ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Plans for The Waterfront project along the Lehigh River in Allentown won unanimous tentative approval from the Allentown Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon.
Within three months the development team intends to be back before the commission for final approval of plans for the first half of its $285-million project.
That team hopes to begin construction no later than next spring.
Zachary Jaindl, spokesman for the development team --Waterfront Redevelopment Partners LP –called the planning commission's action "a fantastic move toward development of the project."
Mark Jaindl, one of the principal developers, said the entire project – which includes nine buildings and two parking garages -- may take 7-10 years to complete. He told planners: "We're already talking to tenants. We've got momentum that's building. We want to keep that momentum going with tentative plan approval."
He said the project will create one million square feet of new building space.
Zachary Jaindl said the Waterfront will become "an urban gateway to the city.
"This development is anticipated to bring thousands of new jobs, new living opportunities and return Lehigh Valley residents to the river through the development of a dramatically under-utilized area of the city."
The Waterfront's buildings will rise in two phases on 26 acres of former Lehigh Structural Steel property below the western half of the Tilghman Street Bridge. In phase I, buildings will be constructed south of that bridge. In phase II, they will be constructed north of the bridge.
Traffic congestion in that part of the city will be alleviated by completion of the new American Parkway Bridge, according to the developers. That bridge should be completed by the end of 2014 --- months before the first Waterfront building is completed and occupied.
But congestion will be made worse, at least temporarily, by the planned closing of the Tilghman Street Bridge for a major rehabilitation project. Planners learned that bridge will close in 2015 and remain closed for two years.
Developers anticipate Tilghman Street Bridge will reopen before construction of the first half of The Waterfront is completed.
The possibility was raised that traffic congestion in that part of Allentown could force the size of the project to be scaled back, but that decision may not be made until the first half of the Waterfront is built four or five years from now.
Michael Hefele, Allentown's planning director, told the planning commission that Waterfront developers intend to submit final plans for phase I "immediately after receiving tentative plan approval."
Mark Jaindl said his team will be looking for phase I final plan approval "as quickly as we can. We're looking to move this along."
The Waterfront has been discussed three times by the planning commission since it approved a conceptual master plan for the project in early January.
Tuesday's tentative approval was preceded by a late morning public hearing on the project. Only two people testified, to encourage the developers to include handicapped housing among the 172 apartment units planned as part of the Waterfront.
State law requires a public hearing be held before tentative approval is granted to such a project, explained Hefele.
Tentative approval came with conditions and some waivers.
Hefele said the developers just received his review letter on their tentative plan
Tuesday morning. Oldrich Foucek, chairman of the planning commission, asked if the developers felt they could not comply with anything in Hefele's letter.
Mark Jaindl said they reviewed the letter and "there is nothing we feel can't be worked out with the city." He said it contained "excellent comments" that will be addressed when the final plan is submitted.
The project will include 610,000-square feet of office space, more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, about 30,000 square feet of restaurant space and 172 apartments, explained Mark Jaindl. He said at least 70 percent of the project will be for business use,
Open space will include a 50-100 foot-wide buffer along the Lehigh for a river walk, plus public plazas along the river at the end of Furnace Street and Allen Street and a mile-and-a-quarter-long jogging path around the property.
Many of the apartments will be in the second through fifth floors of buildings that adjoin the two parking garages.
Mark Jaindl said the most optimistic projection is phase I construction will begin early in 2014 on the Waterfront's first office building, which will be eight stories tall.
"I would imagine no one will be occupying any buildings until the end of 2015." He said the second building should be completed in 2016 and the third in 2017. He added all phase I buildings might not be completed until 2018.
Traffic and bridges
Planners had many questions about additional traffic that will be generated by the project, but those concerns did not stop them from granting tentative approval.
However, based on a suggestion by Hefele, a stipulation of tentative approval is that final approval of both phases I and II will be contingent on "a successful and workable traffic study" that is satisfactory to the planning commission.
Planner Anthony Toth raised the possibility traffic issues could result in "less intense development of the proposed plan."
The developers have completed a traffic impact study for the first phase of their project and plan to do another before seeking final approval for phase II.
Toth asked what happens if that second study shows too much traffic is causing intersections to fail.
Responded Jaindl: "You're the planning commission. You can turn us down for phase II. Or if it turns out we can only put 250,000 square feet in phase II versus 500,000 square feet, that's under your control. "
"We are not sure phase I traffic impact studies deem immediate traffic improvements, as many of the intersections are not failing right now and we are tiering the building completions," said Zachary Jaindl after the meeting. "However, that will be up the city and we are prepped to act accordingly."
His assessment was confirmed by Richard Young, Allentown's public works director, who explained none of the intersections in that area of the city are failing now.
Young said the best intersections get a ranking of A, while failing intersections get Fs. He added: "In phase I, none of them fail either." But he said they do drop from a rating of D to E, and the city requires them to be no lower than D.
Several intersections near the development are expected to have ratings less than "D," confirmed Ryan Kern of Barry Isett & Associates, the project's design and traffic engineer. He said that will include the intersection of Front Street and American Parkway, which does not yet exist. He said the Front and Tilghman streets intersection already is so congested that it is rated "D."
Kern indicated the developers plan to coordinate traffic signals along both Front and Tilghman streets in an attempt to alleviate congestion.
He indicated the developers hope to avoid what he called "geometric improvements," which means buying properties and tearing down homes and other buildings to widen roads and add turning lanes.
Zachary Jaindl said phase I will not be complete until after both the new American Parkway and rehabbed Tilghman Street Bridge are open, which will help relieve traffic congestion.
The Tilghman Street rehabilitation is a state Department of Transportation project that will completely close that bridge for two years, beginning in 2015, according to Young.
Public hearing speakers
Alexis Gurinko of Bethlehem and Bob Wittman of Allentown urged Waterfront developers to include apartments for people with disabilities. Wittman said he was representing Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community, a network of providers, caregivers, consumers and advocates.
Wittman read a statement written by Gurinko, who has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Gurinko said she spearheaded Lexie's Dream Apartments in Bethlehem, a 15-unit complex designed for people with disabilities, including her, "giving us the ability and freedom to live like everyone else in society."
She said many more people with disabilities need such apartments – ranging from those with birth defects and disabling diseases to those who have been in car, industrial and hunting accidents, to veterans with war injuries. She said 13 people are on a waiting list just to get into Lexie's Dream Apartments.
Wittman said people with disabilities make really good tenants, remain in their residences for a long time, take care of their properties and "only rarely do they have really crazy wild parties."
After the public hearing, Mark Jaindl said he wants to learn more details about what Wittman and Gurinko would like to see, such as how many units.
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