Planners okay Landmark Building for downtown Allentown

Artist's rending at ground level (nighttime)

ALLENTOWN, Pa. | Time may finally be running out on a proposed Allentown skyscraper project that’s been six years in the making.

Ascot Circle Realty, the developer behind the proposed Landmark building at 90 South Ninth Street, asked the Allentown Planning Commission on Tuesday for a two-year extension on the project’s final approval. Planners initially granted final approval in 2015, and the developer has since asked for a series of one-year extensions to sign a land development agreement with the city and record the plans.

The approval extension does not dictate by when the project must be built.

Project engineer Art Swallow said developer Bruce Loch has been actively seeking a tenant to anchor the 33-story tower next to an Allentown Parking Authority garage at Ninth and Walnut streets. No approvals are necessary from any outside agencies, Swallow said, and the plans have been revised to reflect some comments made by city planning staff. The updated plans have recently been submitted to city staff, he said.

Planning Commissioner Oldrich Foucek – who chaired the board the last time the developer asked for an extension – questioned why it’s taken so long for the engineer to make minor edits to a plan that was approved six years ago. Swallow replied that he’s only recently been authorized to move ahead with the changes.

But at the heart of the discussion was whether the board would grant another extension and for how long. When planning commissioners approved a one-year extension last year, members expressed an interest in seeing some type of progress from the developer toward securing an anchor tenant with the understanding that last year’s extension would be the last.

“I think the issue is you’re not finding someone who wants to go into this building,” Foucek said Tuesday.

Jack Gross, the developer’s attorney, told the board that the plans have been updated and submitted, that a new firm is shopping the project and that the building is back on the market.

Foucek noted the board has discretion whether to extend approvals. But commissioners aren't looking for developers to repeatedly provide project updates, he said.

“There’s an end to everything,” he said. “We don’t want you to come back and update, we want you to build.

At a certain point you know you’re going to do it or you’re not going to do it,” Foucek said.

The pandemic greatly affected the office space market, Swallow said. Offices are vacant as more people continue to work from home, and it may take another few years for the market to “get back to normal,” he said.

“How much time to do you need to know whether this is going to happen or not?” Foucek said.

Some board members didn’t see the harm to the city to extend the approval yet again. Planning Commissioner Damien Brown even wondered if it would make more unnecessary work for city staff to have the approval lapse only to have the developer resubmit them for review.

Ultimately, the board voted on a two-year extension with the understanding that it would be last one. Despite the declaration, many on the board acknowledged there were no assurances that this would be the last extension.

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