The Hamilton Crossings shopping center cleared another big hurdle Thursday night when the project won conditional use approval from Lower Macungie Township commissioners.
One of those conditions is for a Costco gas station that will have several innovative features aimed at making it easier for customers to fill their tanks.
Other conditions added by township commissioners will require operators of the upscale shopping center to adequately protect the safety of their customers and will prohibit vehicles from parking in Hamilton Crossing’s lots overnight.
“This is the highest level shopping center you’re going to see anywhere in this area,” predicted Commissioner Jim Lancsek. “This is going to be one of the best shopping centers in the Lehigh Valley, bar none.”
The next step in the approval process for the project will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, when Lower Macungie’s planning commission will have its first formal discussion on land development plans prepared for Hamilton Crossings.
That meeting “will focus on some special design elements that have to be resolved before the overall plan is completed,” said Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie’s planning and economic development director. (It will be held in Wescosville Community Center, 5047 Hamilton Blvd.)
Pandl said the developers have met with the planning commission several times before – most recently on Oct. 8 -- but only with sketch plans to get initial feedback to the shopping center project.
Hamilton Crossings has been before the township many times dating back to April 2009, said Atty. Andrew Hoffman, lawyer for the developers.
Because it is a large and complicated project, the shopping center probably will be go before the planning commission several more times before planners are ready to make a recommendation to the township’s commissioners, who must give the land development plans final approval before construction can begin.
Final land development approval by the commissioners probably won’t happen until early next year.
Hamilton Crossings’ three anchor stores are Costco Wholesale Club, Target and Whole Foods.
Conditional use approval was needed because shopping centers, restaurants, auto service, fast food establishments with drive-thrus and any store larger than 50,000 square feet require conditional use permits to be allowed in a commercial zone, explained Pandl.
Three of the stores in the shopping center will have more than 50,000 square feet of floor area. It also will have the Costco gas station and up to 15 restaurants, two of them with drive-thrus.
Not addressed by the developers during Thursday night’s conditional use hearing was the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) plan developers say they need to help pay for the shopping center.
The project was stalled for several months after the majority of Lehigh County commissioners refused to approve that TIF in late June.
Now the developers are moving ahead to get their plans approved because they risk losing tenants if they don’t.
But they still say they need that TIF, which would have generated $7 million for infrastructure improvements.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” said developer Tim Harrison last month.
The TIF would divert 50 percent of real estate taxes paid by the shopping center for up to 20 years -- money that otherwise would go to Lehigh County, East Penn School District and Lower Macungie, if the township implements a property tax for the first time in 12 years. .
Before giving the project unanimous conditional use approval Thursday, the four township commissioners at the meeting added a few more conditions.
One is designed to ensure customer safety in the shopping center; another will prohibit vehicles from parking overnight.
Lancsek wants the township to be pro-active on security if statistics show there are problems. He told developers “you may not be the management 10 years from now” because shopping centers change ownership. “We may get a bad actor.”
Township solicitor Richard Somach quickly composed a new condition that will require the shopping center’s operators to provide outdoor security services on the grounds that are “adequate to protect the safety of people and property.” Those services must continue as long as the shopping center exists. If the township determines security is not adequate at any time in the future, the operators will be required to make improvements.
If it’s not considered safe, said the solicitor, “this room will start getting filled with residents and that might be the litmus test as whether or not there is adequate security.”