It may take 20 years to completely transform the west bank of the Lehigh River in Allentown into a neighborhood of restaurants, stores, offices, industries, apartments, parking decks and green space – including places where people can see and stroll along the river.
But the city now has a final plan that reflects its leaders’ commitment to revitalize that section of Allentown and sets a framework for what kind of development they want.
The completed Lehigh Riverfront Master Plan is a detailed guide to future redevelopment of 1.3 miles of land on the west side of the river between the Hamilton Street Bridge and the city boundary just north of the planned American Parkway Bridge.
Historically that area, which covers about 120 acres east of North Front Street, primarily has been industrial -- and off-limits to residents.
The public currently has access to that stretch of the Lehigh in only one place: Bucky Boyle Park.
The master plan envisions nearly a dozen access points to the river and proposes expanding Bucky Boyle into a larger festival park. Other recreational aspects proposed in the plan include promenades, riverside trails, a small marina, boat rentals and even canal boat rides.
In the name of authenticity, the plan recommends preserving a number of buildings in the area, including the landmark Neuweiler Brewery, for new multiple uses. It also recommends preserving and displaying high-profile artifacts such as the A&B Meats and Lehigh Structural Steel signs. The plan does not propose changing existing residential neighborhoods in that area.
It does propose many road improvements, including constructing a couple of new streets, extending some existing east-west streets down to the river and creating a traffic roundabout at the west end of the Hamilton Street Bridge.
The final presentation of the plan was made Wednesday night by Keith Weaver, associate principal at EDSA, Inc., who headed up a team of seven consulting firms that developed it for the city. Allentown received a $300,000 federal grant to pay for the master plan.
Weaver spent more than an hour giving a detailed overview of the plan at what he called its official hand-off to the city.
While open to the public, the presentation in the America On Wheels museum primarily was held for city officials. Those attending included most members of City Council, as well as members of the city planning commission, the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority, the Allentown Economic Development Corporation and the Allentown Commercial and Industrial Development Authority.
Weaver’s parting advice for city leaders: “You’re going to get one shot at this in your life. Give it your all.”
The next recommended steps for city officials include formally adopting the master plan by resolution as well as adopting an official map of the plan area. The plan recommends that the city also establish an implementation team, create new land use regulations and zoning changes that promote the types of development it envisions and begin acquiring property and rights-of-ways needed to build roads and public amenities.
Weaver estimated public costs for riverfront improvements will total $20 million to $25 million, but added that could include public/private partnerships. “You’re going to have a lot of expenditures in this area,” he told officials, “but also a lot of gain. Scale it to your community.”
Development of the plan included four public meetings in 2012. Weaver said those meetings spurred no major changes. “Our work is finished,” he said. “We started in 2011 and finished in August 2012.”
The plan area is in one of Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zones, which offers financial incentives to developers.
The plan recommends “vertically integrated mixed use” development. Apartment units are proposed as part of that development but there is much more focus on retail, commercial and even new industrial uses.
Weaver said the plan's neighborhood includes eight “focus areas, each with a different theme, which to some extent can cater to different land uses.”
He explained the master plan includes options and provides room for deviation. He expects “the spirit of the plan” will be respected by developers and advised city officials: “Allow for flexibility in the plan so developers are persuaded to come in.”
While some riverfront development projects could be completed before the end of this decade, Weaver estimated full completion of development outlined in the plan may take 20 years, based on current market conditions.
“We wanted to be sure this was a plan based in market realities,” he said. “We can look with some certainty five, maybe even 10 years out. If anyone tells you that you can look 10 more years out, with the way today’s economy is, they’re telling a fib.”
The riverfront master plan should not be confused with The Waterfront, a redevelopment project planned on the former Lehigh Structural Steel property beneath the Tilghman Street Bridge. That 27-acre project is within the 120-acre riverfront master plan area. A conceptual plan for the Waterfront, which includes 10 buildings and two parking decks, was approved by the Allentown Planning Commission Jan. 8.
Michael Hefele, Allentown’s planning director, told the planning commission the Waterfront plan conforms to the overall intent of the riverfront master plan.
Weaver said it is not unusual for developers to be making their own plans at the same time a master plan is being developed for the same area.
Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski has explained the riverfront master plan is only a guide for future development, not a blueprint containing specific details of exactly what the transformed riverfront will look like.
For example, drawings in the master plan do not look the same as initial conceptual plans presented for The Waterfront.
Don’t despair if you missed Wednesday night’s meeting. The full plan, which covers nearly 250 pages, and its 40-page executive summary, are on the City of Allentown's website.