Lehigh Valley

Allentown planners table decision on charter school gym addition

The school is in the former Agere building

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Members of the Allentown Planning Commission said they don’t have a problem with a charter school’s proposal to add a new 1,600-seat gymnasium onto its building.

The debate arises as to whether the gym ends up in the front yard or the backyard.

The Executive Academy Charter School proposes adding a roughly 16,000-square-foot gymnasium to its building, the former Agere Systems headquarters at 555 Union Blvd. The discussion Tuesday centered on whether to situate the gym toward the back of the building as planning commissioners would prefer or on the Union Boulevard side of the building as the school proposes.

Project engineer Steve Pany told the planning commission that the majority of the 33-acre site is already developed. Officials propose building the gym at the front of the school because of a shared parking agreement Executive Academy Charter has with its neighbors, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

Building the gym at the back of the school means losing parking, Pany said.

“We can’t substantially alter parking,” he told the board.

Pany said the school owns 1,200 parking spaces, while Coca-Cola Park and the IronPigs have the rights to 1,600 spaces. In response to a question about parking and simultaneous events at the ballpark and gym, Pany said he doesn’t envision any problems. It’s unlikely the gym would be filled to capacity very often, Pany said, and if so, peak usage will be in the winter months when the stadium isn’t in use.

Robert Lysek, the school’s CEO, said he’s spoken with the team about the school’s plans for a gymnasium. The shared parking agreement came with the building, and the school will review a master schedule for the stadium before it plans event.

When considering overall operations of the property, Lysek told the commission that the team would prefer to see the gym built on the Union Boulevard side of the building. Any other tenants in the building have regular business hours that do not generally conflict with the IronPigs, he said.

Douglas Stewart, the city's planning and zoning director, said his primary concern is that the planning commission is shooting at a moving target. He asked whether the school had a master plan and whether the building’s other tenants had long-term plans for their respective spaces.

Stewart said he wanted the planning commission to avoid “piecemeal approvals” and preferred to have an idea about what the school’s long-range plans include.

Lysek said the gym is the school’s long-range plan. Any other renovations or alterations would be internal, he said.

Some commissioners said they’d like to see an option for building the gym at the back of the school, arguing the addition could eat up fewer than 20 parking spaces.

As for the design, the addition will feature brick at the base that resembles the existing building with long metal panels above.

Earlier in the meeting, commissioners discussed concerns about the design of the Allentown School District’s new elementary school, calling it too horizontal. The design for the proposed gym, however, was too vertical.

Stewart asked school officials whether it was possible to mimic the Agere building’s more horizontal design to make it look like an existing addition, not just something attached to the building. Planning Commissioner Jeff Glazier said the addition should look a “little more organic” and not just “slapped onto” the existing building.

The school had requested final project approval. The planning commission tabled a decision, giving school officials time to provide assurances the IronPigs were aware of the potential impact on parking and to consider alternatives for the gym’s design and location.

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