Sitting at a corner table in the Dunkin’ Donuts on Penn Street in downtown Reading, Alan Shuman has just read a story about another record year by Rapid City, S.D., in issuing building permits.
It’s frustrating, Shuman said, that a town out West greenlights more building permits than Reading.
As a builder of some of Reading’s largest and most recent redevelopment projects for more than a decade, Shuman, president of the Shuman Development Group, knows a thing or two about permits. The street-level Dunkin’ Donuts he is sitting in is one of his latest redevelopment projects, the former Exide battery building at 645 Penn St., which he bought back from New Jersey investors after it had fallen into disrepair.
The building is across from the new DoubleTree by Hilton, which opened in 2015, and Santander Arena – an area of the downtown that gets a lot of foot traffic and a logical place to begin to help breathe vitality back into Reading.
It’s why when Shuman began renovating the building, he moved offices off the street-level floor onto upper floors or into other buildings. He is trying to woo retailers and restaurants, businesses that attract shoppers and diners, in their place.
Shuman continues to be critical of the pace of development in Reading and of city administrations past and present for actions, or lack thereof, he said have hindered the city’s growth and redevelopment.
He noted the renaissance of neighboring Allentown to the east and Lancaster to the west and wonders, why can’t it happen here? Shuman can point to numerous buildings around Reading and recount deals that fell through the cracks or that never even got often the ground because of what he said are missteps by the city.
Shuman faults in part the city’s lack of action on providing tax incentive programs, such as the Keystone Opportunity Zone expansions or a Community Revitalization and Improvement Zone that could spur private investors.
He is critical of out-of-town investors who bought properties in Reading and neglected them over the years.
“Most of the housing stock has not been renovated since the 1970s,” he said.
And he bristles when investors get millions of dollars in public funding. Private investors are more likely to feel more committed to a project and a community if they invest their own money into a project, Shuman said.
The work on the five-story, 140,000-square-foot Exide building is nearly complete. The project was awarded $6 million in new market tax credits in 2015 that went toward the renovation.
The limestone exterior of the nearly 40-year-old building has been scrubbed cleaned and light-emitting diode lighting was installed throughout. The elevators, at a cost of $200,000 each, were replaced.
A new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and a fire alarm system are in place.
Shuman said that for 20 years he has been trying to change the way the city does code inspections. Fire code inspections are done six months after a building is purchased, instead of before, which Shuman said encourages building owners to dump the problem on the buyers.
Shuman shows a visitor the last of the floors under construction. He points to the solar-reflective green-tinted windows that cost about $300,000.
“The green glass cuts down on air-conditioning costs,” he said.
DEMAND FOR QUALITY RESIDENTIAL
Shuman said he initially proposed building a large, airy atrium in the center lobby and converting the building to Class-A office space. He needed parking for tenants, but scuttled his plans for high-end offices when the city wouldn’t allow him to rent its lot across the street. The building is filled now with largely social service agencies.
Besides the Exide building, Shuman has been a prime mover of several successful projects in Reading. His company has redeveloped, sold and leased more than 2 million square feet of commercial property in downtown Reading in the last dozen years, including 10 buildings since 2006 that it bought and renovated in the former Reading Outlet district on North Ninth Street.
Last spring, he opened the Big Mill Apartments at Eighth and Oley streets to great fanfare. The $23 million apartment and commercial redevelopment project was one of one of the factory buildings that comprised the former Reading Outlet Center.
The apartments were fully occupied in six weeks and the final commercial tenant is moving in, he said.
“There is a high demand for quality residential buildings,” Shuman said.
CONVERSION OF THE ABE LINCOLN
High demand should work in Shuman’s favor as he embarks on another project, converting the historic Abraham Lincoln hotel at Fifth and Washington streets into 48 one- and two-bedroom apartments to the tune of $6 million.
After spending $5.5 million in 2014 to buy the then 84-year-old Abe and bring it back to its original splendor, Shuman did not anticipate the hotel would lose money when the 209-room DoubleTree opened several blocks away a year later.
Later, Shuman takes a visitor on a tour of the Abe’s ornate lobby with its gold medallions restored with 14-karat gold leaf and the ballroom with its crystal chandelier from the former John Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia.
“This is the last of the grand old hotels in Reading,” Shuman said. “I would have loved to have kept it as a hotel.”
THE JOURNEY CONTINUES
On the 18th floor of the hotel, the penthouse, with its sweeping views of the city and the iconic Pagoda on Mount Penn, Shuman inspects the progress of the two-bedroom apartments.
A bucket that had been placed in a corner underneath a leaky ceiling is overflowing onto the cement floor.
Shuman immediately dials his cell phone.
“This has to be resolved now,” he said.
It is just a small blip on the long road to reconstruction.
“It is coming along,” Shuman said.
“We still have some work to do here.”