The Allentown Parking Authority plans to build a 1,000-space parking garage on the northeast corner of Sixth and Walnut streets in Allentown.

Sketch plans for the seven-level garage, which will cost about $22 million, were reviewed by the Allentown Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon.

The parking authority hopes to get final planning commission approval on Sept. 9, start construction before the end of this year and have the garage completed by September or October 2015.

Tony Ganguzza of Boyle Construction, the project manager, told planners timing is very critical for the project, because of all the new buildings being constructed in center-city Allentown.

"We've been talking about this development downtown for many, many years," said Richard Button of the planning commission. "In Allentown, parking is not an issue .How come all of a sudden we've got to do another 1,000 parking spaces?"

Ganguzza said the proposal  is being "driven " by new businesses coming into center city and added studies have been done that show there also is a need for the parking authority to provide more spaces for events.

If approved, the garage will stand on a 1.85-acre site where the Allentown Bus Terminal once was located. A long-closed gas station near the Sixth and Walnut intersection will be demolished, as will a three-story building at 531 Walnut.

An unusual feature is the parking garage will be built at least 50 feet back from sidewalks along Walnut and Sixth streets, in anticipation of private developers eventually constructing commercial and/or residential buildings between the new garage and the two streets.

But for the immediate future, the plan is to develop a landscaped, pedestrian-friendly plaza along both Sixth and Walnut streets.

Ganguzza said there have been no discussions with private developers about constructing buildings in that plaza space. He told planners that is just a possibility for the future.

The garage will be tucked into the northeast portion of the property, said project architect Todd Helmer from Timothy Haas & Associates in Blue Bell.

Echoing Ganguzza, Helmer said there is only a contemplation of what might be built between the garage and the two streets. "We're preparing our design for the acceptance of that. If and when that ever happens, we don't know."

Planning commission chairman Oldrich Foucek said he personally is not in favor of those large setbacks unless "a residential component" definitely is coming. He said plazas sound like wonderful things, but added in that location it's a waste of space,

"To me, it's like lipstick on a pig," said Foucek. "You're not going to be attracting people in droves to sit out there or play or whatever."

But Allentown planning director Michael Hefele said he's strongly in support of "wrapping the deck" with residential or commercial development. He views the proposed plaza "as a land bank situation" until such buildings are constructed.

Chris Brown of the planning commission also likes the idea of the residential/commercial mixed-use wrap but is concerned that, if it doesn't happen "we're left with this void." 

Brown also said the proposed plazas area is over-designed but may be under-used. He recommended it be under-designed, at least initially.

Button of the planning commission asked why the developers don't just make the parking garage bigger to take up more of that plaza space.

The developers explained they have determined their design is the best use for the site.

Despite such reservations, no planning commission members voted no on a motion "to weigh in" on the suitability of having plaza spaces rather than the garage being built right along the saidewalks

"That's important for them to continue the design process," said Hefele.

The planning director repeated it is everyone's intention for the plaza areas to become "a development opportunity," meaning they will go away in the future.

Most of the property is now a parking lot, which can accommodate 220 vehicles. The parking authority will work with people who park there to find other places for them to park until the garage is built.

Pedestrian access to and from the garage will be at Sixth and Type streets, closest to Hamilton Street, and another will be near Walnut and Law streets. (Both Type and Law streets are alleys.)

There will be both elevators and stairs at Sixth and Type, which is expected to be the most heavily-used pedestrian entrance.