ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The owner of Youell's Oyster House hopes to reopen a bigger restaurant at the same West Allentown location before the end of this year.
Whether that happens is in the hands of the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board.
Youell's was a popular seafood restaurant offering "casual fine dining" in the West End for 20 years.
It was heavily damaged in a Jan. 22 fire and had to be demolished.
A key issue is whether zoners will allow the new restaurant, which has no parking lot, to expand from 120 to 170 seats. Owner Christian Filipos of Allentown said not getting 170 seats will be a deal breaker.
If his plan is not approved by the zoning board, Filipos said he will find another location to build the new Youell's.
"I have an obligation to get my employees back to work and overwhelmingly my customer base would like have us operating."
The three-member zoning hearing board took testimony on Filipos' appeal for more than two hours Monday night. It tentatively plans to make a decision on the case at its June 10 meeting.
If Filipos gets approval, he said he will go for building permits the very next day.
He said construction could start in June and take 180 days to complete. He said the new restaurant at 2249 Walnut St. could be completed and operating by November.
Nine objectors who live near the restaurant site attended the meeting and five testified. All said it caused parking problems in the neighborhood, problems they anticipate getting worse if a larger restaurant is built.
Most neighbors did not object to the restaurant, only to it being expanded. A few other neighbors testified in support of the expansion.
Before the fire, Youell's seated 110-120 patrons, according to the owner. He said being limited to 120 seats will be "a deal breaker—the numbers don't work.
Duplicating the seating we previously experienced would not be feasible."
On busy nights, Filipos said, as many as 40 people were waiting for seats in the restaurant and sometimes people had to be turned away. He said that problem can be solved with 50 more seats.
He plans to add an upper level mezzanine area that will allow him a total of 170 seats -- 131 on the main floor of the restaurant, including seats at the bar, and 39 on the mezzanine overlooking the main floor.
Except for the mezzanine, which will be accessible only via stairs, the proposed restaurant will be completely handicapped accessible, said Filipos. He said the old restaurant was accessible inside, but the entrance was not. "We rendered assistance upon request."
The new Youell's will be a much safer building, said Gary Lader of Bethlehem, the architect. "For example, it will now be full sprinkled, which it wasn't before."
The proposed building will cover 4,134 square feet, larger than the old building, which covered 3,472 square feet.
It will have an angled front entrance facing the intersection of 23rd and Walnut streets.
Filipos said the restaurant, which will only serves dinner, will close when the kitchen closes: at 9 p.m. daily, 10 p.m. Saturdays. (It was closed Sundays, except when holidays were on Sunday.) He indicated the bar will close when the kitchen closes.
"We've purposely not cultivated a drinking crowd or a late night crowd," he said.
"Ours is primarily food at the bar. We don't want a drinking crowd. We want an eating crowd."
Atty. Ted Zeller, the owner's lawyer, said no citations have been issued against the restaurant's state liquor license "in all their years of operation."
Neighbor Pat Noto said the proposed building "is very attractive" but will be "a little out of place" in the Hamilton Park neighborhood.
"The restaurant before looked more like a house," said Noto. He added: "I don't object to the restaurant, not at all. The parking would be the big thing."
Residents complained about cars of Youell's customers blocking fire hydrants, crosswalks and parking so close to their cars that they could not get out of spaces.
The most serious complaint involved customers parking in front of driveways of homes, preventing residents from getting in or out.
Resident Timothy Sheridan predicted expanding the restaurant will compound those parking problems immensely.
Zeller estimated 50 more seats in the restaurant will mean 16 more cars – at four passengers per car – requiring 44 more feet of on-street parking space. But Sheridan said Youell's drew mostly couples – two people per car.
While Filipos said he was not aware of any previous complaints about parking, at least two residents said occasionally they went inside the restaurant to complain to its staff about parking problems caused by its patrons.
Evelyn Deutsch said she was parked into her own driveway at least twice a month when the restaurant was open. She said she had to go to the restaurant to ask someone to move their car. "I've been in quite often to complain about that," she said. "I have not been met with a very good reception. They always feel it's a nuisance to their customers to have to move their cars."
Filipos said Youell's employees are instructed to park on 23rd Street north of Reading Road. But neighbor Joy Hilliker said employees were not parking where they were supposed to park.
Twenty-one interested parties, including the staff of the restaurant, also attended the Youell's hearing.
Resident Thomas Ruhe said he lives one block from the restaurant since 1953.
"There's always been a restaurant down the street; I was used to it." He said he had no problems with patron parking and has no concern about additional seats proposed for the new restaurant.
A similar opinion was expressed by another neighbor, Dorothy Kulyk, who lives near the restaurant for 10 years.
Another neighbor, Nicos Elias, called Youell's a great neighbor and an asset to the neighborhood. He said on-street parking exists all over the neighborhood. "I'm sorry they're not there anymore and I hope they come back to the neighborhood."
Zeller, who also lives near the proposed restaurant, said people can park all along his property, "I don't care."
"I choose to live near a restaurant I can walk to," said Zeller. "It's my little piece of city living."
The new restaurant will have off-street parking for deliveries. Filipos said anyone making deliveries in the past had to double-park behind the restaurant, blocking one lane of Reading Road.
Filipos is seeking special exception approval to build a larger restaurant, as the expansion of an existing non-conforming use of the property with a non-conforming building. His lawyer argued doing so will not be detrimental to the health and welfare of the neighborhood.
Filipos said the Youell's was experiencing five percent growth a year before the fire.
He said the fire insurance coverage on the restaurant will not cover the cost of rebuilding. "You never have enough insurance. I have to invest additional funds in order to rebuild."
The expansion, said the owner, will give him flexibility and generate additional revenue to pay for rebuilding and "slightly enlarging" the restaurant.
Filipos explained the restaurant was owned by his parents, Barbara and Constantine Filipos, since 1992. They recently transferred the property to him, but he already owned the business.
Filipos kept four colonies of bees on the roof of Youell's and sold their honey in the restaurant.
He said the January fire started "in an electrical junction box in an obscure area we were not aware of."
The building destroyed by that fire originally was a 19th-century stagecoach stop between Allentown and Reading. Before becoming Youell's, it was a restaurant under several previous names, including Hemerly's, the Ivanhoe, Sirloin Pub and Florentine Inn.
The original Youell's Oyster House was established in Easton in 1938.
Noto, who worked in the Allentown restaurant as a bartender before it was Youell's, said: "We seated 80 people, no more. And that was elbow-to-elbow." He said there were 12 seats at the bar, but no dining at the bar.
"Do you know of any restaurant that seats 80 patrons that don't have parking places?' asked Noto. "And now we're going to double it, to 170, with no parking."
Also during Monday's meeting, zoners approved a request by Kenneth Bennett of Catasauqua to open a clothing store serving the neighborhood at 301 N. 9th St.
Allentown, PA 18102