Inside Your Town

Proposed West End Allentown convenience store faces opposition from tavern owner

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - It was the Tavern on Liberty vs. the Campus Shop at Monday night's meeting of the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board.

Plans to transform and revitalize the old store at 23rd and Liberty streets in the city's West End met with strong opposition from the owner of the tavern, which is catty-corner from the store.

The proposal was debated before the city's zoning hearing board for more than two hours, but the board did not make a decision.

It will review testimony and the applicable zoning law, then deliberate and render a decision at a future public meeting.

On another case, the zoning board approved plans to turn the former Penn Allen Glass Company into what one zoner called a mini-shopping center at 513 N. 16th St., another section of west Allentown.

One key issue surrounding the proposed renovation of the Campus Shop on the northwest corner of 23rd and Liberty streets is whether it will add to traffic and parking problems in that neighborhood.

Another is whether all the proposed uses for the place qualify as the continuation of existing and permitted non-conforming uses in that residentially-zoned area of the city.

Developer Jason Lund proposes turning the Campus Shop into a high-end convenience market, which will serve both the surrounding residential neighborhood and students at neighboring Muhlenberg College. He contends most of his customers will walk or ride bicycles to the store.

"Although the property does need to be developed, it's an over-use of the property," argued Gregory Russoli, owner of Liberty Tavern bar and restaurant, which is at 2246 Liberty St.-- on the same intersection as the Campus Shop.

"They're proposing to use every square foot of this building for a commercial use. It's got to have a substantial adverse impact on the neighborhood."

"Parking is the biggest impact it will have on the area. The parking is just going to be outrageous. It's terrible now."

Lund testified he has observed no problems with parking in the neighborhood.

In addition to the convenience store, Lund is proposing renting 60 storage units in the basement of the building and incorporating some kind of restaurant, sandwich shop or coffee shop into that store.

"I'm very concerned there won't be enough parking for both restaurants," said Russoli.

Lund maintained his operation will not compete with any other business in the neighborhood.

When zoning board chairman Dan McCarthy asked Russoli if Lund's proposed uses for the Campus Shop building will put him into competition with the Tavern on Liberty, Russoli said: "Not really. What I offer is nothing like a sandwich shop or a convenience store. We're a neighborhood bar."

Lund said the Campus Shop at 2301 Liberty St. is in disrepair and needs a lot of help.

He's only seen people go to the store to buy lottery tickets or to use its postal substation. "I've seen numerous people walk in and walk out without buying anything."

Lund plans to retain the lottery ticket sales and postal substation, as well as add an ATM machine.

His goal is to create a "boutique-style market that will complement the neighborhood."

In addition to structural improvements inside, the building would get new and larger windows, awnings, rebuilt sidewalks along both streets, increased exterior lighting and a bike rack.

One small building at a time

Lund of Hoboken, N.J., said he is co-founder and managing partner of OSBAAT Development LLC. He explained that acronym stands for "One Small Building At A Time."

He is a real estate broker in New York City who wants to redevelop properties near small college campuses around the country, starting with the Campus Shop.

Lund initially told zoners the new market he proposes for the Campus Shop might be on two levels, with an elevator added. (The building's second floor is now an apartment.)

But later he testified Muhlenberg College is interested in using the second floor for an art studio. He added: "That being said, we are open to a variety of uses."

Atty. Mark Malkames, who represented Russoli and grilled the developer, said Lund's application stipulated the second floor primarily will be used for a book store.

Lund said some complementary service for the neighborhood will be on the second floor, mentioning dry goods as another possibility.

The building also has a lower level, accessed from 23rd Street. Lund proposes installing a fully automated mini-storage business in that level, with 60 small units tailored for college students and residents who need storage space. The storage lockers would range in size from 10 to 25 square feet.

Russoli argued people will drive, not walk, to take things to those storage units. And Malkames argued Allentown's zoning does not permit storage units in that area of the city.

Lund was vague about some details. He mentioned the convenience market might include a coffee shop, which later was referred to as a 12-seat restaurant, with additional seating outside in nice weather. But he also said it's still to be determined if any restaurant will be included in the renovated building.

Lund said no restaurant is in the place now, but testified he has seen the current owners prepare food there for several people. Malkames said the owners don't have a license from the city health bureau to prepare food.

Malkames maintained no restaurant has operated on that property since at least 1991.

Two neighbors support plan

Lund's plan got support from two men who live near the Campus Shop.

Trent Sear said Lund's proposal will be an asset to the neighborhood. He said the current business primarily does only lottery ticket sales and most people buying those tickets drive there to buy them.

