After being vacant for more than 40 years, Allentown’s landmark Neuweiler Brewery may be reborn as the home of new apartments and/or offices plus, appropriately, a brew pub/restaurant.
Actual construction could begin within 24 months to bring new life to the complex of 11 buildings on 4.5 acres along the 400 block of N. Front Street, predict consultants and city officials involved with the project.
They presented a Neuweiler Brewery site reuse study at a public meeting attended by about 35 people Tuesday evening inside the America on Wheels Museum, a few blocks south of the old brewery.
That study’s underlying key conclusion is that redeveloping the site while preserving most of the brewery buildings is realistic and economically feasible.
Five alternatives presented for the site are not “pie-in-the-sky fantasies,” said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
The next step will be for the city, which owns the property, to use the study as a guide to show a range of possibilities when marketing it to a potential developer.
The brewery, which operated from 1913 until 1968, is one of the most prominent buildings in the city, “probably almost as recognizable as the PPL building” at Ninth and Hamilton streets, said Michael Hefele, Allentown’s planning director.
Pawlowski called the brewery a great gem and said its rebirth will be the cornerstone of the city’s Lehigh River waterfront development, which he explained is a much larger part of Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone than the center-city hockey arena site.
The mayor explained that during the next 12 months the city will work to “marry” one of the study’s alternatives to a developer looking at the riverfront.
The five alternatives presented have total estimated development costs ranging from nearly $28 million to more than $52 million. Before the study was done, said Pawlowski, some estimated renovating the brewery’s structures would cost up to $250 million.
The total costs includes $2 million to purchase the property from the city, explained James Hartling of Urban Partners, the consultant who did the financial analysis on the site.
Hartling outlined how various financing mechanisms – including millions of dollars in NIZ financing -- will make the project feasible for developers. Depending on which alternative is selected, a developer will have to raise an additional $1.5 million to $5.4 million.
One of the alternatives would keep – and restore -- all buildings on the site. The most expensive alternative would remove some buildings, including some along Front Street, replacing them with two large office buildings.
But all alternatives presented would retain the landmark brew house and main office along Front Street at the south end of the property, which are considered the most historically and architecturally significant structures. The seven-story brew house is red brick with a green roof, topped with a cupola and flagpole.
After the meeting, Pawlowski said his personal preference is to preserve as much of the old brewery as possible, rather than demolishing buildings.
Neuweiler is a relatively intact example of an early 20th-century brewery, said Johnette Davies of KSK Architects Planners Historians, Inc.
She explained the core of the operation – the office, brew house, power plant, stock house, wash house and bottling house – was built between 1911 and 1913, when Neuweiler began producing beer. When Prohibition began in 1919, the plant made carbonated beverages, tonics and near-beer. It resumed selling beer when Prohibition ended in 1933.
In 1935, said Davies, Neuweiler became one of the first breweries to sell beer in cans. By 1941, Neuweiler was making 300,000 barrels of beer a year and distributed it across 10 states and the District of Columbia.
By the 1960s, Neuweiler began losing market share to new national beer producers. Davies said people also started to like lighter beers, so “darker, heavier, German style” Neuweiler beers went out of fashion. She said the company filed for bankruptcy in 1967 and shut its doors in 1968.
Many of the old brewery’s windows and skylights are missing or broken, vegetation is growing on roofs and buildings have been damaged by vandals and water infiltration.
Despite that, most of the buildings can be restored, said Tina Gahagan of Cornerstone Consulting Engineers & Architectural Inc., lead consultant on the study. “But it’s all up to the developer as to what he will want to use.”
The five alternatives are only possibilities, explained Scott Unger, executive director of the Allentown Economic Development Corporation. “You don’t want to tie the developer’s hands and say you have to do it exactly like this.”
Some alternatives include art studios and retail space. One even includes a charter school. If a developer decides to use the property primarily for offices, one or more parking garages must be built for employees’ vehicles.
The first scenario presented by Gahagan would keep all the buildings. The property would have 66 apartments – ranging in price from $850 a month for a one-bedroom unit to $1,025 for a two-bedroom -- plus some office and retail space.
Later in the meeting a man in the audience questioned whether those apartments would create a mismatch with residences across Front Street, which he said are not “A-plus quality.” The mayor said a true urban community needs a wide mix of incomes where everybody cohabitates, “which improves the quality of life for everybody in the neighborhood.”