Easton planners approve $15M Commodore development after debate over grant

 

The Easton Planning Commission approved plans for the $15 million Commodore development on Northampton Street after some sparring with developer Garett Vassel over a grant to provide one subsidized apartment Wednesday.

The Commodore is a proposed eight-story project that will add five stories to the former Kaplan's awning building. The first floor will be commercial, the second will be office space, the next five will be residential, and the eighth floor is reserved for a 75-seat restaurant. Vassel's Optima Durant Group, based in New York, plans for 32 luxury apartments on the five residential floors.

"I want to make a real impact here," Vassel told the commission.

Part of that impact will be providing a subsidized apartment for 10 years to a person picked by the Third Street Alliance for Women and Children. He will also help the renter find work. In turn, Optima Durant will receive a $225,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Housing Authority. The subsidized apartment will cost the renter about $887 monthly, which is $600 or more below the proposed rent of $1,500 to $3,000 for units at the Commodore.

Commissioner Robert Sun said the grant works out to an average of $1,875 monthly over 10 years.

"I would have provided this unit for free," Sun said.

Vassel responded that each apartment will cost close to $400,000 to build. He said he asked for a larger PHA grant, but what he received can cover only one subsidized unit.

"I was prepared not to accept the grant" if terms were not sufficient, he said. "It would have been a lot easier for me to say no to the grant."

Vassel said Optima Durant has to assume the risk of the project, deal with loans and the effect a subsidized unit would have on selling the Commodore, though he was quick to note that building and selling is not his plan.

"It's really hard to justify not getting the money you can get, if you can get it," he said, explaining his point of view as a developer dealing with costs and management of a project. As the conversation continued, Vassel said, "This is a planning hearing. This is not a debate on the grant."

The Third Street Alliance, which provides shelter for women in need, day care and other services, is "an organization that resonated with me," he said.

Charles Elliott, chairman of the commission, also pointed out that the housing grant was not part of the planning review.

Commissioner William Heilman had a more practical question about the eight-story plan: "Do we have fire trucks that get up that high?"

Staff members assured him that Easton's ladder trucks can handle that height.

"Do you have all the money you need?" Commissioner William Carr asked.

Vassel said he is closing on a construction loan soon.

Vassel said the Commodore will have 14 parking spots at the site, and his company will lease another 32 from Genesis Bicycles.

The vote to approve the plan was unanimous. Heilman, Carr, Sun and Elliott voted yes, as did Ronald Shipman. Jamie Kulick and Bonnie Winfield were absent.

Easton's Historic District Commission and City Council must give final approval before the plan proceeds. In addition to the $225,000 housing grant, the Commodore has also been approved for $3 million from Pennsylvania's Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

Vassel said after the meeting that construction could begin this fall and be complete in about a year.

Before he left, he gave each commissioner his business card, and invited them to contact him as the project goes forward.

"I genuinely welcome your comments," he told Sun.

Vassel said the Commodore will generate close to $700,000 in taxes annually and have a positive impact on the city.