LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - The Hamilton Crossings shopping center cleared another big hurdle Thursday night when the project won conditional use approval from Lower Macungie Township commissioners.
One of those conditions is for a Costco gas station that will have several innovative features aimed at making it easier for customers to fill their tanks.
Other conditions added by township commissioners will require operators of the upscale shopping center to adequately protect the safety of their customers and will prohibit vehicles from parking in Hamilton Crossing's lots overnight.
"This is the highest level shopping center you're going to see anywhere in this area," predicted Commissioner Jim Lancsek. "This is going to be one of the best shopping centers in the Lehigh Valley, bar none."
The next step in the approval process for the project will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, when Lower Macungie's planning commission will have its first formal discussion on land development plans prepared for Hamilton Crossings.
That meeting "will focus on some special design elements that have to be resolved before the overall plan is completed," said Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie's planning and economic development director. (It will be held in Wescosville Community Center, 5047 Hamilton Blvd.)
Pandl said the developers have met with the planning commission several times before – most recently on Oct. 8 -- but only with sketch plans to get initial feedback to the shopping center project.
Hamilton Crossings has been before the township many times dating back to April 2009, said Atty. Andrew Hoffman, lawyer for the developers.
Because it is a large and complicated project, the shopping center probably will be go before the planning commission several more times before planners are ready to make a recommendation to the township's commissioners, who must give the land development plans final approval before construction can begin.
Final land development approval by the commissioners probably won't happen until early next year.
Hamilton Crossings' three anchor stores are Costco Wholesale Club, Target and Whole Foods.
Conditional use approval was needed because shopping centers, restaurants, auto service, fast food establishments with drive-thrus and any store larger than 50,000 square feet require conditional use permits to be allowed in a commercial zone, explained Pandl.
Three of the stores in the shopping center will have more than 50,000 square feet of floor area. It also will have the Costco gas station and up to 15 restaurants, two of them with drive-thrus.
Not addressed by the developers during Thursday night's conditional use hearing was the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan developers say they need to help pay for the shopping center.
The project was stalled for several months after the majority of Lehigh County commissioners refused to approve that TIF in late June.
Now the developers are moving ahead to get their plans approved because they risk losing tenants if they don't.
But they still say they need that TIF, which would have generated $7 million for infrastructure improvements.
"We're between a rock and a hard place," said developer Tim Harrison last month.
The TIF would divert 50 percent of real estate taxes paid by the shopping center for up to 20 years -- money that otherwise would go to Lehigh County, East Penn School District and Lower Macungie, if the township implements a property tax for the first time in 12 years. .
Before giving the project unanimous conditional use approval Thursday, the four township commissioners at the meeting added a few more conditions.
One is designed to ensure customer safety in the shopping center; another will prohibit vehicles from parking overnight.
Lancsek wants the township to be pro-active on security if statistics show there are problems. He told developers "you may not be the management 10 years from now" because shopping centers change ownership. "We may get a bad actor."
Township solicitor Richard Somach quickly composed a new condition that will require the shopping center's operators to provide outdoor security services on the grounds that are "adequate to protect the safety of people and property." Those services must continue as long as the shopping center exists. If the township determines security is not adequate at any time in the future, the operators will be required to make improvements.
If it's not considered safe, said the solicitor, "this room will start getting filled with residents and that might be the litmus test as whether or not there is adequate security."
Lancsek also initiated the prohibition on overnight parking – with signs. He said "certain areas of the township are turning into RV camps" and he doesn't want that to happen at Hamilton Crossings.
Commissioner Ron Eichenberg wanted assurances that the township will only have to go to one management entity if it has problems with maintenance, security or other issues at Hamilton Crossings.
While most of the shopping center will be managed by the developers, Jeremy Fogel of the Goldenberg Group, one of those developers, said Costco and Target will own their own properties.
"We don't want to be in a situation where people end up saying ‘it's him, not me'," explained Somach. "We want to have one place where the buck stops."
The developers agreed to all three conditions.
Costco gas station
The Costco gas station is proposed between the Costco store and Route 222, with easy access planned to and from the highway.
Route 222 runs along the north side of the 63-acre shopping center site and Hamilton Boulevard runs along the south side, with Krocks Road cutting through the center of the property.
Doug Brookbank of Mulvanny G2 Architecture, which designed the gas station, explained it will have many features lacking in most gas stations.
He said those features are designed to improve safety and efficiency:
• All vehicles will only move in one direction through the four pump
islands. "You don't have vehicular conflicts because everyone's moving in
the same direction," explained Brookbank.
• Drivers won't have to decide which side of a gas pump they need to
pull up to, because hoses on all those pumps will be long enough to reach either side of the car.
• The four gas pump islands will be far enough apart that a driving
lane will be between each of them. "If you're done and the person in front of you is still fueling, you can just pull out and use that center lane and you're on your way," said Brookbank.
• The station will only sell gasoline. There will be no mini-mart or
pallets of soda. It also won't sell diesel fuel or even have air pumps.
• It will not be a service station—no cars will be serviced or repaired.
Brookbank said a lot of gas stations "want to light up the night-time sky to announce themselves," Costco does the opposite, by directing light down onto the fuel dispensers "where people need it." He also said it will not be open 24/7. He said it will be open no later than 9:30 p.m.
The station's two 30,000-gallon underground fuel tanks will be double-walled. Brookbank compared them to small water bottles being inside larger two-liter bottles. He said if any fuel would escape from the inner tank, the whole system immediately would shut down.
Brookbank also said all storm water at the station will drain to one point, where it will go through an oil/water separator.
The station will have only "a warming hut" for its attendants to go inside in really cold weather.
Only three members of the public addressed the commissioners about Hamilton Crossings at the conditional use hearing held before the conditional uses were approved.
Resident Michael Siegel threw the commissioners a curve when he presented a list of 31 additional conditions he said the developers should meet before the township would give the project conditional use approval.
Siegel said he has 23 years of experience as a municipal official and community development planner.
"I'm here to support the project, I'm not here to hinder it," he said.
"But I'm here to make sure the little problems go away. A lot of problems in conditional uses are not thought of until years down the road. They are issues I've had problems with in other shopping centers."
Siegel said most of the issues on his list involved conditional uses, not land development issues. But Pandl said: "A lot of these we can look at through land development."
Lancsek said many things on Siegel's list already have been addressed, including by the township's zoning hearing board.
Lori Holliday, who just bought a property next to the Hamilton Crossings site, tearfully expressed concern about her small daughter falling down an 18-foot drop behind her house. Harrison, the developer, assured the woman that her concern already has been addressed, took her phone number and promised to meet with her.
Township commissioner-elect Ron Beitler stood to criticize the Costco gas station, saying much nicer Costco gas stations have been built in the last five years.
Beitler said the design of the station proposed for Hamilton Crossings is "as copy-and-paste and generic as you can possibly get. I hope it will change."
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