The Waterfront developers must improve failing Allentown intersections

Published: May 15 2013 05:55:32 AM EDT
The Waterfront development
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Several existing intersections already get failing grades for their ability to handle traffic around the planned development named The Waterfront, an ambitious $275-million project that will create a new commercial and residential neighborhood beneath the Tilghman Street Bridge in Allentown.

On Tuesday, the Waterfront’s developers got the word that they must explain how they will improve those intersections before the project is approved by the Allentown Planning Commission.

That issue appeared to be a major factor stopping the planning commission from giving The Waterfront tentative approval during its meeting.

It’s not possible to widen existing streets and intersections in the city to improve their capacity to keep more traffic moving – at least not without tearing down buildings, something no one intends to do.

A big part of the developers’ solution will be to improve the coordination of traffic signals at those intersections.

The intersection of Front and Tilghman streets was the only one identified by Michael Hefele, Allentown’s planning director. But he told planners several nearby intersections already are rated as failing and must be improved by the developers.

He said possible improvements include turning lanes, turning signals or coordinating traffic signals.

Explaining intersections are rated like grades in school, Hefele said the city’s zoning ordinance requires intersections should operate at a future level of service of “D or better” – but not F as several now do.

“We’re not sure it’s fatal,” said Hefele of the failing intersection issue, adding the city already has been working with the developers to resolve it.

The city plans to prepare a list of recommended improvements to help move traffic through the area.

The developers believe current traffic congestion in that part of Allentown will ease when the new American Parkway Bridge over the Lehigh River is completed.

Traffic crossing Tilghman Street Bridge is projected to drop by one-third: from 30,000 to 20,000 vehicles a day, according to Ryan Kern of Barry Isett & Associates, the project’s design and traffic engineer.

Kern also said traffic signals on Front Street will be coordinated so the timing of the signals constantly fluctuates “to better mitigate the traffic coming from certain directions at certain times.”

The Waterfront will include 10 new buildings, plus two multi-level parking garages, on nearly 27 acres of former Lehigh Structural Steel property along the Lehigh River.

It will include offices, shops, restaurants, apartments, public gathering places and a walkway through open space along the river. The developers’ goal is to create “a walkable, pedestrian friendly community.”

Developers plan to complete The Waterfront in phases. The first phase will be built south of Tilghman Street Bridge: three office buildings along the river and one residential structure and a parking garage behind them.

They hope to start construction of phase one by March 2014, with initial occupancy expected during 2015. But they expect completion of the full project will take five to 10 years.

Developers went before the planning commission Tuesday afternoon to initiate approval of their tentative plans.

On Jan. 8, the planning commission approved a Waterfront master plan, which Hefele said “is tantamount to a sketch plan.” He said the more detailed tentative plan is comparable to a preliminary plan.

“The tentative plan submission and approval is a key step in the process,” explained Hefele to the city’s planners. After getting tentative plan approval, he explained the developers will return for final approval for all or part of the project.

Hefele said the city staff has had several meetings with the developers, but some key issues have not yet been resolved. He recommended tabling tentative approval until they are resolved. Because the project will get final approval in phases, Hefele suggested the planners could condition approval of the project’s second phase “on an acceptable level of traffic.”

“You guys want this tentative approval today,” said Oldrich Foucek III, chairman of the planning commission. “I’m personally conflicted. I think this is a good quality plan. I don’t want to slow it up unnecessarily. But I also want the best result at the end of the day.”

Foucek called it a significant project with a very positive effect on the city, “but Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

Developers think they can be better prepared to win tentative approval by the commission’s next meeting. “This is a large development by any measure of scale,” said developer Andy Twiggar. “It’s been several months since you’ve seen this. Let’s air it out a little bit.”

When The Waterfront is completed, six office buildings -- two of them standing eight stories tall -- will face the river on both sides of the west end of Tilghman Street Bridge.

Just west of those buildings, across a new Waterfront Drive, will be four buildings holding 172 apartment units. Retail, restaurants, cafes and other commercial space is planned on street levels and riverside levels of all the buildings.

And all the buildings will have varied facades, according to the developers.

Tree-lined Waterfront Drive will run north to south, roughly paralleling the river – although buildings will stand between it and the waterfront.

The developers plan to extend both Allen and Furnace streets down to the river through their project.

Wharf Street, a service road, will run along the train tracks at the west side of the property. It is being designed to connect to any future development south of The Waterfront.

Twiggar explained the developers are acquiring a 24–foot wide strip of land next to the tracks so Wharf Street can be moved closer to the tracks and so they can add a running trail that will loop for more than a mile around the property.

Buying that strip also is allowing them to widen Waterfront Drive, so they can have angled parking on both sides of the street.

Twiggar said that will create more parking spaces than parallel parking, “which we believe is critical to the retail development of the restaurants, the shops, etc. The more spots we can provide on the street, the better service we can provide to retail users down there.”

Hefele said some feel angled parking “begins to resemble a parking lot,” but planner Anthony Toth said it creates less congestion than parallel parking.

As part of The Waterfront project, the planning commission unanimously voted to recommend that City Council approve vacating a short piece of Sycamore Street just west of where it ends at the railroad tracks.

Developers of The Waterfront are Dunn Twiggar Company, LLC; Michael Dunn Co., Ltd., and Jaindl Properties LLC. They have formed a partnership called Waterfront Redevelopment Partners LP.