Thursday, December 6, 2012

Silk Mill Plan Gets Planning Commission Preliminary Approval

By Christina Georgiou

One of 18 buildings on the Simon Silk Mill property. The former
textile mill in Easton's West Ward has stood vacant for the
past 40 years.

The Easton Planning Commission unanimously gave preliminary approval for the first phase of redevelopment at the former Simon Silk Mill to move forward Wednesday evening, paving the way for it to become a mix of residences and commercial applications.

Eighteen buildings are currently on the former textile mill property lots, located in the city's West Ward. Phase I of the project, under contract with VM Development through the Easton Redevelopment Authority (ERA), will include mostly infrastructure work, said ERA Director Gretchen Longenbach.

The first part of the project includes the redevelopment of two of the buildings into a mixed residential/commericial building and a parking facility, with two accessory parking lots.

The first building to be developed is planned to contain 11,070 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, with 36 one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging in size from 476 to 728 square feet aimed at the middle income market. The building will be served by 83 parking spots.

A map of the Simon Silk Mill parcels, as they are now. Building
"M", along with the "North Building" will be demolished to make
way for a through road and parking.
The development is not expected to greatly impact the local school district, with just eight children projected to be residents.

Infrastructure to support the new use of the former textile mill will have to come  first, with a new, yet-to-be-named road to be built which will run through the complex, from North 13th Street to Bushkill Street. Large trucks will not be permitted to access the development from North 13th Street, according to the plans, and the city hopes to get PennDOT approval to make the speed limit on the new boulevard 10 mile per hour, Longenbach said.

A new sewage system is also planned.

"Wet wells and pumps are being designed to serve the entire project," said one representative for Van Cleef Engineering Associates in Bethlehem. "There is a very old gravity system that goes across the (Bushkill) creek, but it's been damaged by floods. It's our intention not to use it."

While flooding damaged the old sewer system to the complex, flood waters shouldn't be a problem for the development, as no flood water has reached any of the buildings in the last four floods, Longebach said.

"The city thinks there's no impact for reuse in the flood plain," she said.

Easton Planning Commission members questioned the traffic impact the new use of the silk mill might create, along with costs and benefits of its taxation situation and ecological impact.

"I'm not so concerned with the flooding. I'm more concerned with the traffic," said Planning Commission member Ron Shipman. "I think it could be a nightmare, quite frankly."

Shipman noted that there's little room to widen North 13th Street and that area is already prone to backups.

"I just think if you had residents living there and going in and out, I think traffic could be backed up," Shipman said.

He also worried that pedestrian safety might be an issue along North 13th Street, where the sidewalks are narrow.

Speaking for the city, Pennoni engineer Earl Armitage said the situation might be mitigated by bumpouts near the site entrance, which would narrow North 13th Street slightly, making pedestrians more visible and calming traffic.

Planning Commissioner Robert Sun questioned the tax data presented in the proposal, and wondered what the costs of providing public services to the site would be after its improvement.

The proposal states that the site currently generates a total of $23,537 in taxes, of which $7,263 goes into city coffers. But since the land is currently owned by the ERA, it is tax exempt.

After redevelopment, Phase I is projected to generate $363,130 in taxes annually, with $112,053 going to the city, but since the site is part of the city's LERTA district, those property tax amounts won't be generated in full for ten years.

Additionally, the site may become part of a proposed Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ), which would further exempt the project from property taxes, as well as state and business taxes for up to a decade if approved.

Mark Mulligan of VM Development, at the podium, addresses
the Easton Planning Commission Wednesday evening.

Mark Mulligan, principal for VM Development, which is also working on Phase II of the Pomeroy Building conversion Downtown, defended the tax abatements.

"There have to be some incentives to get a developer in here," he said.

"Is there a figure as to what the costs to the city will be?" Sun asked.

Longenbach acknowledged that the site won't generate much in tax dollars for the city for some time, but said that redeveloping it is worth it, with the cost of services and road maintenance less than what the site is currently costing the city.

"We anticipate those to be reduced from what they are right now," she said. "I'd also argue the benefit of the development far outweighs any small cost of maintaining the roadway."

The first phase of redevelopment of the site doesn't have an official time table, and there is still more infrastructure work that needs completion before work actually begins on gutting and restructuring the buildings, both Longenbach and Mulligan said.

"There's been much work going on, but not visible work," Longenbach said.

An aerial view of the site, provided by Van Cleef engineers.
She added the city is pursuing a $2 million grant to aid with infrastructure costs borne by the ERA, and that it will also cost an additional $300,000 to add necessary electrical infrastructure upgrades to the site which weren't originally anticipated.

But VM Development hopes to have some of its planned work bidded on by early 2013, with the possibility of beginning construction by spring or summer of the same year, Mulligan said.

VM also has the contract for Phase II of the project, with first rights of refusal for the remainder of the project, which is expected to continue for a number of years.

"We're likening it to an industrial park, where the infrastructure is created and then the buildings are sold off," Longenbach said. "The Redevelopment Authority intends to stay involved with this to make sure they adnere to the master plan.

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