ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Two 12-story apartment buildings will tower over a section of Allentown's Lehigh Parkway, near the old humped bridge over Little Lehigh Creek at Martin Luther King Drive.
The McDonald's restaurant that stands between the Kmart and South 4th Street on the city's south side will be demolished and replaced with a new McDonald's.
And the first buildings in the high-profile Waterfront development will rise along the Lehigh River, just south of the Tilghman Street Bridge.
All those projects are scheduled to begin next year.
And all were before the Allentown Planning Commission during its meeting in City Hall early Tuesday afternoon.
While McDonalds got final approval to proceed, the projects near the Lehigh River and Little Lehigh Creek won't get final approval until at least November.
Developers of the Waterfront were hoping for final approval to prepare for their first phase of construction on the 26-acre former Lehigh Structural Steel site beneath the western half of the Tilghman Street Bridge.
Phase one will include three office buildings, an apartment building, a parking garage, two surface lots, on-street parking and the first phase of a River Walk along the Lehigh.
But issues involving ownership of that River Walk and public plazas along the Lehigh, as well as traffic impacts on some already-congested intersections in that part of town, still must be resolved before phase one gets a green light.
And the city parks department is being an opportunity to weigh in on the two apartment buildings planned just off Lehigh Parkway East, especially the developer's proposal to have stormwater run-off cross a sliver of Lehigh Parkway.
The Waterfront project received tentative plan approval in July.
Michael Hefele, Allentown's planning director, said all conditions of tentative plan approval must be met before final plan approval can be given. He explained that has not yet happened.
Mark Jaindl, one of the principal developers, told planners none of the outstanding issues are insurmountable.
Hefele said one unresolved issue involves who will own and maintain the River Walk and plazas in the new riverfront neighborhood the developers are planning. The other involves intersections on streets around that new neighborhood.
Hefele said the developers had asked the planning commission to modify a requirement in the city zoning ordinance that all affected intersections must operate at a service level of "D", but the commission postponed a decision on that request.
"Some of the intersections are coming up short of that requirement, so we gave the developers additional time to address that." He added that traffic issue is still "somewhat on the table."
Hefele said the most notable intersection that will not completely comply with that requirement has not even been built yet: American Parkway and Front Street. He said overall that intersection will meet the "D" ranking but some movements of vehicles through it will not.
Hefele said another problem intersection will be Front and Allen streets. He said the intersection will function at an acceptable level if a turning lane is added so traffic going south on Front Street can turn left onto Allen, which will become one of the major streets to the Waterfront.
He said the intersection at Front and Allen streets works now, but parking spaces will be lost if a turning lane is added. But that turning lane will have to be several hundred feet long. "To accommodate that, we would have to move parking off one or both sides of Front Street, which is obviously a neighborhood issue."
"I don't want to remove parking at that intersection," said Richard Young, the city's public works director. "Parking is a premium down there."
"You shouldn't take out any parking down there," said a woman in the audience. "It's hard enough to find a parking space."
Young said the developers are not proposing a left turn lane on southbound Front in that area. He said so many cars may want to turn left onto Allen that they will cause a back-up to the Front and Tilghman intersection, which is a block north. "I'd like to see if they can look at other alternatives to try to improve that condition."
In May, Hefele told the planning commission several existing intersections in that part of the city already get failing grades for their ability to handle traffic and must be improved by the developers.
After Tuesday's meeting, Zachary Jaindl, spokesman for the development team --Waterfront Redevelopment Partners LP—said its engineers have been working with the city to ensure all traffic concerns are analyzed and corrected to meet the city's standards. He indicated that includes the Front and Allen street intersection, which he predicted will exceed the city's standards.
Hefele said the other major outstanding issue involves the River Walk.
The city and developers are working to create an operating and maintenance agreement for River Walk and public plazas in the Waterfront, which will include rules and regulations to ensure those areas will be safe, attractive and family-friendly. Those regulations will have to be approved by City Council.
