Easton's downtown revival continues to bring startling changes to a city whose comeback has been gradual but steady.
While Downtown Allentown is the first of the big three Lehigh Valley cities to begin reaping the benefits of economic incentives with its Neighborhood Improvement Zone in fairly rapid succession, Bethlehem is poised to continue its own economic renaissance with tax breaks from the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone the city earned in last December.
Meanwhile, Easton quietly is making strides with its Keystone Opportunity Zone incentives, which offer business owners state and local tax breaks and a major hook that attracts developers.
“We have a couple of fairly large projects going on at the moment,” said Gretchen Longenbach, director of community and economic development for Easton. “It’s going to be a combination of a lot of small projects to make an impression. That’s where we are going to have an impact.”
CITY HALL/TRANSPORTATION CENTER
One of the biggest construction projects is the Easton City Hall and Transportation Center, opening next summer. The structure is a centerpiece to the city’s economic revival efforts because it sits in a high-profile location on South Third Street near the intersection with Larry Holmes Drive.
The building will include commercial and retail space, and marketing is in high gear.
First floor commercial space is available in a variety of sizes, from 800 to 6,000 square feet, while the KOZ benefit is attached to the building, Longenbach said. A KOZ would exempt property owners, residents and businesses on the site from paying most taxes for 10 years.
The economic incentives help drive investment to the city, and Easton’s strong credit rating doesn’t hurt either.
“The city’s credit rating is A-plus, and we plan on moving into the new city hall by mid-late June 2015,” said Glenn Steckman, city administrator. “The city’s credit rating has played a major part in the rejuvenation. The city is recognized for managing its finances and not because of an increase in tax base.”
Much like the NIZ in Allentown, the KOZ is putting Easton on the investment radar. One developer has already undertaken several massive projects.
“The economic incentives certainly helped,” said Mark Mulligan, CEO of VM Development Group LLC in Easton.
Mulligan, a developer who plans to invest $75 million to $100 million in Easton projects, said the incentives, plus the partnership with the city, its strong credit rating and the Easton Ambassador program are the key to Easton’s growth.
The Easton Ambassadors, a program of the Greater Easton Development Partnership, provides staff to greet visitors, clean the city and help keep it safe.
Mulligan said the city selected his firm to do Pomeroy’s Lofts, a commercial/upscale apartment adaptive reuse, because his company specializes in restoration, rather than new construction.
“I think they saw our vision and what we were good at, and we came out on top,” he said of the project that is nearly finished. “When you do a project right, it encourages other owners to invest in their buildings and infrastructure so it actually brings the whole city up.”
Mulligan is finishing the upscale apartments on the side of the building facing Pine Street, adding to those recently built on the Northampton Street side.
The two restaurants that opened on the first floor – Maxim’s 22 and Cheeburger Cheeburger –have been open for about two years and join the burgeoning wave of establishments cropping up in the downtown. That includes many retail shops, small eateries and restaurants expected to cater to the commercial and residential growth.
GOVERNOR WOLF BUILDING
The Governor Wolf building, which will include 50 new residential units for which Mulligan has approvals, is another project in the works and demolition already has begun.
He said he expects to complete the demolition in September and finish the project in early 2016.
The historic site on North Second Street housed the Northampton County Human Services department, which moved to its new home in Bethlehem Township.
When residents move into the new Governor Wolf building, the historic architecture will remain intact.
LIVE, WORK AND PLAY
The Silk Mill project on 13th Street is another mixed-use development of Mulligan’s that seeks to transform a long-dormant site into a vibrant, active space for people to live and work.
“We have multiple prospects for commercial tenants for the mill,” Mulligan said.
In September, the $50 million project could see a paved road that connects the project to Bushkill Drive. Existing work includes curbing and infrastructure, he said. The site is directly off the 13th Street exit of Route 22.
Infrastructure work should be completed in October, Longenbach said.
Commercial spaces are planned for the first two parts of the project. Plans call for 18,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space; 5,000 square feet for village/cottage industry or artist workshops; and 30,000 square feet of office space plus 111 residential units.
