Lehigh Valley

Allentown planners delay decision on Appel Street re-zoning

Developer plans 116 apartments on roughly 13 acres

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The developer looking to build apartments within the shadow of I-78 along South Mountain asked the city whether it wants to see more people living in a smaller space or fewer homes taking up more space.

But the Allentown Planning Commission on Tuesday declined to make any recommendation on the developer’s request to re-zone the roughly 13-acre property until it has a better idea on how the proposal would impact the neighborhood.

Developer Larken Associates is asking Allentown City Council to re-zone the 13.5-acre property at Appel Street and Barnes Lane off Emaus Avenue from low-density residential to medium low-density. City-owned land borders the property to one side and Interstate 78 is situated to the north. The project address is listed as 2701 Barnes Lane.

Planning commissioners were asked to make a recommendation to city council on whether to allow the zoning change. The property is currently under two different zoning districts.

The developer appeared before planners this summer to present revised plans for the property. An early version of the proposal included a mix of 216 apartments and single-family homes, a project that planners deemed far too dense for the property.

The new plan proposes 116 apartments with a pool and community room on about a third of the property. The rest of the property will remain as open space.

The project – which contains a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments – would have two access points onto Appel Street.

In requesting the rezoning, Erich Schock, the developer’s attorney, said the owners could build 13 apartments on a narrow strip along Appel Street with 47 single-family homes that cover the balance of the property.

Traffic has been a major sticking point among residents in the nearby neighborhood. The development currently allowed by city zoning laws would generate about 58 trips during peak evening traffic hours compared to 45 under the proposed rezoning, according to the developer’s traffic engineer.

Commission Chairman Oldrich Foucek questioned the logic behind more than 100 apartments generating less traffic than a development of roughly 50 single-family homes. Project engineer Mark Bahnick surmised the difference lies in factors such as homes having three to four bedrooms compared to one or two bedrooms in an apartment, which means smaller families.

In response to concerns about traffic, Bahnick noted that the developer has an agreement of sale for a home at Randel and Appel streets, which could provide a third access point into the development.

As with past meetings, residents railed against the proposal over concerns of worsening stormwater runoff, eliminating the limited open space remaining in the city and adding more traffic to narrow and already congested streets.

One resident even accused the developer of trying to scare the city and residents into accepting a re-zoning proposal by laying out what was possible under the current zoning.

Planning commissioners repeatedly reminded residents that Tuesday’s meeting was only a discussion about whether to recommend a zoning change and that all the planning issues such as traffic and stormwater would be addressed during the planning stage by the commission and outside agencies.

Some planning commission members also reminded residents that the property owner has the right to develop the land and asked whether they’d like to see houses on all or some of the property.

The owners, who were in attendance, said they have every intention of developing the property, if plans with Larken Associates don’t materialize.

While planners noted that Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t to debate the merits and details of the proposed project, Douglas Stewart, the city’s planning and zoning director, told commissioners that he didn’t believe the developer provided the board with enough information to make an informed decision about the re-zoning request.

The developer has the burden of proof to show a re-zoning request is warranted, Stewart said. And he argued that the plan allowed under current zoning overstates what is allowed on the property by right.

The portion of the land that allows apartments, for instance, measures less than 5 acres, which would require a variance from the zoning hearing board, Stewart. He encouraged the developer to withdraw the request and resubmit it with a full zoning review and traffic and community impact studies.

Commissioner Damion Brown said a major sticking point for him has always been how to funnel all the additional traffic down Appel Street toward Emaus Avenue. He said his concerns would be alleviated if the developer could provide more detail about how it plans to disperse the traffic.

Foucek, the board chairman, said he’d feel more comfortable reviewing a “more realistic plan” that takes into account building lots that may be lost to stormwater management, right-of-way and access for an existing home on the property.

Planning Commissioner Richard Button said the board began Tuesday’s review under the impression it had two scenarios to consider. But it appeared by meeting’s end there are more than two choices for what’s possible on the property, he said.

“So, I don’t want to make a decision until know all the options that are on the table,” Button said.

Schock said the developer agreed to return with a more detailed traffic plan that takes into account a project that doesn’t include an apartment building by right under the current zoning. He noted that it will not be a full traffic impact study.

Commissioners ultimately tabled a decision on the re-zoning recommendation.

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