ousted a brick yard around which a residential section had grown up. The ordinance and the ouster were upheld in the highest courts.

The Johnstown ordinance is not retroactive. Most cities have felt that existing lawful use of buildings should be allowed to continue under zoning, subject to rules which tend gradually to make such use conform to the character of the district.

New York City spent four years studying zoning. It asked for and received comprehensive authority, under the police power, to divide the city into districts according to height, bulk and use of buildings, to make appropriate regulations for each district, and to enforce regulations which might differ in th different districts. There were three sets of maps. One shows districts laid out according to heights allowable; another shows a different set of districts outlined according to the area of the lot that new buildings therein may occupy; the third shows districts outlined according to the allowable uses of land and new buildings.

Mr. Bassett defined zoning as "the creation by law of districts in which regulations differing in different districts prohibit injurious or unsuitable structures and uses of structures and land." Zoning, he advised, should be done under the police power of the state and not by condemnation. Under the police power, zoning must relate to the health, safety, morals, order and general welfare of the community, hence must be confined to police power reasons, such as fire risk, lack of light and air, congested living quarters and other conditions inimical to the general welfare.

Courts had repeatedly put themselves in line with sensible zoning for police power reasons, and against arbitrary zoning or arbitrary application of zoning regulations in particular cases. The Pittsburgh ordinance was frequently in court before Johnstown's went into effect, and was generally upheld. In one important case, however, involving the power of the zoning administrator to enforce a "set back" rule upon an individual owner of ground, Justice John W. Kephart of Cambria County handed down a state supreme court majority opinion finding the regulation in this case arbitrary and unreasonable. Justice Kephart, however, did not hold the Pittsburgh ordinance or the act of assembly unconstitutional. Shortly after that decision, Johnstown's zoning board of appeals and city council were preparing to fight the first serious question raised here, involving the power of the zoning administrator to refuse a permit for the construction of a retail grocery store building in a strictly residential district of Moxham.

The title of the Johnstown ordinance is:
"An ordinance regulating and restricting the height, number of stories, bulk and size of buildings and other structures, hereafter erected or altered, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size, depth and width of yards, courts and other open spaces, the density of population and the location and use of buildings, structures and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes; providing for the administration of such ordinance, the method of amendment and for a board of appeals; and imposing penalties."

Under the plan of the Johnstown ordinance an effort is made to secure sufficient stability to protect those who comply with the law, but at the same time be susceptible of change by the municipal authority so that it can be altered to meet changing conditions or conditions not adequately recognized. All applications for permits to build are filed with the administrative officer. Appeal from his decision may be taken to the board of appeals, which has power to reverse or affirm wholly or partly, or may modify any order or decision appealed from, but has no power to change the ordinance. Power of amendment rests with the City Council. But the council, on the other hand, is in position to decline to consider or act upon details of the work of the administrative officer or the board of appeals. Council may amend the ordinance on its own initiative, or on petition signed by a majority of the property owners according to frontage in any district or portion of a district as large as a city block, in every case only after public notice given 20 days prior to public hearing, reference to a report from the City Planning Commission for further public hearings as provided by law. In case the proposed amendment is disapproved by the Planning Commission, or opposed by the owners of 20 per cent of the frontage proposed to be altered, the amendment can be passed only by the affirmative vote of at least three fourths of the members of council, which in Johnstown's council of five members, means four votes.

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