Lehigh Valley

Apartment units proposed in old Allentown building

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Plans to convert an old Allentown manufacturing building into 24 apartment units were presented to the city's planning commission Tuesday afternoon.

The brick building, built about 1900, is in the 300 block of N. Jefferson Street, just south of Gordon Street.

Several planners were concerned whether adequate parking exists for that many units. Those concerns will be passed on to the city's zoning hearing board, which will make the final decision on the project.

Redeveloper Nat Hyman proposes creating 24 small apartments in the 30,000-square-foot building, plus one unit more over a garage at the rear of the property.

He also proposes 27 parking spaces --22 outdoor spaces, plus five in that garage.  He added "more than ample" street parking is in that mid-city neighborhood.

"I think it's sufficient," said Hyman. "Based on my experience of having done this for a dozen years, we rarely use the parking we have."

While Hyman said most of the apartments will be rented to just one person, some planners were skeptical, especially because every adult occupant could mean one more car needing a parking space.

The city requires 38 parking spaces for that number of units, and larger apartments than those proposed, which are two of the reasons Hyman will be seeking relief from the zoning hearing board.

Three outdoor parking spaces might be eliminated because of visibility restrictions for people pulling out of the parking lot onto Gordon Street. But that may be resolved by only allowing apartment dwellers to enter the lot off Gordon and leave via Wayne Street, an alley between the parking lot and building.

Hyman said the building had no parking lot until about six years ago and it has been vacant for up to eight years. He doesn't know its original use, but assumes it was manufacturing and that many more than 25 or 35 people worked in it.

He said plans for a residential reuse of the building had been submitted to the city three or four times in the past, but nothing was built because of "the densities required to make economic and marketability sense of the property."

Planners learned if a new building would be constructed on that site, only five apartment units would be permitted, based on lot size. But Michael Hefele, Allentown's planning director, said five units would be impractical for the adaptive reuse of that large building.

Hyman proposes nine studio apartments, ranging from 452-465 square feet, with rent starting at about $700, and 16 one-bedrooms, ranging from 515-625 square feet, renting for about $1,000.

He acknowledged some of the proposed units don't meet the 500-square-foot minimum size requirements of recently-revised city zoning. "I've built a lot of these buildings around Allentown and every building I've built has units this size." He does that for two reasons. "We like to restrict occupancy to one person wherever we can—sometimes there are two, but very rarely. Number two is efficiency of utilities. All the tenants pay for their own utilities." He said "the heat goes right out of these old buildings." To make renting cost-effective, he tries to keep units in the range of 400 to 600 square feet.

Hyman said if he doubled the size of the proposed apartments, creating two- or three-bedroom units, they would be inefficient. With 14-foot ceilings and no insulation on brick walls, "their utility costs could be as much as their rent."

He also said: "We're not that kid friendly. Our units are meant for adults. We're not that interested in families, that's not our market." He said his company may sign a lease "with a nice couple."

Planning commission member Martin Velazquez said if couples move into the apartments, that could double the amount of parking needed, because many couples have two cars. He's concerned about the impact that will have on the quality of life in that neighborhood.

Commission member Anthony Toth said nothing would stop a future owner of the building from putting four people into each unit, "legally or illegally. It happens."

Ken Heffentrager, the only member of the public to speak at the meeting, opposed the project's density because of parking. "This was not a place to live to begin with." He also said people should not buy buildings that need variances to be converted. Heffentrager wondered why laws are created if variances are granted to those laws.

But Oldrich Foucek, chairman of the commission, called it a wonderful building that should not remain vacant. He said developers who want to revitalize such buildings should be encouraged, as long as doing so does not create more problems.

Hyman's project was to go before the Allentown zoning hearing board on April 1, but will be delayed, possibly until later in April, because of questions raised by the planning commission, said Barbara Nemith, the city's zoning supervisor.

Adaptive reuse of a building requires a special review by the zoning hearing board. The planning commission does not determine the fate of such projects, but the city's zoning ordinance gives it the opportunity to review them and forward its comments to the zoning hearing board. "This is a new process," said Hefele.

Hyman told planners the three main floors of the building will be used, but not the basement or attic, which total 7,000 square feet. He said a rowhouse adjoining the old building will be remodeled into a single-family residence.

Also Tuesday:

   * The planning commission approved adding an eighth level to the parking deck that will be erected along Linden Street, between 7th and 8th streets, to serve the city's hockey arena.

   The request came from the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority, which owns the property. The parking deck already has been approved.

   Adding another level will add 106 spaces to the deck, said Atty. Tim Siegfried, representing the authority. He said the deck will have a total of 746 spaces. It will serve the arena, hotel and offices on the site.

   * Plans were discussed for construction of a 7,000-square-foot office/warehouse at 650 E. Washington St. in east Allentown. The undeveloped property is at the corner of Washington and Gilmore streets. It will include on-site parking and loading bays on two different levels on opposite sides of the building.

    The plan proposes vehicles will back out onto Washington Street, which will require a variance from the zoning hearing board. Three waivers also will be sought by the developer, John W. Troxell.

    Troxell proposes vacating a short and undeveloped section of N. Gilmore, between Washington and Jean streets. Hefele predicted the process to vacate that street will take several months. Planners approved the street vacation, which ultimately will be decided by City Council, said Foucek.

     Further discussion of that warehouse plan was tabled until April.

  * Two projects discussed in detail at the February planning commission meeting received quick approval.  Both could not be approved in February because the city did not yet have required review letters from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

    Planners approved the land development plan for Bennett Infiniti, a 23,000-square-foot car dealership on four acres at 2109 Lehigh St., across from Queen City Airport and between Bennett Toyota and the Wawa convenience store.

   The other approved plan, called Allentown Classic Motor Car, will create an unusual private driving course for antique automobiles on the former site of the Boulevard Drive-In movie theater off Union Boulevard in east Allentown.

    The "network of roadways and walkways in a park-like open space setting" on the 20-plus-acre property will be for the private enjoyment and entertainment of Italian jewelry retailer and car collector Nicola Bulgari. The outdoor screen is still standing and again will be used for show movies, but only for Bulgari and his guests.

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