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City Center breaks ground on first project outside Allentown’s NIZ

City Center breaks ground on first project outside Allentown’s NIZ
July 19, 2018

As City Center Investment Corp.’s downtown Allentown developments go, the apartment project officials ceremonially hailed Friday is not that significant.

With 61 units, it will have the fewest number of apartments of the five residential buildings City Center is building or has already opened.

It will stand a modest five stories tall, and be dwarfed by the newly opened, glass-covered, 12-story Tower 6 office building just across Sixth Street.

The new apartment project, however, is most definitely significant for City Center and Allentown. The project, dubbed the Walnut Street Commons, will be City Center’s first development outside Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone, albeit, just barely.

That means the $13 million project won’t be able to redirect taxes levied during the construction of the building toward its debt service, as it would have if it was in the NIZ.

Nevertheless, City Center President and CEO J.B. Reilly, city officials and state Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, couldn’t have been more bullish on the prospects for downtown.

“This is City Center’s first development project outside of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, and it won’t be our last,” Reilly said at the groundbreaking.

The apartment project will wrap around the community parking deck at the corner of Sixth and Walnut streets. When completed, the only part of the parking deck visible from the street will be its entrance and exit sites. Construction will begin next month and its one- and two-bedroom units should be ready for occupancy by summer 2019.

Reilly noted that the apartment project was planned all along by the Allentown Parking Authority, which will continue to operate the deck. An early study on development through the NIZ said developing the apartments would fulfill a “critical opportunity to enhance Walnut Street’s residential character,” Reilly said.

Browne, the father of the legislation that created the one-of-a-kind NIZ, said a change in consumer demand, led by millennials and empty-nesters who like the urban lifestyle, now put development forces “in the city’s favor.”

More than office and retail development, new housing indicates “true sustainability” as residents make a commitment saying they want to live downtown, Browne said.

The district’s success has other cities noticing and envious, Browne said. A representative of the Boston Red Sox recently contacted his office to see if a similar sort of law would work for the area around historic Fenway Park, he said.

In brief remarks, Mayor Ray O’Connell urged development for all of Allentown, not just the now-flashy urban core.

Four years ago, there was no demand for market-rate apartments in downtown Allentown, Reilly said, and now, City Center can hardly keep pace.

The development company is building a mixed-use property at 520 Hamilton St. that will include 68 units. A few blocks to the north of Walnut Street Commons, City Center has opened three apartment buildings with 309 units since 2015. City Center says the existing units are fully leased.

Written by Tim Darragh; Originally published in The Morning Call.

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