BACK TO THE FUTURE Downtown revival in Allentown signals a return to its roots

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Construction of the Renaissance Hotel by Marriott International in Downtown Allentown catches the eye of retail event attendees. From right, Steve Boell, Marie McConnell and Kate Durso, all of Fitzpatrick Lentz  Bubba of Center Valley and Mike Simmons of Marcus & Millichap of Conshohocken.
Construction of the Renaissance Hotel by Marriott International in Downtown Allentown catches the eye of retail event attendees. From right, Steve Boell, Marie McConnell and Kate Durso, all of Fitzpatrick Lentz Bubba of Center Valley and Mike Simmons of Marcus & Millichap of Conshohocken. - (Photo By Jennifer Glose)

Blaring jackhammers, roaring truck engines and bustling traffic are commonplace in Downtown Allentown these days.

The echoing sounds of construction are in large part a result of J.B. Reilly, the founder of City Center Lehigh Valley, which is developing hundreds of thousands of square feet of property along Hamilton Street in the downtown – projects that are expected to lure retailers and restaurants to the city.

In celebration of this vast revitalization of the city, the Commercial Real Estate Women Network of Lehigh Valley held an Allentown retail revival event at Hamilton Financial Center in the downtown. A nonprofit organization that promotes the success of women in commercial real estate, CREW held the event to inform and encourage potential retailers about plans for the City Center Lehigh Valley project.

The event included a networking luncheon and presentation that took more than 50 attendees on a journey through the past few decades of Allentown’s retail history.

The journey also continued to the present and looked at the future of the city’s revitalization and how it could benefit retailers. Besides vendors, attendees included attorneys, certified public accountants, brokers, architects, engineers, and bank and city officials.

“To know where you are going, you need to know where you came from,” said Stuart Dubbs of Re/Max Central of Allentown. “People have so much pride in what Allentown used to be, and that pride needs to carry over to the new Allentown.”

Richard Somach of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, a member of CREW, began the presentation by talking about his connection to the city, as his father owned and operated Somach’s bridal and women’s wear store in Downtown Allentown for 50 years.

“If my father was alive today, he would say ‘I told you so,’ because he always had faith in Downtown Allentown,” Somach said. “He would have been very happy.”

Robert Bungerz, a longtime resident of Allentown and the co-author of the book “Allentown Remembered,” took the attendees through a journey of Allentown’s retail history. Also, he shared his vintage photos of businesses and residential buildings along Hamilton Street, where he worked and lived most of his life.

“When I was young, I never had to leave Hamilton Street,” said Bungerz, a jewelry appraiser based in the city. “I lived there, worked there, shopped there and did everything there.”

Allison Lisiecki, retail specialist for City Center Lehigh Valley, gave a presentation on the entire plans and details for each phase of the revitalization project. City Center is developing three large office buildings, a full-service Renaissance Hotel by Marriott International, a 166-unit luxury apartment building, upscale retail and loft-style office space and several parking lots and garages, all by 2015.

Another centerpiece of the downtown renewal is the PPL Center ice hockey arena, a project by Hammes Co. Sports Development, separate from the City Center development. Scheduled to open next fall, the arena will be home to the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, the top minor league team of the Philadelphia Flyers.

According to Lisiecki, City Center’s vision for the revitalization project is similar to what Bungerz recalled: for people to be able to live, work and socialize all in one place, the downtown. She said City Center plans to build several small pocket parks among the properties, as well as a small park for the residents of the apartment building.

The lone confirmed retailer thus far for the City Center project, according to Liesicki, is Donny Petridis, co-founder of both Melt and Blue restaurants in Bethlehem. Liesicki said Petridis is looking at plans to open an American bistro-type restaurant near the hockey arena.

A big incentive for retailers is the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, legislation that gives tax credits to developers in downtown Allentown.

City Center will receive enough tax credits to pay down its project debt and in turn will be able to charge less in rental rates for retailers that set up shop on its property.

She said City Center is targeting already established businesses to relocate to or open an additional location in the downtown.

Jennifer Glose

Jennifer Glose

Reporter Jennifer Glose covers health care, Berks County and other topics. She can be reached at jenniferg@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 111. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferg_LVB and read her blog, “Networking,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/networking-blog.

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