Auburn Cross Trails Park plans in Allentown Nov 14 2019

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – An obscure tract of Allentown land may help boost the city's environment and economy.

Plans were unveiled Thursday at Allentown City Hall for Auburn Cross Trails Park, covering about 32 acres of land bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Basin Street and Auburn Street. About two-thirds of the of land is owned by the Allentown Economic Development Corp. and would be used for manufacturing.

The proposal includes trails, open meadows, picnic areas, a dog park and places to fish. The big picture is to move toward connecting to existing trails in the city and the region. The site used to house Allentown's municipal incinerator, which closed decades ago.

"The plan can be broken up into manageable pieces," Chris Stanford of engineering firm Michael Baker International said.

That may be necessary, because the $1 million-plus needed for the park is not available yet, according to Karen El-Chaar, director of Allentown's parks and recreation department.

"This will probably be state-funded," she said, with the city contributing a small amount.

The property is vacant and near Center City, presenting an unusual opportunity. At the same time, a big tract of land that near downtown is still open because it has some problems.

The Jordan, Little Lehigh and Trout creeks meet there, before the Little Lehigh flows into the Lehigh River, and the land floods. There has also been a homeless encampment on the land for decades.

El-Chaar said that construction is a year or two away, and that the homeless issue will have to be dealt with by multiple agencies. With construction not imminent, there is time to try to find a solution.

"I'm very impressed with what they've done," she said of the Michael Baker International plan.

The proposal presented Thursday reflects results of a public survey that asked what residents would like to see on the land, a tract few Allentown residents visit.

"It will be at least a year or two before this starts," El-Chaar said.

Scott Unger, executive director of the Allentown Economic Development Corp., said the site presents a chance to bring good-paying jobs into the city.

"Manufacturing tends to be an inbound wealth generator," he said. "Having manufacturers operating in the city is beneficial for workers, the community and the tax base."

Downtown Allentown has seen increases in residential and office space, but manufacturing always has to be "part of the equation" for the city's economy, he said.

Unger compared the preservation of manufacturing land to the preservation of farmland; both are essential to the region and central to the character of the Lehigh Valley. A 120,000 square-foot building on the site would house manufacturing businesses.

James Birdsall, an engineer attending the presentation on behalf of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, said the plans present an opportunity to link trails so more people use them.

Auburn Cross Trails is just across the river from the Delaware & Lehigh Trail, which spans 165 miles from near Wilkes-Barre in the Coal Regions, on to Easton on the Delaware River, and heading south to Bristol, Bucks County.

Other trails just across the Hamilton Street bridge can also connect at or near the proposed park site, Birdsall said. The Auburn Cross Trails site could be a nexus for hikes throughout the region.

"We want to encourage the use of the canal trail and the other trails," Birdsall said. "We will be supporting projects that connect trails in the Lehigh Valley."

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