LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Planning for the Hamilton Crossings shopping center in Lower Macungie Township is moving forward even though the developers still need financial help from Lehigh County commissioners—approval a majority of those commissioners already have denied once.
"We're between a rock and a hard place," developer Timothy Harrison told 69 News Tuesday night. "If we delay any further, we will lose tenants."
A Costco, Target and Whole Foods are the anchor stores of the upscale shopping center, which is planned on 63 acres along both sides of Krocks Road between Hamilton Boulevard and Route 222.
Harrison said the developers have commitments from other unidentified tenants for "a very large percent" of the shopping center, which will have up to 30 stores.
He explained that is why "we're pushing forward on the land development approvals."
On Tuesday night, Harrison and Eric Krawczyk of the Goldenberg Group, his co-developer, requested and received more than three pages of variances from the Lower Macungie Zoning Hearing Board.
All but one of the variances had to do with the size and placement of signs at the shopping center, with the sole exception involving the relocation a sound barrier wall along Route 222.
On Nov. 7, a conditional use hearing on Hamilton Crossings will be held before Lower Macungie commissioners. Harrison explained that hearing must be held because shopping centers are allowed only as conditional uses under commercial zoning in that part of the township.
"There's still the land development stage after that," said Harrison.
He added the development also must obtain permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"We've got to move forward with the different permits as best we can even though we still need the TIF," said the developer.
On June 26, the county commissioners voted 6-3 to reject a TIF -- tax increment financing -- plan for Hamilton Crossings.
The developers repeatedly said they could not build the shopping center without a TIF to pay for $7 million worth of public infrastructure improvements to roads, storm sewers and electrical service that is part of the $140 million project.
On Tuesday, Harrison said he does not know "if or when" the development team will go back to the county commissioners to try to get them to reconsider approving a TIF.
"We absolutely need the TIF just as we've said all along – we need the money -- but we have lost our ability to delay the project any further," said Harrison.
He declined to elaborate on how that TIF issue will be resolved, but said the developers are not going to Wednesday night's county commissioners meeting. .
"We reached a point in the project where we realized that we were painted into a corner," said Harrison. "We put the project on hold for several months hoping that perhaps we could persuade the county authorities that a TIF was something they wanted to do.
"We've now lost that ability. We can't wait any more or we're not going to have a project."
In a separate interview, Jeremy Fogel of the Goldenberg Group
confirmed: "The project continues to require economic support in order to proceed. We are still communicating with county commissioners and hope to satisfy pending concerns so they may be willing to revisit the TIF in the near term."
The make-up of the board of nine county commissioners may change in January, because three Republicans are in contested races for re-election and a fourth, Scott Ott, hopes to be elected Lehigh County executive. Two of those Republican commissioners, Tom Creighton and Percy Dougherty, supported the Hamilton Crossings TIF.
The Hamilton Crossings TIF plan needed the support of the county, township and East Penn School District to succeed. East Penn School Board voted 6-2 for the TIF in May and the township commissioners sent the county commissioners a letter expressing their unanimous support.
If the county commissioners opted into the TIF plan, the county and school district would give up 50 percent of increased property taxes generated by the shopping center for 20 years. Lower Macungie currently does not collect real estate taxes, although it may implement them in 2014. If so, it also would give up 50 percent of property taxes coming from the shopping center.
Before the rejection of the TIF, Harrison and the Goldenberg Group hoped to begin construction this year and complete Hamilton Crossings by late 2014 or early 2015.
"We're well behind schedule," said Harrison, adding he could not estimate exactly how far behind.
Fogel also confirmed that the developers must move forward with getting all necessary government approvals for the project.
Eventually, the township will have to approve a preliminary/final plan for Hamilton Crossings. First the plan would go before the township planning commission for a recommendation, then to the board of township commissioners for final approval.
Township solicitor Richard Somach told zoners the requested sign variances were acceptable to both the planning commission and township commissioners.
But Somach said many other issues involving Hamilton Crossings will be dealt with at both the conditional use hearing and land development stages before the township commissioners.
Hamilton Crossings already got most of the variances it needed from the township zoning board on Nov. 27, 2012 --- at the end of a hearing that lasted nearly four hours.
On Tuesday night, the project was back before the zoning board for more than an hour, although no one from the public objected to any of the sign variances or the sound barrier variance.
Among variances approved by zoners is one that will allow the developers to install three gateway signs, which will identify the shopping center as "Hamilton Crossings at Lower Macungie Township."
Two of those wall identification signs will be at Krocks Road and Route 222 and the third will be at Krocks and Hamilton Boulevard.
Harrison explained the words "Lower Macungie Township" will be much larger than words "Hamilton Crossings."
Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie's planning and economic development director, told zoners the township asked to be identified on those wall signs. "That will be a major entrance into our community."
The shopping center has long been promoted as a gateway to Lower Macungie Township.
Sign variances were needed for many reasons, including that the township only allows signs along one road and the developers want them facing Hamilton Boulevard, Krocks Road and Route 222.
"We are completely aligned with the interests of our tenants in wanting those tenants to have sufficient visibility from the surrounding road network, so their customers can find them and they'll be successful," explained Harrison.
He also wanted the signs large enough so drivers coming to Hamilton Crossings won't make last second decisions to turn into the shopping center, which could be dangerous.
Harrison said only the backs of the Target and Costco buildings will face Route 222, but those stores want signs on their rear walls. He explained the township only allows signs on one wall of a building, which is why that variance was being sought.
Harrison told zoners the size of signs had been reduced as much as Hamilton Crossings' tenants will allow. He maintained the signs are smaller than what his tenants typically would accept. He also said smaller tenants need signs the most, because they have small frontages
-- "they are the ones that tend to get lost."
He said many building signs at other shopping centers in the township are larger than those being proposed in Hamilton Crossings.
Harrison testified he has developed numerous shopping center projects in Maryland and Pennsylvania, including Broadcasting Square in Berks County, Colonnade shopping center in State College and Silver Springs Square in Mechanicsburg. "I've probably developed between 400 and 500 retail stores."
Allentown, PA 18102