The Allentown Planning Commission is recommending City Council not approve zoning changes that would allow the former Western Electric plant in east Allentown to be converted into a geriatric hospital.
On Tuesday afternoon the planning commission voted 4-0 to reject a request for a curative amendment or a zoning change to permit development of such a hospital.
The request was made by Allentown Trust LP, which has an agreement with Agere Systems Inc., to purchase the property at 555 Union Blvd.
City planning director Michael Hefele said applicant’s description of the proposal as a hospital is a misnomer. Hefele said in addition to a 54-bed hospital, it includes a 300-bed nursing care facility, a 230-bed Alzheimer’s unit and adult day care.
Atty. Oldrich Foucek III, commission chairman, recused himself from the matter because his law firm represents Agere, explained Hefele.
City Council will conduct a public hearing on Allentown Trust’s request for a curative amendment to the zoning ordinance at 6 p.m. Monday in City Hall.
Mickey Thompson, chief operating officer of Allentown Trust, said the company will take the matter to court if it does not succeed in getting city council to reject the planning commission’s recommendation. Abe Atiyeh, president of the company, did not participate in the discussion Tuesday.
Thompson told planners that Allentown Trust is prepared to spend “millions and millions of dollars” into the building, which he called a white elephant, then operate it as a hospital that will employ more than 100 people. “There are no geriatric hospitals in the Lehigh Valley,” he said.
Hefele said: “This is pretty much a nursing home with a very small hospital attached to it.” But Thompson insisted it is going to be a geriatric hospital and all the other uses are accessories to that main hospital use. “It’s a very altruistic thing we’re trying to do here,” he said. “It’s really designed for the care of these patients.”
The company maintains the city’s zoning ordinance is exclusionary with respect to hospital uses. If council does not agree the ordinance is exclusionary, the applicants will seek a zoning change from council.
Atty. Victor Cavacini, representing the city’s administration, announced the administration is opposed to any change in the zoning ordinance, because it is not exclusionary, or rezoning of the property.
Cavacini told planners the applicant failed to show the city has not taken on its “fair share” of hospital use. He said one of the hospital properties, the 200-acre Allentown State Hospital property in east Allentown “soon will be available for the very use they are proposing.” He said current zoning allows hospitals in more than 5 percent of the land in the city and the fact that the city already is “saturated” with existing hospitals doesn’t give the applicant the right to a curative amendment.
Planning commission vice chairman Anthony Toth said the application lacks merit and recommended city council deny the request. His three colleagues agreed.
Much of the discussion focused on the fact that operators of the adjoining Coca-Cola Park have a 2005 permanent easement that allows those attending 72 Iron Pigs baseball games, plus concerts and other events, to park in any of the more than 1,100 spaces in all parking lots around the old Western Electric plant.
Atty. William Malkames, who represented the applicant, said that deal was made to get the Iron Pigs to come to the city.
Thompson said it’s difficult to market the 480,000 square-foot-building because there is no guarantee of parking. Potential buyers have said it should have 1,000-1,300 assured parking spaces, he said. “It boggles the mind. The only thing this property is good for right now is parking. Why take a 480,000 square-foot-building of what is Class A office space and just take it off the map?”
He said even if a new parking deck would be built, those attending events at the ball park would be permitted to use it.
The applicants argued their proposed use will require far fewer parking spaces and stressed they would arrange employee shifts and visiting hours to avoid interfering with the ballpark’s schedule. They also propose adding more parking spaces to the property.
They need 240 spaces to operate, said David Harte, vice president of land development.
“When we are looking at all the different uses for a building like this, this is our last shot at creating something that has some value,” said Thompson.
The property is in the city’s I-2 zone. The applicant proposes permitting I/G uses, which include hospitals, as an overlay to the I-2 zone.