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Statewide Spotlight: A megaproject on the Allentown waterfront could change everything

A rendering of 615 Waterfront Drive

The site, before

A rendering of Waterfront Drive

A view of the project from the north

The RiverWalk

A view of the project from the river

An event celebrating The Waterfront

A view from the bridge

Remnants of an industrial past

Sixty miles north of Philadelphia, the Lehigh River snakes through the heart of Allentown, a post-industrial city whose current revitalization is inspiring a renewed interest in its long-forgotten waterfront. Leading the charge is The Waterfront, a 26-acre mixed-use development on the former home of Lehigh Structural Steel. 

The project aims to convert the brownfield site into an urban amenity -- a place for residents to live, work, dine and play. When the first phase of the project is completed in 2016, it will be a vibrant addition to a gray waterfront that has languished for many decades. 

"The Waterfront will offer a new gateway to the city of Allentown," enthuses Zach Jaindl, chief operating officer of Jaindl Properties, which is working with development firm Dunn Twiggar on the ambitious venture. "There really won't be a project like it in the Lehigh Valley."

The story of Allentown's waterfront follows a familiar arc for Commonwealth waterways. Once a main canoe thoroughfare for the region's native Leni Lenape, the river underwent a major transformation in the mid-1800s as iron furnaces sprang up along the its banks in response to demand from the nation's growing railroad network.  

By the late-1800s, following the collapse of the railroad industry, silk and textile mills replaced the defunct furnaces. Industrialization continued along the once-scenic river for nearly a century and the city abandoned its waterfront as a place of beauty and recreation.

"The riverfront was where industry thrived," recalls Sy Traub, chairman of the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority (ANIZDA). "When it was no longer used as the primary place for transportation, these particular sites fell into disuse and just rusted away. You have these tremendously large industrial sites positioned on a riverfront, which is beautiful but very hard to redevelop because of environmental issues and a lack of infrastructure."

Over the years, various proposals to revive the waterfront surfaced, but it wasn't until 2011 -- when Allentown's Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) was established -- that the initiative received the political and financial support it needed. Created by state law, the NIZ allows Allentown to recapture tax dollars that businesses located in the zone pay to the state to finance zone-specific capital projects.  

Jaindl actually studied the feasibility of the site while attending Lehigh University. He knew that the waterfront was ripe for redevelopment. When the borders of the NIZ were announced, he knew the next move. Jaindl founded Jaindl Properties with his father Mark Jaindl in 2011.

"Everything lined up all at once," he recalls; "It's perfect how everything fell into place."

"I think the entire waterfront development would not really occur if it weren't for the power of the NIZ," adds Traub.

Four years later, work has begun on Phase I of The Waterfront, which is located on the western banks of the Lehigh River just to the north and south of the Tilghman Street Bridge. According to Jaindl, the goals of the site are to bring new businesses -- and new jobs -- to Allentown and to create an urban, walkable community that also serves as a recreational amenity for visitors and residents alike.  

Like many former industrial sites, the land was classified as a brownfield when it was acquired from Lehigh Structural Steel, requiring significant soil testing to determine if it needed contaminant remediation. Since the parcel will be used for recreational purposes, the developers took the matter very seriously. To their surprise, the majority of the site came back at residential standards, most likely because it had been used primarily for warehousing and distribution instead of steel manufacturing. 

Still, they are working aggressively to exceed environmental requirements for the site. 

"The one thing we need to be cognizant of is that we need to go well above and beyond expectations to maximize the safety of the site," says Jaindl. 

Nine dilapidated buildings have already been demolished and the ground is currently being prepped for infrastructure including sewer lines and roads.

Work on the buildings is slated to begin this fall. When completed, Phase I will boast three office buildings, a residential apartment complex and two parking decks, which are crucial to drawing the Valley's large suburban population to the city. The first floor of the structures will be commercial, and when all phases are completed, The Waterfront will feature 100,000 square feet of retail and 30,000 square feet of restaurant space, in addition to 433 apartments and 610,000 square feet of Class A office space.  

The team is also targeting LEED Silver certification for the campus, boosting the development's green credentials. And two new Lehigh and Northampton Transit Authority (LANTA) bus stops are planned for the site, increasing its connectivity to the rest of the region.

"We are promoting smart growth," beams Jaindl. "We're building up and not out. It's a global trend right now. Rather than push the 'burbs into the country and push the city into the 'burbs, we're building up and creating a vibrant urban center."     

The developers also hope to attract out-of-state businesses to Allentown, especially tech companies. They are likely to bring young workers with them, millennials looking for exactly the kind of dynamic city environment on offer.

"We're trying to make this a haven for new companies moving to the Lehigh Valley," says Jaindl. "The square footage rental rates we're offering are lower than other comparable office space, so companies can reinvest that money into growing their businesses."

In addition to its commercial and residential focus, The Waterfront will be a hub for outdoor fun. The RiverWalk, a half-mile-long bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly trail, will connect two outdoor plazas at either end of the site. Performance-ready open-air amphitheaters will line the walk, and two floating docks will be installed for those want direct access to the river.

Perhaps the most exciting new asset is the long-stalled connection of the Delaware and Lehigh Trail through Allentown. The D&L Trail travels from White Haven to Bristol, following the 165-mile route that carried anthracite coal from the Pocono region to Philadelphia. For decades, the local stretch of trail remained undeveloped, thwarted by railroad interests unwilling to sell their land.

But that's changed now that The Waterfront has acquired a 3.5-mile stretch of property previously owned by RJ Corman Railroad Group. The purchase served as a catalyst to bring Norfolk Southern, the other rail company with land along the corridor, to the table.  

"Every day we wake up and think, how are we going to make the connections?" muses Elissa Garofalo, president and executive director of the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. "But I have to say that The Waterfront project has given us this new way into Allentown and has opened up our ability to close the gap."

According to Garofalo, Norfolk Southern is now willing to transfer the land, and Lehigh County has agreed to take over the parcel adjacent to The Waterfront property.  

"When I got the call from Mark Jaindl, what was originally a non-starter was now a viable option," she recalls. "When you have the Jaindls and Dunn Twiggar put their seal of approval on the trail, it raises our profile. We know there's a positive economic impact to adding a long-distance trail, but it's hard to sell that to other people when there are lots of other economic development activities going on."

Economic development and urban revitalization are never easy tasks, and what works well in one city may not work as well in another -- each has its unique set of assets and challenges. But if The Waterfront can deliver as promised, it has the potential to become a case study in how to smartly redevelop ailing urban industrial waterfronts.  

"I think it's going to be magnificent when it's developed," predicts Traub. "I liken it to a mini-Baltimore Inner Harbor. I'm 75 and hoping to see all of this in my lifetime. It's going to be beautiful."

SAMANTHA WITTCHEN is a designer, writer, harpist and co-founder of iSpring, a sustainability strategy and analytics firm working in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. You can follow her efforts to make the world a better place and become a harp rockstar on Twitter at @samwittchen.
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