Phase three includes the buildings on the other side of Simon Boulevard, which could be developed as light industry, though this stage is further in the future.
Longenbach estimated it would probably be another year before any commercial space opens at the Silk Mill project.
MORE DOWNTOWN GROWTH
That’s not all Mulligan is working on. He bought the downtown Alpha Building from the city for $4 million in 2013 and is looking to fill the 9 ½ story building on Centre Square with new commercial tenants once City Hall moves to its new home down the street.
“We are waiting for the city to give us their final move date, and we’ve been talking to various commercial tenants,” Mulligan said.
A prime commercial/retail spot is the first floor, which faces the Centre Square circle and South Third Street, a heavily trafficked and highly visible corridor.
“We are probably going to end up chopping it up a little bit,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of restaurant interest. We are looking for retail interest.”
The ninth floor of the Alpha Building is available, and Mulligan said he is talking to a tenant from New Jersey which could take over that floor.
ON TO THE WATERFRONT
Mulligan said he sees continued growth in Easton, particularly along underused properties facing the bank where the Delaware and Lehigh rivers meet.
“I don’t see Easton being overbuilt for a few years,” Mulligan said. “The next frontier of the waterfront hasn’t been tapped yet.
“All the property along the waterfront is underutilized in my opinion. The long-term plan for Easton should be when to focus on the waterfront.”
BLACK DIAMOND SILK MILL
It’s not just the city’s downtown that could see new commercial development. South Side Easton also presents a new opportunity.
“Another site that’s on our radar is the Black Diamond Silk Mill site, which could be developed as commercial or residential,” Longenbach said. “That project has been sitting there dilapidated and vacant for so many years.”
The complex of buildings sits in South Side Easton; the city does not have any ownership interest in the site, she said.
The property, owned by John Robinson, would have to be demolished, Mayor Sal Panto aid.
In some places, the roof is caving in, Panto said. The city is encouraging Robinson to sell the property to a developer.
“He has met with several developers and it’s on our radar as a potential development for 2015,” Panto said. “Obviously, the city would love to see residential or mixed use. Anything that’s going to clean up the property. The city is actively involved in seeking developers.”
AVAILABLE SPOTS POPPING UP
Another property with potential is the former bowling alley on South Third Street, across from where the city hall and transportation project is rising.
“We think it’s a prime development spot,” Longenbach said.
Also, a banquet facility has been demolished next to the Quality Inn and the new transportation center. This, too, offers potential for commercial development, she added.
Some smaller retail spaces exist in the A&D Tile building on Northampton Street, where developers are renovating two commercial spaces on the first floor – spanning two storefronts – and building more than 20 residential units on the upper floors.
Farther east, Post Road Management is finishing remediation work at two buildings at 118-120 Northampton St. facing the free bridge into Phillipsburg, N.J.
These buildings offer up to 5,500 square feet of commercial space on the first floor that also can be divided at that location, Longenbach said.
With Merchants Bank’s recent relocation to a new spot on Centre Square, fresh commercial space is now open at its previous location at 1 Centre Square.
Also, the former school administration building at 811 Northampton St. is for sale and could be developed as commercial space, Longenbach said.
“We’ve been getting some more manufacturing/light industrial inquires in the city,” she said. “We are challenged by flood-plain issues on some of those areas.”
Meanwhile, the nearby Bushkill Street corridor has many underutilized properties that could be developed as commercial space.
Even Lafayette College in Easton is expanding.
The college is building several energy-efficient structures that aim to enhance global education, foster media skills in an increasingly technological world and promote engagement among students, faculty, staff and the community.
Much of this work can be seen at the base of College Hill, a section of Easton where the college is situated.
Here, several properties owned by the college extend to North Third Street near the overhead pass for Route 22.
Construction workers demolished a vacant tire company building to make way for a screening room and theater project, while across the street another structure is being reused to create a film and media complex built over Bushkill Creek.