Downtown NIZ project wins planners' preliminary final approval

Posted: 6:55 PM EDT Oct 09, 2012

A plan for an 11-story, $40-million retail-office building that backers say will be one of the cornerstones of a revitalized downtown Allentown has cleared another hurdle.

The city planning commission voted 4-0 Tuesday afternoon to give preliminary final approval to developer J.B. Reilly's Two City Center project on the northeast corner of 7th and Hamilton streets, across from the proposed hockey arena, in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

Commission chairman Oldrich Foucek III recused himself from the discussion and vote because his law firm has represented Reilly in the past.

Alan Salinger, the city's chief planner, reported favorably on the design of the building at 645 West Hamilton St., which will have retail shops and a restaurant on the first floor and office space on the other 10.

Salinger said the building design will complement other structures in the downtown district.

Planning commission member Anthony Toth asked the developer if any geological reports needed to insure the safety of the building's foundation were completed.

Reilly replied that those reports couldn't be done until the former bank building is demolished. He said demolition work has begun, and estimated it would take another 60 days to finish.

Reilly said he plans to have the building open by spring 2014, adding,  "You should see steel out of the ground by [next] February."

In other business, the commission decided not to weigh in on density and parking questions surrounding a proposed project that would convert manufacturing space at 734-752 Railroad St. into 36 apartments and expand a parking lot at 132-148 Furnace St.

Developer Matt Hyman is asking for a special exception from the zoning hearing board, and his request will be heard by the zoners on Monday.

Hyman told the planning commission that he has owned the four-story building on Railroad Street for 10 years and had built four apartments there previously. "But the units were far too large -- 2,000 square feet -- for the renters to afford the utility costs.," he said.

Hyman explained that the new 800-square-foot units would be one-bedroom and studio apartments and rent for $750 to $1,000 a month, and that they wouldn't unduly increase the density of the residential neighborhood.

He said he has arranged for a lease with St. Michael's Byzantine Catholic Church for the Furnace Street lot so each renter will have parking.

Allentown director of planning Mike Hefele told the commission that the final version of the Lehigh River Waterfront Master Plan could be finished by next week.

City planners have spent the last year getting public input on what to do with 120 acres along a  1.3-mile stretch of the Lehigh River, from the Hamilton Street Bridge to Route 22.