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Developers have high hopes for waterfront real estate

By John Craven, Reporter, JCraven@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 11 2012 06:00:00 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 12 2012 08:53:13 AM CST

If you build it, will they come? That's the question surrounding an ambitious plan to re-make the Lehigh River waterfront in Allentown.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

If you build it, will they come? That's the question surrounding an ambitious plan to remake the Lehigh River waterfront in Allentown.

Developers envision upscale townhouses, apartments, and shopping -- side by side -- right along the river. Some wonder though, in a soft housing market, if people will really make the move to the waterfront.

As a neighborhood, Allentown's Front Street has seen better days.

"We had gunshots mar our bedroom door last night," said Simon Holden, who has lived in the area for four years.

After many of the factories left the area, crime and drugs moved in. And from behind his lunch counter, the owner of Romeo's Deli has watched his neighborhood, and business, change.

"Most of the factories that are down there now, they get a half hour lunch," he said. "They don't have time to come up here."

But developers have a different vision: Town homes, stores. and office space all overlooking the river.

"It's a big announcement," said Phil Mitman, president of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation.

"The Waterfront" project, on life support since 2007 because of a lack of funding, is now back on track thanks to powerhouse developer Jaindl Properties. Still, some longtime residents are skeptical.

"In general, I think it's a waste of money," said Romeo's owner, who has been in the area for three decades.

Critics wonder if buyers will really take a chance on the area, especially with so many cheap homes and urban lofts flooding the market right now. Project backers believe there is a viable market, especially with couples looking to downsize.

"My research tells me that some of the older, from 50 on up, they like living in an urban core. They like living where they can walk and where it's safe," said Mitman. "It's not just retirees. It will be young people who are looking for the loft, who are looking to be able to have a walkable community."

One real estate broker told 69 News there's actually more demand for industrial space right now.

"That would put people back to work in this neighborhood, yeah," said Romeo's owner.

But at this point, Mitman said the city believes the best place to focus industrial development is South Allentown, particularly around the Harrison Street area. With the new American Parkway bridge finally going up this year, Mitman believes now is the time to develop Allentown's waterfront.