Phase one of a multi-building project overlooking the Lehigh River won final approval from the Allentown Planning Commission Wednesday afternoon.
The commission also approved two 12-story apartment buildings that will overlook Lehigh Parkway in another part of town.
Representatives of both projects said construction should begin next year.
No one from the public objected to either project during the 12:15 p.m. public meeting.
The first phase of the high-profile Waterfront project will include four buildings and a parking garage, built on former Lehigh Structural Steel property just south of the Tilghman Street Bridge that spans the Lehigh.
The Waterfront is part of Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone.
Zachary Jaindl, spokesman for the development team, called the planning commission's final approval "a very big step" for the project.
Work on the property should begin in the first half of the next year, with construction of the site's first building starting in May or June, predicted Jaindl.
That first building will be eight stories tall, with retail space and a restaurant on the first floor and offices on all the upper levels. It should be completed in 2015.
Jaindl said the developers already are in negotiations with potential tenants.
Three of the four buildings constructed in phase one will be offices, with retail space for stores and restaurants on their street levels. The fourth building will be an apartment complex with about 80 units.
Jaindl estimated completing phase one will take three to five years.
Ultimately, the Waterfront's buildings will rise on both the north and south sides of the west end of the Tilghman Street Bridge – transforming a total of 26 acres of former industrial property into gleaming commercial and residential structures facing the river.
Jaindl explained the development team first will focus on construction of phase one before returning to the planning commission for approval of plans for phase two, the section of The Waterfront that will be north of the bridge.
The developers have predicted it may take 10 years to complete the entire $300 million project, which will put nine buildings and two parking decks on the site.
In addition to buildings, phase one will include construction of the southern portion of Waterfront Drive, the development's main street.
It also will include the first section of a River Walk along the Lehigh, a public plaza where an extended Allen Street will meet the river and part of what ultimately will be a mile-and-a-quarter-long jogging path around the entire property.
Public access to those areas, and the impact of increased traffic generated by the Waterfront, were major issues of concern for the planning commission.
Michael Hefele, Allentown's planning director, reported the city's traffic engineer is satisfied that the traffic impact of phase one "meets the level of service requirement" in the city's zoning ordinance.
Elaborating after the meeting, Hefele explained all intersections impacted by the development will operate at a "D" level of service, the minimum rating required by city law.
In May, Hefele warned the planning commission that several existing intersections in that part of the city already get failing grades for their ability to handle traffic and would have to be improved by the developers.
On Wednesday, he said the developers have agreed to make those improvements, including adding traffic signals at Front and Allen streets and coordination of other traffic signals along Front Street.
He said those improvements will be made without eliminating parking or widening roads, which might have involved buying and demolishing buildings at key intersection.
The planning commission unanimously agreed to give final approval to The Waterfront's phase one final approval, with some conditions. One of those conditions involves public access to the River Walk and other public areas of the development.
Hefele said the city and developers have met several times to hammer out a public access agreement to ensure that the River Walk is open to the public.
He said issues that still need to be resolved in that agreement include maintenance, liability and rules and regulations for use of the area.
Hefele told the commission: "That agreement is more of a city administrative matter than a planning commission matter. We recommend your approval be conditioned on the developers resolving those issues with the city."
Apartments in the Parkway
Apartments in the Parkway, which will have a total of 170 units, will be built on the opposite side of Little Lehigh Creek from the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and Lehigh Parkway East.
They will rise at 1605-1626 Lehigh Parkway East, on about four acres of undeveloped land just east of where that road bends and drops down the hill toward the humped bridge over the creek.
The triangular "island" where Lehigh Parkway East meets Lehigh Parkway North near the north end of another nearby bridge will be eliminated, replaced with a T-shaped intersection.
The new buildings will be just below the Regency Towers high-rise apartment building that stands above that narrow section of the parkway.
Jeffrey Ott, engineer for the project, predicted construction of the two buildings might begin in spring. He added completion will take at least 12-18 months.
A condition of the planning commission's final approval will be that the developer and city administration must reach an agreement involving a drainage easement for a swale that will carry storm water run-off from the apartments across a narrow section of Lehigh Parkway and into the creek.
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