The High Cost of Poor Design...

“The developer has to figure out a way to have the inside and the outside come together in something that works for everybody,” – Peter H. Brown, How Real Estate Developers Think: Designs, Profits and Community

If you live near Allentown, PA, you've probably heard of the most recent project proposed within the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ), Tower 6 at 6th and Hamilton Streets. This project proposes mixed use in the dense urban core of the city, and plans include demolition of four historic buildings, two of which (602 and 608 Hamilton) are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Tower 6 project was recently approved by the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone Development Authority (ANIZDA), but the design was not approved by the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB), the body responsible for reviewing proposed demolition of historic properties along Hamilton Street. Hamilton Street is a “historic demolition overlay zone,” meaning that demolition requires, in essence, a zoning variance.

The Allentown Preservation League supports this project in concept. The development happening in downtown Allentown is exciting and the opportunity for more robust businesses and residences in a Legacy City (post-industrial urban center) is a welcome sight. However, the rate of demolition at the heart of downtown is distressing. Historic buildings tell the story of Allentown. They tell visitors and residents alike that the city has thrived before, as the new buildings show it will thrive again. Although the buildings downtown are privately owned, the exteriors of the buildings are public domain. The designs shape the way we, the community, interact and feel about our town. This is called “Sense of Place,” and it is what distinguishes our town from Anytown, USA. This uniqueness, or character, is why the Allentown Preservation League, the demolition overlay zone, and the three historic districts exist.

The Allentown Preservation League does not and cannot support the design for Tower 6 as proposed. We propose instead that the façades be saved as they are. By preserving only the first 10 feet (depth) of the buildings the rhythm of storefront façades that makes Hamilton Street recognizable as Allentown would remain while allowing the new development to happen in the bulk of the space. Please join APL in requesting that  the Zoning Hearing Board (Monday August 15 at 7pm in Council Chambers) require that the design of Tower 6 incorporate the existing buildings, and therefore preserves the unique character of Allentown.

As a side note, ANIZDA has a contract with a real estate planning and design firm based in Boston. Goody Clancy of Boston, MA, created the NIZ Master Plan titled “Downtown Allentown Development and Urban Design Plan” in 2014. The plan outlines prioritized action steps. One item, listed as a high priority initiative, states (L6., p. 104):

“Require NIZ projects to preserve/restore historic architectural features in the historic building overlay.”

Goody Clancy recently conducted a design review of the Tower 6 project on behalf of ANIZDA. Their report states:

“Historic buildings add important value to downtown Allentown, and their potential removal deserves careful consideration as to whether new development offers sufficient benefits to justify their removal ... we strongly recommend documenting and salvaging the façades to enable their reuse elsewhere in downtown Allentown.”

Why reuse them elsewhere? APL thinks the facades are great right where they are.