"I live a block away, but I haven't walked into the Campus Store to buy anything in probably five years," said Sear. "It's not an asset to the neighborhood. It doesn't increase the livability of the neighborhood."

Sear predicted the new business will be largely pedestrian-oriented and good for the neighborhood.

Michael Drabenstott, another nearby neighbor who represents the West End Alliance, told zoners his organization unanimously supports Lund's proposal. "It's a well-conceived plan that takes an existing structure and re-energizes it."

Drabenstott also maintained on-street parking is adequate for the establishment.

Atty. Richard Somach, who represented the developer, noted Russoli admitted he had spats in the past with the current Campus Shop property owner. And Somach maintained Russoli's tavern across the street "is more burdensome to the neighborhood" than Lund's proposed use for the Campus Shop will be.

Except for Russoli's objections, said Somach, Lund's plan "seemed to me to be the clearest thing to a slam dunk approval that I had ever presented to a zoning board."

"If we're going to apply the [zoning] code, it's a slam dunk no-brainer, but they don't get approval," countered Malkames."In every aspect of operation this use is more detrimental to the neighborhood than the existing use."

Lund is seeking approval for retail and restaurant uses as a continuation of a non-conforming use that is permitted by special exception.

Lund intends to change the name of the store, but has not yet selected a new name.

He hopes to take possession of the building from the current owners by next June and complete rehabilitation by September.

N. 16th Street mini-shopping center

No one objected to plans for the small shopping center that is proposed on the site of the old Penn Allen company along N. 16th Street between Allen and Liberty streets.

The proposed center will face Andrew Street, an alley along the north side of the property. It will have only six units, for retail or professional uses. One will be a 16-seat restaurant, described as a 1,500-square-foot sandwich shop. Other units may house doctor's or dentist's offices, an accounting firm, a hair salon, a print shop or a manicurist.

The property is directly across 16th Street from a CVS pharmacy, which has a small strip mall next to it.

Penn Allen was a glass manufacturing, warehousing and distribution company that operated at that location since 1949, said McCarthy. He added the oldest part of the building was constructed around 1900.

Representatives of the developers testified the proposed complex will be a less intensive use of the property than the old glass factory.

The exiting building covers 23,300 square feet, testified Amit Mukherjee of Base Engineering, the project's engineer. Part of it will be demolished. Mukherjee said the proposed building will be smaller, covering 13,208 square feet.

The property will have a 60-space parking lot, 12 spaces more than the city requires, said Mukherjee.

The engineer said the maximum building coverage allowed is 50 percent in that zoning district. He said the glass plant exceeds that, at 57 percent. He said the proposed development will only cover 32 percent of the property.

The glass company went out of business at least two years ago, according to testimony, and the property now is owned by Fleetwood Bank.

The developers have a conditional agreement of sale with Fleetwood Bank, based on zoning approval.

Christopher Raad , a real estate broker, testified for the developers, identified as 513 MK Investment LLC. One of the principal developers, I.Q. Wang, was at the meeting but did not testify.

The property is between Andrew and Early streets. Early also is an alley.

The old glass plant is surrounded by homes on three sides, but only garages and yards of most of those homes are along the two alleys.

Homes along Fulton Street do face the property. Trees and other landscaping are planned on that side of the new center. Such landscaping does not exist now.

The only interested party who testified was James Oleskowitz of Coopersburg, who owns a property in the 500 block of N. Fulton Street.

Oleskowitz asked if the location of trash receptacles could be moved away from the Fulton Street residences. "Landscaping won't stop the smell," said Oleskowitz.

Mukherjee said that is the most ideal location for trash trucks making pick-ups.

It's been a non-confirming use in a residentially zoned area for many years, said Somach, who represented the shopping center developers.

Representatives for the developers argued it would not be feasible – or at least "significantly difficult" -- to convert the property into residential uses.

McCarthy indicated the zoning board rejected one proposal for residential use in 2007.

"It would be an ideal use for the neighborhood," said Raad. "It will be for the benefit of the whole neighborhood."

Zoner Joseph Rosenfeld said he is "very much a proponent of keeping zoning ordinances pure and simple, if at all possible." But he called the proposal unique and accepted arguments that redevelopment of the property for residential uses is not practical.

Rosenfeld also said zoning approval will alter the essential character of the neighborhood, but in a very positive way. "This is very complementary to the other commercial and professional uses right across the street." He said it also will not negatively impact parking in the neighborhood.

Zoner Michael Engle and McCarthy agreed it will not be detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood. The three of them unanimously approved the project.

Developers hope to build the center next year.

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