For now, a 21-acre former industrial site in Allentown’s Union Terrace neighborhood will remain undeveloped.
City Council on Wednesday night voted down a rezoning request for the two parcels that comprise the site where Abe Atiyeh and Stephen Rohrbach had planned to build up to 200 homes. The developers argued that rezoning the land for medium-density residential development would be more productive than the current parkland zoning.
The site includes a former quarry that has since been filled in, and contamination precludes the city from developing the land into a park. Allentown planning staff had said housing would be a more viable use.
But City Council rejected the zoning change in a vote of 5-2, citing concerns that it would allow too many homes, resulting in too much traffic and issues for the already overcrowded Union Terrace Elementary School.
Several council members considered postponing the vote until completion of the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which calls for updating the city’s zoning. But since that could take more than a year, they proceeded with the vote.
Council President Daryl Hendricks voted “no” along with Candida Affa, Ce-Ce Gerlach, Joshua Siegel and Ed Zucal. Julio Guridy and Cynthia Mota were in favor of the project.
“It’s a hard decision,” said Affa, who was initially in favor of a project that would create affordable housing and generate taxes. But she switched after hearing others’ concerns.
“I don’t see too much of a downside. The houses look lovely. It’s affordable, and the fact that if they do start building shortly they can get these low-interest mortgages,” she said.
Zucal said if the property is rezoned there’s no guarantee it wouldn’t be sold to another developer who could have a different vision for the land.
The proposed homes would be two stories with three bedrooms, a front yard, side yard and parking in the back with a small backyard. They would sell for about $229,000.
“With this housing market the way it is, and the city has cleaned up, it’s thriving right now — this project has perfect timing,” Atiyeh said. “It’s affordable housing. For $950 a month, you could afford to pay the principal and interest on a single-family home.”
Gerlach said there’s a need for affordable housing in Allentown but considered the prices to be middle income.
“This is for teachers and those earning a pretty decent salary. But for me, how does it fit into the city’s long-term plan?,” she asked. Without knowing that, she said she was hesitant to support the rezoning.
The city’s R-MP zoning district allows up to six townhouses or 11 apartments per acre. Developers can pursue a “pocket neighborhood” designation promoting a mix of single-family homes, townhomes and twins that allows up to 10 units per acre if the units face open space.
Last summer, Atiyeh and Rohrbach pitched up to 300 townhomes on the site, but at Wednesday’s meeting Atiyeh said they were now considering between 190 and 200 single-family homes.
Because of improvements needed at the site, they had to pursue higher density to make the project financially viable, said Charlie Schmehl of Urban Research & Development Corp., representing the developers.
Guridy noted that much of the city’s housing stock dates to the late 1800s and early 1900s and that more than 100 properties are blighted. He thought Allentown would benefit from the new homes.
“This will be a good project if it was done the way it was explained,” he said, though he favored postponing a vote until a review of city zoning.
Union Terrace neighbors voiced vociferous opposition during planning commission meetings last year, arguing that any houses would overburden nearby schools and roads. They also expressed concerns about flooding and the displacement of wildlife that inhabits the open space.
A half-dozen residents who submitted comments for Wednesday night’s virtual
meeting relayed similar concerns, though one spoke in favor of the project, saying the homes would generate much needed tax income for the city.
Atiyeh’s St. Elmo Development LLC owns the northern tract of property, a former cement plant where he operates a self-storage facility. He has approached the city multiple times in the past decade with residential proposals. In 2017, zoners struck down a plan for 120 apartments on the 7-acre parcel, arguing they would burden the neighborhood and the school district.
Rohrbach’s Farland Development Corp. bought the 14-acre property, 303 S. Saint Elmo St., in 1987 when it was still used for industrial purposes.
It wasn’t immediately clear on Wednesday night what would happen next.
“We’ll just have to find something else to do with it, but I’m not sure at this time what else could go there,” Atiyeh said. “I have been working on this thing for 15 years. I thought it was a good use for it.
I think they made a big mistake.”
Morning Call reporter Christina Tatu can be reached at 610-820-6583 or [email protected]
©2020 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Visit The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) at www.mcall.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.