ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Two major projects were advanced by the Allentown Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon.
Although one planner did express some reservations, the commission gave unanimous approval to a conceptual master plan for The Waterfront, a $275-million-dollar mixed use neighborhood along the Lehigh River.
And, as expected, the commission unanimously gave preliminary/final approval for development of a controversial waste-to-energy plant that will be built on land leased from the city farther downstream along the Lehigh.
The Waterfront is planned on nearly 27 acres stretching more than a half mile along the river– the former Lehigh Structural Steel property beneath the west end of the Tilghman Street Bridge.
The conceptual master plan for The Waterfront was first presented to the planning commission on Dec. 11.
"We would like the blessing of the planning commission so we can move on to a tentative plan stage," said Atty. Joseph Fitzpatrick, who spoke for the developers Tuesday. "We're ready to take the master plan and convert it into a tentative plan."
"This is a very significant redevelopment project occurring in the city," said Michael Hefele, Allentown's planning director. "The proposal calls for over one million square feet of new development – a mix of commercial, office, residential and retail uses, as well as almost 2,800 parking spaces. It's a significant addition to the city's waterfront."
Hefele noted the project is still in the very early stage of planning, but told planners all the proposed land uses are permitted under the city's zoning ordinance.
Hefele said the Waterfront plan conforms to the overall intent of the city's Lehigh Riverfront Master Plan, including open space and public access to the river. He said the city's plan is a guide for redevelopment, but some decisions should be left to developers who have to market what they build.
Ten new buildings are proposed for the site, plus two multi-level parking garages. Four of those buildings will contain a total of 172 apartment units. But the other six, including two proposed to be eight stories tall, primarily will be for offices.
"It's a great opportunity for the city to see new development happen on the riverfront," said planner Christian Brown. "But it's a shame that it's not following closer the spirit and nature of the master plan."
Brown said one deviation from the city's riverfront master plan is "we're looking at more of a suburban-esque office park kind of a layout: office space in a suburban type setting. I'm concerned about the vitality of the first-floor elements in this set-up."
Said Brown: "I believe the master plan was envisioned to be a much more integrated network of buildings, roadways and circulation. I don't see the same level of excitement in the proposed plan as we do in the master plan.
"I guess that's a matter of degree," said Oldrich Foucek, planning commission chairman.
"There's obviously more than one way to do this," said Hefele. "We had a number of discussions with the developer very early on about that very issue. Obviously, we like the master plan approach but we're also respectful of the developers' vision of their site and their need to be able to market it to the type of users and tenants they feel they need to attract to make the development successful. The differences are not fatal by any means. It's another way to develop the site and we're willing to go along with it."
Fitzpatrick maintained the conceptual plan honors the city's master plan for development along the west bank of Lehigh.
"This is only our conceptual plan," said Fitzpatrick. "We're trying to coordinate a 2012 economy with adjoining 1890 neighborhoods. It's a tough patch to work together. But we're working through that and it's an evolving product."
Another representative for the developers said creating street level experiences to bring people from the city and the region "down into the site is our fully stated goal."
Despite his concern, Brown joined his colleagues in voting to support the conceptual plan and authorizing the developer to proceed with a tentative plan.
"The planning commission voted appropriately," said Fitzpatrick.
Developers of The Waterfront are Dunn Twiggar Company, LLC; Michael Dunn Co., Ltd., and Jaindl Properties LLC. They have formed a partnership called Waterfront Redevelopment Partners LP.
They will return to the commission with tentative plans to begin development of the site as soon as a month or two, said developer Ryan Dunn. "We've been moving along pretty quickly."
Asked about a timetable for final project approval, Dunn said:
"We'd love to start moving dirt in early May 2014." But he estimated full development of the site will take five to 10 years to complete.
Fitzpatrick said the developer's conceptual plan approved contains "tremendous engineering detail" for the first phase of the project.
Delta Thermo hoped to get final approval at the planning commission's Dec. 11 meeting, but planners did not act because they had not yet received a review letter about the project from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
In the spring of 2012, Allentown City Council approved a 35-year-contract with Delta Thermo to build the plant, after public meetings and much debate.
No residents spoke to oppose the project before the planning commission.
The 48,000-square-foot plant will be built on 3.07 acres of land leased from the city, between Union Street and Allentown's sewage treatment plant. It will burn Allentown's municipal solid waste and sewage sludge to produce electricity.
Construction of the waste-to-energy plant will begin in March or April, according to Rob Van Naarden, president and CEO of Delta Thermo. He hopes it will be operational by August 2014.
It will be built off Union Street, along the roadway that services the sewage plant.
Tuesday's final approval included two waivers involving street frontage and lot grading along a frontage road. "Because there is no frontage road, it's a non-issue," said Hefele.
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