A draft of that agreement will be given to the city's legal department within two weeks, said Atty. Joseph Fitzpatrick, lawyer for the developers.
"Sounds like at least the River Walk piece is on the cusp of getting resolved," said Oldrich Foucek, chairman of the planning commission.
Hefele indicated the commission could give the Waterfront final approval with conditions, but no work could be done until all those conditions are met.
Zachary Jaindl said the planning commission's postponement should not push back plans to start construction between April and June of next year. The Waterfront, which now has a $300 million price tag, includes a total of nine buildings and two parking garages. The developers have predicted it may take up to 10 years to complete the entire project.
Apartments in the Parkway
Called Apartments in the Parkway, the two buildings proposed next to Lehigh Parkway will have a total of 170 units and 259 parking spaces.
That equates to 400 residents, said Foucek.
They will be built at 1606-12626 Lehigh Parkway East, undeveloped land just east of where Lehigh Parkway East bends and drops down the hill toward the creek. The new buildings will be just below the Regency Towers high-rise apartment building that overlooks that section of the parkway.
The triangular "island" where Lehigh Parkway East meets Lehigh Parkway North near the north end of the concrete bridge will be eliminated, replaced with a T-shaped intersection.
The developer plans to pipe stormwater run-off from the buildings under a trail the city plans to develop through that part of the parkway. Below that trail, the water would come to the surface and continue through a swale down to the creek.
Planner Anthony Toth wants as little impact as possible to the stream bank and its riparian corridor, by making that swale "aesthetically pleasing." He doesn't want people who walk through that grassy area of the parkway to have to climb over a "rip-rap apron" of large rocks.
The city parks department will be asked to review the plan and comment on it before final approval is given.
The apartment development already was approved in January 2009 by the planning commission, but then three buildings were proposed that were not as tall. Project engineer Jeffrey Ott said the economy stopped the project from proceeding in '09.
Hefele said Bruce Barker is one of the principals of Lehigh Parkway Apartments LLC, which will build the apartment buildings.
The developers will need federal approval because part of the project will be in a flood plain. Hefele said the development meets requirements of the city's own flood plain ordinance.
City resident Ken Heffentrager, who represents the Tenant Association of Allentown, objected to the plan. He asked if the neighborhood had been informed "about sticking up a couple of apartment buildings with
170 more apartments?"
He said the buildings will put more traffic on roads not designed to handle it. And he said it's been proven that apartment buildings in cities diminish property values.
"It seems like a bad location, not to mention just bad for the City of Allentown," said Heffentrager, who maintained Allentown already is 52 percent rental.
Ott responded that "an apartment use is allowed by right in that part of the city."
The apartments will range in size from 600 square feet for a few small efficiency units to 850 square feet for one-bedroom units, to up to
1,200 square feet for two-bedroom units and up to 1,500 square feet for three-bedroom units.
After the meeting, Ott predicted construction should start in the spring of 2014 and probably will take a year to complete.
The McDonalds at 1432 S. 4th St. will be demolished and rebuilt.
The new McDonalds will be closer to 4th Street on the same property and will face that street, making it more prominent to potential customers driving by.
PlayPlace, an indoor playground for small children that is attached to the current restaurant, will be eliminated.
The restaurant's one-lane drive-thru will be replaced with a side-by-side drive-thru, two lanes where orders can be placed before cars merge into a single lane where drivers pick up and pay for food.
Spokesmen for the company said that will make the drive-thru safer and more efficient.
Parking at the restaurant will be reduced from 57 to 41 spaces. That is 10 more than the city requires, said Anthony Caponigro of Bohler Engineering in Center Valley, the project engineer.
Bill Zuccarello, area construction manager for McDonalds, told planners said decades ago, 80 percent of McDonalds' customers ate inside the restaurants, "but now we're about 65 percent drive-thru."
He said McDonalds requires that both lanes of the double drive-thrus must always be open.
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