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Allentown Zoners OK plans for former lumberyard to become apartments

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 02 2012 07:33:06 AM CDT
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Plans to construct 100 apartment units for residents 62 and older in the 1200 block of Gordon Street were approved Monday night by the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board.

But the board rejected a bid for a convenience store at Seventh and Liberty streets to remain open round-the-clock, seven days a week.

No residents addressed the board about the apartment complex, which will rise on the mostly vacant site of the old Ritter & Smith lumberyard on the north side of Gordon between 12th and 13th streets.

But both supporters and opponents of the A-1 convenience store attended the meeting in City Hall. Zoners seemed particularly impressed with the testimony of a city police officer about crime incidents at two other nearby convenience stores open all night.

The age-restricted apartment project was approved with a stipulation that the applicants must go back to zoners when they have specifics about the operation of an adult daycare center on the site.

That 3,200-square-foot center will go into the Ritter & Smith Co. building still standing on the property. Zoners are concerned about the hours of operation and how much traffic that center will generate, because it will not only serve apartment residents. It will serve 70 clients, with a staff of 12.

The new apartment complex, which will be attached to the daycare center, will be named Madison Gardens.

Tattered black cloth now clings to sections of fence along Gordon. A section of gate, while still locked, has been knocked over. Weeds are growing up through broken asphalt and piles of rubble are on the site, from other two buildings that were demolished.

The developer is Home Leasing Pennsylvania LP, based in Rochester, N.Y.

Cheryl Stulpin, who represented the developer, told zoners Michael Engle, Daniel McCarthy and Scott Unger that construction should start before the end of 2013 and be completed in 12-18 months.

Spokesmen for the applicant said the apartment complex will be designed to fit into the character of the existing neighborhood, particularly homes on the south side of Gordon Street.

The apartments will be for anyone aged 62 and older and their spouses, as well as handicapped residents of any age.

Three levels of one-bedroom apartments are planned, with elevators. The units will have just over 700 square feet of living space. Some will have usable porches.

Residents also will have access to garden plots on the site. A central commons area will be designed to encourage interaction among residents.

In 2006, the zoning hearing board approved plans for a similar but slightly larger project, with 114 apartments. That approval was extended several times. Variances were needed for the new proposal because zoning has changed and adult day care and multi-family age-restricted developments no longer are allowed in a business/light industrial zoning district.

Despite the approval, Engle expressed concern about one variance request: only 12 square feet of storage space is planned for each unit, rather than 35 square feet as required by the city.

Unger’s primary reservation was that multi-family dwellings are not allowed in that zoning district.

Unger also wondered why the main entrance to the property will be off 13th Street rather than 12th street opposite West End Cemetery.

Stulpin said the developers didn’t think it was a great marketing tool to have the main entrance of a community for seniors across from a cemetery.

Iftekhar Ansari owns the A-1, which he described as a grocery store and take-out deli at 502 N. Seventh Street.

It is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. He wanted to be open 24 hours to increase business, adding customers still are coming at in closing time. More than 100 people signed a petition supporting the store being open 24/7.

Ansari testified that his hours were 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. when he opened eight months ago. He reduced the hours because he did not have enough business, but now his customers want him to remain open.

Resident Lisa Glenn testified A-1 sells merchandise other nearby convenience stores do not.

Eleven people attended the meeting to object to the store’s plans. Another 15 counted themselves as interested parties.

Three residents spoke in favor of allowing the store to be open all night, four testified against the request. They were concerned keeping it open will lead to more crime, noise, traffic and litter. Resident Peter Lewnes, who lives at Seventh and Liberty, called it “a quiet corner.”

Perhaps the most damning testimony were statistics presented by Allentown police Capt. Glen Dorney about police responses to two nearby convenience stores open all night – the 7-Eleven at Seventh and Linden and the Gulf Mart at Seventh and Tilghman.

Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. so far this year, reported Dorney, police have responded to 106 calls at that 7-Eleven and to 63 calls at that Gulf Mart.

He said most problems occur between 1 and 3 a.m., after bars close, adding there often are clashes between people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Dorney said the city opposes keeping A-1 open 24 hours a day because it will create another nuisance, straining the police department and its officers.

Unger complained that, with so many police calls, city taxpayers are subsidizing the cost of providing security at those two stores. He said they should employ their own security.

Allentown zoning supervisor Barbara Nemith told the zoning board A-1 legally can operate from 6 a.m. until midnight, but needs zoners’ approval to be open between midnight and 6 a.m.

Zoners ruled keeping the store open all night would create a nuisance for nearby residents.