The board of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted 24-7 against the proposed Hamilton Crossings shopping center project in Lower Macungie Township.
Thursday night’s vote by LVPC is expected to carry great weight with Lehigh County commissioners.
On May 22, those commissioners delayed a critical vote on approving a tax increment financing plan for Hamilton Crossings until they learn the planning commission’s position on the project.
If the county commissioners vote against the TIF plan, it will kill the $140-million project.
“Without the TIF, there is no project,” Hamilton Crossings developer Tim Harrison told LVPC before Thursday’s vote. “Without the county, there is no TIF.”
The LVPC board voted to support the written position of its staff, which states LVPC has “strong reservations and objections” to Hamilton Crossings.
That five-page letter declares that the project, and the use of TIF funding for the project, are inconsistent with the Lehigh Valley’s comprehensive plan.
“If the county commissioners think you don’t like this or that it’s inconsistent with the comprehensive plan, I’m finished,” said Harrison. “My project’s gone. I can’t do this.”
Harrison said LVPC’s recommendations on such a project typically would just go to Lower Macungie -- and the township would agree or disagree with them. But in this case, the county commissioners also want to know LVPC’s position.
Harrison told the LVPC board: “You hold in your hands the viability of a project I’ve been working on for four-and-half years and I can’t tell you how many millions of dollars…”
East Penn School Board already has approved the TIF plan for Hamilton Crossings. But Lehigh County commissioners also must agree to the plan, which involves giving up 50 percent of increased real estate taxes generated by the project for 20 years, to help pay for road, storm water and utility improvements.
LVPC’s position is that “developers, not the public, should pay for the improvements attributable to their development.”
LVPC explains the developers are seeking TIF financing from the county, township and school district to pay for all improvements planned on Krocks Road, which would become the entranceway to the shopping center. And that they are requesting $6.4 million in state transportation funding to pay for all improvements on Route 222 and Hamilton Boulevard.
Even with the proposed improvements, LVPC officials maintain Hamilton Crossings will only make traffic problems worse on Route 222, rather than resolving problems on that road.
Hamilton Crossings would have 590,000 square feet of retail space and 2,500 parking spaces, “which makes it a very large retail center,” said David Berryman, LVPC’s chief planner.
“The scale of the project has impacts and consequences, not only to the traffic and to the roads, but for the residents,” said Berryman. “This project provides a detrimental impact to the neighborhoods that surround it. Residences are right up against the shopping center.”
Berryman said more than 25 variances were granted for the project by Lower Macungie, including some involving side yard setbacks and other buffers. He said there will be “light spillage” on residential properties and 12-foot-high sound walls standing less than five feet from some property lines.
No prediction from county commissioner
Harrison unsuccessfully suggested that he might stand a better chance of getting TIF approval from the county commissioners if LVPC would take no position on the TIF aspect of his project.
Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the county commissioners who also serves on LVPC’s board, said the commissioners have been waiting to hear LVPC’s position and will give it serious consideration before they vote on June 12.
She declined to predict if commissioners will vote against the project, saying that’s still two weeks away.
“There has been a lot of discussion among the board of commissioners and there definitely are differing opinions on the board,” said Scheller. “The information put out tonight from all the parties will be disseminated to all the board members as quickly as possible, so people can come to their conclusions for June 12.”
Scheller abstained from voting on Hamilton Crossings at Thursday night’s meeting.
But she asked what LVPC staff members will be attending the June 12 commissioners meeting, as commissioners requested. Berryman will be going and Joseph Gurinko, LVPC’s chief transportation planner, also may attend.
Lower Macungie’s position
Lower Macungie’s five commissioners will vote on the Hamilton Crossings TIF only if the county commissioners first approve it June 12.
Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie’s planning and community development director, said LVPC should be raising concerns or making suggestions in its recommendation, but not denying the project.
“I object to that, that’s not constructive,” Pandl told the LVPC board.
Pandl serves on that board, but also abstained from voting on Hamilton Crossings.
She said Lower Macungie has been working with Harrison on the project for two-and-a-half years, to ensure it will be an asset to the community. She said the shopping center – which will have a Costco, a Target and an unnamed organic grocery store as its anchors -- will be a welcome addition to residents of the entire Lehigh Valley.
Both Pandl and Harrison offered point-by-point responses to LVPC’s position. Both argued the project is consistent with the Lehigh Valley’s comprehensive plan.
But LVPC staffers Berryman and Gurinko indicated they heard nothing to change their recommendation to the board.
“This is just more of the same,” said Berryman, explaining every time LVPC’s staff has taken a position on Hamilton Crossings, new information is submitted by the township and the developer to counter it. Berryman noted LVPC already delayed action on its recommendation for a month, to have meetings with the developers, the township and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Size of Hamilton Crossings
“We’re really proud of this project,” Harrison told LVPC. “It will be the best project I’ve ever done in my career.”
LVPC states Hamilton Crossings would be the fourth largest shopping center in the Lehigh Valley -- larger than the Promenade, the upscale center Harrison intends to emulate.
Berryman said the area’s largest shopping centers – Lehigh Valley Mall, Whitehall Mall, Airport Center and Northampton Crossings -- are all on highway interchanges, which can handle the amount of traffic they generate. “They’re not just dropped on any road.”
He said intersections, such as Krocks Road and Route 222 where Hamilton Crossings is proposed, cannot handle such traffic.
“The road isn’t the problem here,” said Berryman. “It’s the size of the project that’s the issue.”
LVPC’s position is the section of Route 222 along the north side of the proposed shopping center was designed as a controlled access highway to mitigate traffic congestion on Hamilton Boulevard, which runs along the south side of the 63-acre property.
That $140-million bypass around Trexlertown and Wescosville opened in 2007 to keep traffic moving between western Lehigh County and west Allentown, according to LVPC.
Harrison said when PennDOT designed that section of Route 222, it anticipated 37,900 vehicles a day would be using it by the year 2020. He said it already is used by 38,268 a day. “That’s eight years early. Whether we develop or not, you’re already above the 2020 estimate.”
LVPC states PennDOT compensated property owners along Route 222 for giving up future direct access to the highway -- including $1.5 million paid to the Allentown Catholic Diocese, current owner of the vacant land where the shopping center is proposed.
Harrison unsuccessfully asked LVPC to consider a compromise, by not voting against his plan in exchange for “a seat at the table” at all future meetings regarding his project’s impact on Route 222.
In his summary of LVPC’s position, Berryman said 10 other municipalities in Lehigh County would be better choices to use a TIF than Lower Macungie, which has little poverty and one of the highest median incomes.
But Harrison said the Hamilton Crossing’s retailers want to be in Lower Macungie specifically because it is affluent and its residents are extremely well-educated
Berryman said retail jobs generated by Hamilton Crossings would not generate “a substantial living wage.”
But Harrison said Hamilton Crossings will create 923 fulltime jobs that pay more than the median income in Lehigh County and solve five percent of the Lehigh Valley’s unemployment problem. “Yes, they are retail jobs. But this is not Walmart, it’s not McDonalds.” He said a starting salary for a cashier at Costco is $17 an hour.
Harrison had hoped construction of Hamilton Crossings could begin by September and be completed by the fall of 2014.