The Allentown Parking Authority plans to build a 1,000-space parking garage on the northeast corner of Sixth and Walnut streets in Allentown.
Sketch plans for the seven-level garage, which will cost about $22 million, were reviewed by the Allentown Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon.
The parking authority hopes to get final planning commission approval on Sept. 9, start construction before the end of this year and have the garage completed by September or October 2015.
Tony Ganguzza of Boyle Construction, the project manager, told planners timing is very critical for the project, because of all the new buildings being constructed in center-city Allentown.
"We've been talking about this development downtown for many, many years," said Richard Button of the planning commission. "In Allentown, parking is not an issue .How come all of a sudden we've got to do another 1,000 parking spaces?"
Ganguzza said the proposal is being "driven " by new businesses coming into center city and added studies have been done that show there also is a need for the parking authority to provide more spaces for events.
If approved, the garage will stand on a 1.85-acre site where the Allentown Bus Terminal once was located. A long-closed gas station near the Sixth and Walnut intersection will be demolished, as will a three-story building at 531 Walnut.
An unusual feature is the parking garage will be built at least 50 feet back from sidewalks along Walnut and Sixth streets, in anticipation of private developers eventually constructing commercial and/or residential buildings between the new garage and the two streets.
But for the immediate future, the plan is to develop a landscaped, pedestrian-friendly plaza along both Sixth and Walnut streets.
Ganguzza said there have been no discussions with private developers about constructing buildings in that plaza space. He told planners that is just a possibility for the future.
The garage will be tucked into the northeast portion of the property, said project architect Todd Helmer from Timothy Haas & Associates in Blue Bell.
Echoing Ganguzza, Helmer said there is only a contemplation of what might be built between the garage and the two streets. "We're preparing our design for the acceptance of that. If and when that ever happens, we don't know."
Planning commission chairman Oldrich Foucek said he personally is not in favor of those large setbacks unless "a residential component" definitely is coming. He said plazas sound like wonderful things, but added in that location it's a waste of space,
"To me, it's like lipstick on a pig," said Foucek. "You're not going to be attracting people in droves to sit out there or play or whatever."
But Allentown planning director Michael Hefele said he's strongly in support of "wrapping the deck" with residential or commercial development. He views the proposed plaza "as a land bank situation" until such buildings are constructed.
Chris Brown of the planning commission also likes the idea of the residential/commercial mixed-use wrap but is concerned that, if it doesn't happen "we're left with this void."
Brown also said the proposed plazas area is over-designed but may be under-used. He recommended it be under-designed, at least initially.
Button of the planning commission asked why the developers don't just make the parking garage bigger to take up more of that plaza space.
The developers explained they have determined their design is the best use for the site.
Despite such reservations, no planning commission members voted no on a motion "to weigh in" on the suitability of having plaza spaces rather than the garage being built right along the saidewalks
"That's important for them to continue the design process," said Hefele.
The planning director repeated it is everyone's intention for the plaza areas to become "a development opportunity," meaning they will go away in the future.
Most of the property is now a parking lot, which can accommodate 220 vehicles. The parking authority will work with people who park there to find other places for them to park until the garage is built.
Pedestrian access to and from the garage will be at Sixth and Type streets, closest to Hamilton Street, and another will be near Walnut and Law streets. (Both Type and Law streets are alleys.)
There will be both elevators and stairs at Sixth and Type, which is expected to be the most heavily-used pedestrian entrance.
Foucek said "I'm not suggesting you put another set of stairs in there" but noted many people parking in the garage also might walk between it and Hamilton on Law Street. No stair and/or elevator tower is planned on the northeast corner of the garage.
Helmer stressed the garage will be more brightly illuminated than required and will include design features to make people using it feel both comfortable and safe, including surveillance cameras, glass elevators and fencing to keep intruders out of the ground floor levels,
Vehicles will enter and exit the garage from either Sixth or Walnut streets. Each entrance will be three lanes wide, with the "reversible" center lane used to expedite vehicles coming and going in high traffic times.
Tamara Dolan, executive director of the parking authority, attended the meeting but did not address the planning commission.
Just last week Allentown City Council vice president Ray O'Connell, who serves as council's representative on the parking authority, declared the city “unequivocally” has enough parking spaces to accommodate people who will be going to events at the PPL Center multi-purpose hockey arena, as well as to new restaurants and businesses in the redeveloping center city.
O'Connell did not mention the proposed new parking garage.
After the planning commission meeting, Dolan said the parking authority already has five parking garages. "This is the only one we're currently considering constructing," she said.
She estimated the new garage will cost about $22 million.
Dolan also said O'Connell was only talking about the city having enough parking for events in the arena, adding: "The purpose of this deck is for daytime employees."
The project's developers told the planning commission the garage will be no more more than seven levels high, but indicated the parking authority could decide to make it only six levels high, in which case it would hold 840 cars.
They hope to begin construction by December and complete the project in nine or 10 months.
During construction, they anticipate blocking at least one lane along Walnut Street, but none along Sixth.
The planning commission approved a waiver so the developers can return for final plan approval on Sept, 9.
Also during Tuesday's meeting, the planning commission smoothly approved a 20,325-square-foot addition for Hospital Central Services in 2139 28th St, S.W.
Hospital Central Services is an industrial laundry processing and linen service company serving more than 45 hospitals.
The company plans to relocate a parking lot to make room for the addition.
It has 142 parking paces now --44 more than required by the city -- and plans to keep that number when the lot is moved.
Dan Marcante, chief operating officer at the company, said it has been operating in the same south Allentown building for 40 years.
He said last year the company evaluated staying in the city or relocating, adding it decided to stay and build the addition. He said it intends to retool its entire plant to remain competitive.
Marcante said the company employs about 180 people at that location and hopes to add 40 more in three years when the total expansion project is complete.
"Thank you for staying in the city," said Foucek, the planning commission chairman, after the expansion was given unanimous final approval.