ALLENTOWN, Pa. - PPL Electric Utilities Corp. got permission to tear down its vacant two-story office building in the 900 block of Hamilton Street from the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board Monday night.
The company says the 38-year-old structure known as the Gallery is in danger of collapsing and zoners were advised it has no architectural or historical significance.
"The building has fatal structural flaws," said Robert Hoerner, director of corporate facilities for PPL. He predicted 8 to 10 inches of snow would put enough weight on the structure's rooftop parking lot to cause "structural failure."
"It should be demolished for the safety of the community," said zoner Michael Engle.
For the third time, the zoning board heard another case involving plans to open a new restaurant and bar in the former .J.P. O'Malley's Pub at W. Union and Fulton streets. The owner, Ed Hanna of Whitehall, argued he has a legal right to have seating for 100 patrons and to remain open until midnight every night. No decision was made on that case.
A few neighbors said parking is inadequate around the closed pub, but zoning hearing board chairman Daniel McCarthy urged them to take that complaint to City Council, because parking is not part of the case before his board.
Hoerner said PPL has leased office space in the Gallery building ever since it opened in 1974 or '75. He said the building was part of the revitalization of center-city Allentown in the 1970s. Its central arched atrium reflected the design of canopies that were built along what was then called Hamilton Mall. Eventually, PPL was leasing the entire building so it decided to buy it in 1999.
The building was constructed with high-strength steel cables in poured concrete planks, which Hoerner called a post tension slab system. Cracks developed in the roof deck. Water and de-icing salts reached the cables, which began rusting and breaking. "The tensioning cables were failing."
Hoerner said the building deteriorated much more rapidly than expected. After significant spike in the number of failed "tendons" was found in 2012, it was deemed no longer safe for occupancy. PPL vacated it before the end of the year. It no longer is used.
Hoerner said rebuilding the damaged structure would cost up to 45 percent more than tearing it down and constructing a new building.
He said the building, with rooftop parking for about 90 cars, originally was built and owned by Colonial Parking. The zoners got a recommendation from the city's Historical Architectural Review Board that the building has no architectural or historical significance.
After the building is demolished, the three-quarter-acre property will be retained for future use by PPL or sold. Hoerner said that decision will be made within a week. If PPL has no further use for it, the company intends to "aggressively market" it for sale. It is in Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone, which should attract developers. He said PPL is not interested in holding on to a piece of vacant land for a long time to see if its value will increase: "We want to see the property returned to use."
After the building is gone, PPL will apply a smooth stucco finish to walls of adjoining properties, with the approval of their owners. The site also will be "lightly landscaped," probably with trees or shrubs along the front. "We don't want to have an ugly-looking hole in our block of downtown Allentown," said Hoerner, adding PPL does not want people to be looking at an eyesore it owns.
No one at the meeting objected to PPL's plan to demolish the building at 932-944 Hamilton St., although neighboring property owner Josh Tucker expressed concern about demolition blocking Maple Street, the alley behind the building. Hoerner guessed Maple Street should be blocked for no more than five days.
The case of the unnamed restaurant/bar at 1520-1530 Union St. first came before the zoners in August and was approved in September – but with conditions. The approval allowed no more than 80 seats and the place had to close at 10 p.m. every night except Friday and Saturday, when it could remain open until midnight.
Because of the reduction in the hours and number of seats, that decision was appealed to Lehigh County Court and sent back to the zoning board for a review by Judge Michele Varracchio.
McCarthy explained Hanna has certain non-conforming use rights that were approved for the property long before he owned it. "He enjoys the rights of the previous operators," said McCarthy, adding that non-conforming use goes back decades.
Atty. Tim Siegfried, representing Hanna, explained that means his client legally is entitled to the same closing time and seats allowed under the last use. The place has been closed since around 2009. When in operation, it stayed open until 2 o'clock every night and had 100 seats, said Siegfried.
Hanna said he wants 100 seats but also wants to be a good neighbor and will be satisfied if he can stay open until midnight every night rather than 10 p.m.
"I definitely don't want to be a bad neighbor," said Hanna. "I absolutely understand their concerns. I know what it's like to have nuisance bars. It's not something I would like to be associated with."
"My client is not looking to press all the legal rights he's entitled to," said Siegfried. Hanna said he is compromising on his right to remain open until 2 a.m. because closing at midnight meets the needs of his business and the community. But he said closing at 10 p.m. would have put him at a competitive disadvantage with other restaurants.
Hanna said his restaurant will specialize in "farm to table" foods. He previously told zoners he wants the former pub to be an eating establishment where drinks are served rather than a drinking establishment where food is served.
In response to residents' complaints about not enough parking, Siegfried said the property's non-conforming use status also applies to parking. He said many more parking spaces would be required if a new restaurant was being built on a vacant piece of land.
The building also has five apartment units. Hanna said his goal has been to make sure he has good tenants and that the property is in good and clean condition. He wants to pave the parking lot and make sure there is sufficient lighting.
Catherine Hoag, a neighbor who came to the hearing to object, told zoners she no longer had an objection. She said Hanna is compromising so neighbors should do the same. "I've seen nothing but improvement on the property since he has taken over. He has done great things so far in the short time he's had the building."
At the suggestion of board member Juan Camacho, the three zoners decided not to vote on the case Monday, saying they will review it, then deliberate and vote on it at a future meeting. Hanna said he hopes to open within 8-12 months, after getting zoning board approval.
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