ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Plans for The Waterfront project along the Lehigh River in Allentown won unanimous tentative approval from the Allentown Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon.

Within three months the development team intends to be back before the commission for final approval of plans for the first half of its $285-million project.

That team hopes to begin construction no later than next spring.

Zachary Jaindl, spokesman for the development team --Waterfront Redevelopment Partners LP –called the planning commission’s action “a fantastic move toward development of the project.”

Mark Jaindl, one of the principal developers, said the entire project – which includes nine buildings and two parking garages -- may take 7-10 years to complete. He told planners: “We’re already talking to tenants. We’ve got momentum that’s building. We want to keep that momentum going with tentative plan approval.”

He said the project will create one million square feet of new building space.

Zachary Jaindl said the Waterfront will become “an urban gateway to the city.

“This development is anticipated to bring thousands of new jobs, new living opportunities and return Lehigh Valley residents to the river through the development of a dramatically under-utilized area of the city.”

The Waterfront’s buildings will rise in two phases on 26 acres of former Lehigh Structural Steel property below the western half of the Tilghman Street Bridge. In phase I, buildings will be constructed south of that bridge. In phase II, they will be constructed north of the bridge.

Traffic congestion in that part of the city will be alleviated by completion of the new American Parkway Bridge, according to the developers. That bridge should be completed by the end of 2014 --- months before the first Waterfront building is completed and occupied.

But congestion will be made worse, at least temporarily, by the planned closing of the Tilghman Street Bridge for a major rehabilitation project. Planners learned that bridge will close in 2015 and remain closed for two years.

Developers anticipate Tilghman Street Bridge will reopen before construction of the first half of The Waterfront is completed.

The possibility was raised that traffic congestion in that part of Allentown could force the size of the project to be scaled back, but that decision may not be made until the first half of the Waterfront is built four or five years from now.

Michael Hefele, Allentown’s planning director, told the planning commission that Waterfront developers intend to submit final plans for phase I “immediately after receiving tentative plan approval.”

Mark Jaindl said his team will be looking for phase I final plan approval “as quickly as we can. We’re looking to move this along.”

The Waterfront has been discussed three times by the planning commission since it approved a conceptual master plan for the project in early January.

Tuesday’s tentative approval was preceded by a late morning public hearing on the project. Only two people testified, to encourage the developers to include handicapped housing among the 172 apartment units planned as part of the Waterfront.

State law requires a public hearing be held before tentative approval is granted to such a project, explained Hefele.

Tentative approval came with conditions and some waivers.

Hefele said the developers just received his review letter on their tentative plan

Tuesday morning. Oldrich Foucek, chairman of the planning commission, asked if the developers felt they could not comply with anything in Hefele’s letter.

Mark Jaindl said they reviewed the letter and “there is nothing we feel can’t be worked out with the city.” He said it contained “excellent comments” that will be addressed when the final plan is submitted.

Project description

The project will include 610,000-square feet of office space, more than 100,000 square feet of retail space, about 30,000 square feet of restaurant space and 172 apartments, explained Mark Jaindl. He said at least 70 percent of the project will be for business use,

Open space will include a 50-100 foot-wide buffer along the Lehigh for a river walk, plus public plazas along the river at the end of Furnace Street and Allen Street and a mile-and-a-quarter-long jogging path around the property.