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Allentown zoners review plans to turn Furnace Street factory into apartments

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 16 2012 07:06:14 AM CDT
Updated On: Oct 16 2012 07:06:32 AM CDT

Developers propose building 36 apartments at this abandoned factory building at Furnace and Railroad streets in Allentown.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Plans to turn an obsolete and mostly vacant factory into a 36-unit apartment building at Furnace and N. Railroad streets in Allentown were presented to the city’s Zoning Hearing Board Monday night.

Building owner Nat Hyman of Allentown wants a special use exception for his project plus a number of variances, including one to a zoning requirement that limits that property to only seven dwelling units.

“That would be a considerable variance,” said zoner Scott Unger.

The three board members made no decision on Hyman’s appeal because Unger asked for more time to review the number of dwelling units permitted.

Hyman indicated it would be impractical to put only seven apartments into such a large building because of energy costs. He also said the former factory has no other potential use except as an apartment building.

Hyman said even if he put only four apartments on each of the three floors, for a total of 12, he could not make the project work because utility costs would be too high. Being limited to just seven units, he said, “would only make matters worse.”

He proposes eight one-bedroom and four studio apartments on each of three floors.   The 36 apartments would range in size from 530-790 square feet. (Studio apartments are a single open space, with only the bathroom and closets in separate rooms.)

The building has 10,000 square feet of space on each floor, including the basement, which would be used for storage by tenants.

Two nearby property owners raised objections to Hyman’s plan.

Hyman told zoners there is no other use for the building. He explained that he extensively attempted to market it to businesses, but without success. He said the building is obsolete for commercial purposes.  “Today manufacturers and distributors want clear span space, no columns, right off a highway, easy access, tractor trailers in and out. They’d much rather be at the corner of I-78 and Route 309.”

 In August 2007, the zoning board approved converting the third floor of the building into four apartment units. That was done, but Hyman now plans to turn those four units into 12 smaller units. He’s had no luck keeping tenants in them. “The rent was affordable, but the utilities are astronomical. These buildings don’t hold heat well. The heat is more than the rent. People can’t afford to stay there. It’s a constant turnover.”

The building’s first and second floors are vacant. Hyman said when he bought the building in 2005, a garment manufacturer named Rockland Embroidery occupied the first floor and half the second floor. He said it employed about 60 people. “They stayed for a few years and then left.”

Daniel McCarthy, chairman of the zoners, said the property is in an area zoned medium/high density residential district. He said it was non-conforming as a manufacturing facility but would be more in conformity with the zoning ordinance if it has a residential use.

McCarthy estimated 36 apartments could have up to 76 tenants. “That’s extreme,” said Hyman. He expects only 42-45 tenants would live in the building.

Hyman said only single tenants typically rent most of his studio and one-bedroom apartments in other properties he owns. He explained the proposed apartments intentionally are not larger because they are not for families with children.

“When you crowd more and more people into a neighborhood that’s already classified as medium/high density, what is the result?” asked Anson Desimone of New Tripoli, who runs a machine shop at Furnace and Ridge Avenue. He said that immediate neighborhood has only secondary roadways.

Hyman maintained the neighborhood will be in better shape with his apartments than if the building is left vacant, which he indicated could lead to more vandalism, gangs and drug use. He also said he will screen tenants, because putting in a bad tenant who does damage and doesn’t pay rent is worse than leaving an apartment vacant.

Concerns raised by Peter Kostyk of Whitehall included inadequate street parking and the width of the streets, especially for emergency vehicle access. Kostyk, who owns two properties on Furnace Street, also is concerned about tenants with dogs, saying people don’t clean up after them.

Hyman said pets will not be allowed. As for parking. Hyman said his parking lots will be plowed before city streets are plowed.

One variance is required for parking. A paved parking lot is along the south side of Furnace Street next to the building. Hyman said it can accommodate 26 vehicles, with three spots for compact cars. He is leasing 30 additional spaces in a lot owned by St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Church, about a half block away from his building. That is a 30-year-lease. “The spaces are never used by the church, even at Christmas,” said Hyman. With those two lots, he said, “we meet the city’s requirement for parking at 1.5 spaces per unit.”

Another variance is required because on paper an alley, George Street, runs between the factory’s parking lot and the building. But Hyman said that piece of George Street does not exist. “You wouldn’t know an alley was there.”

Atty. William Malkames, who represented Hyman, said the parking lot and factory have been in common ownership since at least 1912.

After the meeting, Hyman said construction of the apartments could begin six months after zoning board approval. He said it might take another year to complete all 36, but they would be rented as they were built.

Hyman told zoners the studio apartments will go for about $800 a month and the one-bedroom units will go for about $1,000 a month.

The apartments would have electric baseboard heat. They would not have central air-conditioning, but tenants could install window units.