Lehigh Valley

Newest center city project met with some skepticism

Planners don't want to see 'monolithic' buildings

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Developer J.B. Reilly’s newest and perhaps most ambitious project will bring upwards of 225 more apartments, a shining, towering 24-story office building and a 2-acre park to an entire city block in downtown Allentown.

But the pastor of a church on the edge of that sprawling campus reminded the developer and city planning officials Tuesday that social problems such as homelessness persist despite center city’s ever-changing landscape.

“The problem is not going away,” Pastor Steve Schussett said.

Reilly provided the Allentown Planning Commission with an overview Tuesday afternoon of Five City Center, which will stretch from Seventh Street to Eighth Street and Hamilton Street to Walnut. The project inside Allentown’s lucrative Neighborhood Improvement Zone could cost an estimated $250 million with a three-year build out.

The developer only presented the plan as an opportunity for planning commissioners to offer input. Planners took no action Tuesday.

Like most new projects rising in the NIZ, speakers who addressed the commission each lauded the ongoing downtown development and expressed no desire to stand in the way of progress. But Schussett, pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at Eighth and Walnut streets, noted that the church is the only daytime shelter in the city, that it offers breakfast three days a week and is “extremely well attended.”

The church serves as a shelter during the winter and brings in social service agencies to assist Allentown’s homeless. Schussett subtly wondered aloud whether the people who eventually live or work at Five City Center would like to see the scores of homeless who line up at St. Paul’s on a daily basis looking for a warm place or a hot meal.

Schussett asked whether there’s a way the city could partner with the developer to address Allentown’s homeless issue, allowing the church to focus on other issues.

"If this project comes to pass, St. Paul’s would to do everything we could to be a good neighbor, but we hope the developer and the city would be good neighbors as well," he said.

After the meeting, Schussett said Allentown has a number of community leaders and scattered nonprofits trying to address the city’s homeless issue. And the community has been asking when the much celebrated benefits of the NIZ will trickle down, spread out and benefit the rest of the city, he said.

Five City Center could serve a larger role in spurring discussions between the city, civic leaders and developers like Reilly, Schussett said, discussions such as finding a modest space outside the NIZ to house health services and job training for the homeless.

“There are places much smaller than Allentown that have managed to do this,” he said.

The project will include an events center opening onto the park that will be designed to host what Reilly described as up-and-coming musical acts that used to play a venue like the former Croc Rock. He argued the events center, which will be able to host other social events like weddings, won’t compete with the Lehigh Valley’s other venues.

Sheila Evans, executive director of the Allentown Symphony Association, said Miller Symphony Hall has seen a drop in attendance thanks, in part, to other venues, such as the Sands Events Center.

She’s also concerned about losing sponsorship revenue and revenue generated from renting space for events. And while she appreciates the ongoing development downtown, Evans told planners she’s having a hard enough time now booking Symphony Hall and that she’d like to see more of a focus on what already exists instead building new venues.

As for the project itself, the developer will situate Five City Center’s office tower to the Eighth and Hamilton streets corner of the property. A 12-story apartment building will be situated at Seventh and Walnut streets adjacent to the 2-acre Centre Green park. The campus will also include 30,000 square feet of retail space and a 1,000-space parking deck at Eighth and Walnut streets that will also feature four floors of residential.

Reilly likened the project’s proposed park to Bryant Park in Manhattan, which offers festivals during the summer and shopping around the holidays. Centre Green will include electricity and plumbing to allow for programming such as movie nights, he said.

The entire campus will serve as a “focal point downtown,” and the park will provide activity in a much-needed gathering place, Reilly said.

While generally supportive of the proposal, planning commissioners’ concerns centered on how Five City Center will fit downtown.

Commission Chairman Oldrich Foucek said he wanted the developer to avoid the back of the events center looking like a “monolithic brick wall” from Walnut Street. Damien Brown said he liked the idea of a signature tower, but suggested the developer wrap the apartments around the garage at Eighth and Walnut streets in hopes it will encourage others to invest in the properties surrounding Five City Center.

Christian Brown said he too was concerned how a five- to six-story parking deck will look to residents across the street. Reilly acknowledged the concern, but said a project like this needs parking and a project like this needs to go big.

“This is a really important project for Allentown,” he said.

Five City Center’s office tower and more than 200 apartments, along with the other residential projects, gets the downtown to a “sustainable scale” of employment and residents, Reilly said. Right now, he said he would never just drop retail along Eighth Street because there’s no foot traffic, dooming it to fail.

“I think that if we don’t do a lot, we don’t get to the sustainable scale,” Reilly said.

Commissioner Richard Button also raised an issue that invariably comes up in any discussion of downtown development – affordable housing. The project calls for luxury apartments, and Button asked about the long-range prospects of more affordable housing.

As he’s done in the past, Reilly noted there’s plenty of low-income housing in Allentown, but not enough market-rate apartments. The city needs public policies to encourage investment into and the revitalization of existing housing stock, he said.

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