Plans for Three City Center, a five-story office building that will rise on the site of the old Colonial movie theater on Hamilton Street in Allentown, won easy approval from the city’s zoning hearing board Monday night.

“It certainly will enhance the character of the neighborhood,” said zoner Michael Rosenfeld.

Zoner Michael Engle agreed, saying: “It’s a good use and it’s not detrimental to the surrounding area.”

Retail shopping space is proposed on the first floor of the $37-million building. Its upper four floors will be office space.

A revised artist’s rendering of the front of the proposed building shows its appearance has changed significantly since the building was announced in June. It now looks more traditional and less modern, with much less glass in the front than in an earlier rendering.

James Gentile, construction manager, said the building will have a neo-classical design similar to Allentown buildings that were constructed in the early decades of the 20th century.

Gentile said the architectural concept is “grandiose, masculine and strong, with powerful design characteristics. Symmetry and balance are very important to the design.”

The rear of the building, which will face an alley named Court Street and overlook the city’s Arts Park, intentionally will be nearly identical to the front facing Hamilton Street.

Three City Center will stand next to the Old Lehigh County Courthouse.

While the front of the building’s first floor will be retail space, the rest of that floor will be the upper level of a two-level parking garage. The upper entrance to that garage will be along Law Street, an alley that will run along the side of the building, while the lower entrance will be along Court Street.

Developer J.B. Reilly, president of City Center Lehigh Valley, attending the zoning board meeting but did not testify.

After getting zoning board approval, Reilly said he hopes construction of the building will begin by March. He said the first occupants will move in 12-14 months after construction begins.

No leases have been signed with occupants yet, but Reilly said his company “is in active communication with several prospective tenants.”
He said the first floor retail space will not be a restaurant.

Reilly explained the next step in the approval process will be to go before the Allentown Planning Commission. He could not predict when that will happen.

He confirmed it’s still possible the building ultimately will be taller than five stories, but added that decision has not yet been made.

To help reduce rainwater run-off, Reilly explained gardens and grasses will be planted on some parts of the building’s roofs. It also will have outdoor balconies, one overlooking Hamilton Street and the other overlooking Arts Park.

Zoners approved a variance for front yard setbacks – zoning requires a 4.8-foot setback along Hamilton Street, but most buildings along that street stand right next to the sidewalk.

Atty. Tim Siegfried, who represents the developers, told the zoning board the general character of that neighborhood is that buildings have been constructed right on the property line along Hamilton Street “since the turn of the last century.”

The developers also don’t want any setback because Gentile said studies have shown shoppers want to be able to walk right into stores, without any setbacks.

Zoners also agreed to allow the building to proceed without having “clear sight triangles” for streets.

Siegfried told zoners other buildings in that block of Hamilton have existed for decades without clear sight triangles, including the movie theater and courthouse annex that stood on the site until they were demolished.

Siegfried said the foundations of those two buildings are buried but still exist. “The law would suggest that because it’s a non-conforming structure, it could be rebuilt on the exact same footprint as currently exists,” he said. If zoners agreed the new building continues an existing non-conforming use, he explained, site triangle variances would not be needed.

Rosenfeld said City Center should not be required to use existing foundations as a condition of zoning board approval, because those foundations may not meet engineering standards. Engle and Juan Camacho, Rosenfeld’s two zoning board colleagues also hearing that case, agreed.

The former Colonial movie theater had been unused for many years when it was demolished in 2005. It was considered an imminent public safety threat because of its deteriorating condition. The county annex building was torn down that same year. The entire property covers just over a half acre.

Three City Center was the most prominent of four projects that won unanimous zoning board approval Monday. No residents attended the meeting to object to any of them.