Lehigh Valley

Allentown planners OK new West Gordon Street elementary school

Board had concerns about building's design

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Allentown Planning Commission on Tuesday approved plans for a new elementary school once board members had assurances that the school district wouldn’t stray from changes to the building’s design.

The board unanimously granted final approval for the new school at 1223 W. Gordon St. The 28-classroom, three-story building will accommodate 800 students. About 600 students will come from Cleveland and McKinley elementary schools with another 200 students coming from other nearby overcrowded schools.

Allentown planners reviewed plans in January, and commissioners were generally supportive of the project that converts an empty, junk-strewn lot into an important community use. But the commission delayed approvals over concerns about the appearance of the building. Members were concerned about how the school would blend into the surrounding neighborhood, asking if the building could look less “institutional.”

Project architect Robin Breslin said design changes include a darker colored brick and light standards along Gordon, 12th and 13th streets that resemble streetlights throughout the city. The biggest change, however, was the additional of what Breslin called “vertical sunscreens” to the building facades.

The architectural addition is designed to give the building a more vertical feel and appearance that borrows from the surrounding homes compared to a long, horizontal feel that stretches an entire city block.

Breslin initially said the sunscreens would be added to the bid specifications as an alternate. If the bids came in where the district expects they will, the architectural change would be made, he said.

Commissioner Damion Brown praised the design changes, calling them modest, but effective. And he said he appreciated the district’s transparency regarding the prospect that the changes may be set aside due to budget issues.

But Brown said he was also concerned that the possibility of losing the sunscreens meant, to him, that they were going to be eliminated.

Douglas Stewart, the city's planning and zoning director, said city staff supported the design changes. If those go away, Stewart said he had concerns about the project and wouldn’t be able to support the design.

Breslin eventually committed to adding the vertical design elements into the project’s base bid.

The only other issue of discussion Tuesday was the placement of a few trees along the Gordon Street side of the building. Designs were revised to move any trees away from the school’s front entrance.

Plans were further altered to move any trees away from a school bus drop off area. The number of trees that would be planted didn’t change, only the location.

Commissioner Christian Brown said he wanted to see trees planted in front of the school, where there were no overhead wires and you have a southern exposure. The district and planning commission agreed to plant trees along Gordon Street provided they didn’t block the main entrance.

The building will include a 12,000-square-foot community center, pediatric healthcare center, food bank, adult education classroom and pre-K classrooms at the west end of the school. Those uses will be secured from the rest of the building. Other community-oriented uses such as the multi-purpose room and library will be situated at the east end of the building.

The district plans to open an unopened alley to the rear of the property for access to a 77-space teacher parking lot and drop-off area for parents.

Tom Smith, the school district’s facilities director, said in January that the new school will accommodate students from Central and Ramos elementary schools. While those buildings are not yet over capacity, the district is taking the opportunity to free up space at those buildings for additional special education classrooms, which generally require more room.

The district plans on going out to bid on the site preparation work in the spring and on building construction in the summer. The entire project is expected to cost about $38 million.

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