The Easton Redevelopment Authority has gotten the okay to move forward with setting into place the guts of a mixed-use redevelopment project that officials say is intended to be the largest economic development and neighborhood revitalization effort in the city’s history.
The Easton Planning Commission on Wednesday night granted preliminary approval to the Easton Redevelopment Authority for infrastructure work at the former Simon Silk Mill site on North 13th Street and Bushkill Drive, including establishing an access boulevard through the 15-acre property along with water, sewer and storm-water management infrastructure. The authority is planning to complete this work using grant funding received from the state
The start of the infrastructure is a must before the first phase of redeveloping the existing buildings can begin by the appointed re-developer, VM Development Group of Flemington, N.J. The plan is to redevelop the site into an arts village comprised of a mix of residential and commercial uses, with similarities to the ArtsQuest complex in nearby Bethlehem.
Officials said environmental remediation work is ongoing at the site, with a significant amount already complete.
The Planning Commission’s preliminary approval included the first redevelopment phase, totaling about 50,000 square feet, which calls for converting a four-story building into 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments geared toward artists on the top three floors and commercial space on the ground floor. The estimated $4 million first phase also includes converting a one-story building into parking and storage space.
VM Development Group CEO Mark Mulligan is hopeful construction will begin next year on the first redevelopment phase.
The commission also recommended the city’s Zoning Hearing Board grant a special exception for development in a floodplain. Officials said an “insignificant portion” of a planned parking lot is located within a 100-year floodplain.
The ultimate goal for the silk mill site is to redevelop the entire 18-building property with a total floor area of more than 300,000 square feet. Mulligan anticipates total redevelopment to carry a price tag of $60-80 million.
The site is currently owned by the Easton Redevelopment Authority, which is selling off pieces of the property in phases to the re-developer as the project progresses.
A presentation to the Planning Commission by the city’s Bureau of Planning notes the overwhelming tax impacts of the redeveloped property. As appraised right now, the site would only generate about $23,537 in total taxes. According to the Bureau of Planning, the potential tax revenue from the first phase of the project is $363,000 in total.
Before granting preliminary approval, different commission members expressed concerns over traffic impacts to an area that already faces various traffic difficulties.
Commission member Ron Shipman said the project could lead to “a traffic nightmare” at both the main entrance into the site on 13th Street and at the adjacent traffic signal at North 13th Street, Bushkill Drive and West Lafayette Street.
Representatives of the city’s Bureau of Planning said traffic issues are being addressed with PennDOT, including plans to re-time the traffic signal for better traffic flow and designate a left-turn lane into the site from southbound traffic on North 13th Street.
‘Largest’ project ever
After granting preliminary approval for the first phase of the project, the Planning Commission adopted a resolution noting its strong support for the redevelopment project, in an effort for the city to secure financial support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
The resolution notes the project’s “intent of being the largest economic development, neighborhood revitalization and community building program in the city’s history.”
The commission’s 14-point resolution notes the following benefits of the redevelopment effort:
1) Harmonious with the density and function promoting orderly growth consistent with the surrounding neighborhoods.
2) Is to be located in an area with adequate infrastructure and at a density consistent with the surrounding neighborhoods.
3) Encourages the re-establishment of a diverse and stable housing stock.
4) Supports job creation and expanded business opportunities in the service sector.
5) Encourages off-street parking.
6) Supports the maintenance and further development of transit systems that link residential, recreational, service and shopping opportunities.
7) Supports and improves pedestrian access between neighborhoods.
8) Supports infill construction and adaptive building reuse in harmony with adjacent historic resources.
9) Preserves historic resources and remediate former Brownfield lands.
10) Creates a new gateway into the city from the west, relining Easton with the majority of the Lehigh Valley.
11) Preserves and protects sensitive floodplain lands and creates storm-water management infrastructure.
12) Assists in the protection of a designated high-water quality stream, the Bushkill Creek, and establishes permanent riparian buffer protections.
13) Connects recreational amenities to housing, commercial and educational resources.
14) Provides public art opportunities.
The total vision
The total redevelopment vision for the property, as posted on the Greater Easton Development Partnership website, is as follows:
-- A community arts center possibly involving gallery space, working artist studios, small live performance venues, classrooms and community meeting rooms, shared production facilities (kilns, pottery wheels, metal-working facilities, etc.), artist demonstration stages, an art film theatre, etc.
-- An artist live-work facility providing affordable joint residential/studio space for qualified artists and their families.
-- A boutique hotel and conference center providing overnight accommodations for visitors.
-- A mix of market-rate retail, commercial, office, restaurants, and production facilities catering to the creative industries.
The VM Group, on its website, said the former silk mill site will become “a tour de force in the museum exhibition and community arts education forum.”