Thursday, January 16, 2014

City Planning Commission Okays Gov. Wolf Apartment Plans

By Christina Georgiou

VM Development principal Mark Mulligan talks about the plans
for the Governor Wolf Building on North Second Street Wednesday
evening in front of Easton's Planning Commission
A plan for a mix of about 50 one- and two-bedroom apartments to occupy the Governor Wolf Building on North Second Street was unanimously approved by members of Easton's Planning Commission Wednesday evening.

While the interior of the building will undergo renovation, the exterior will look the same after the  modifications, though a small cooling tower on the south side of the structure will be removed, Mulligan said.

"Basically nothing is changing on the exterior of the building," he said. "We're going to get rid of this really ugly tower and replace it with a small park for the residents."

At the sidewalk level, the "Penny Arch", so named because it was erected with penny contributions from local school children as a tribute to former Pennsylvania Governor George Wolf's dedication to public school education, will be restored, along with the building's bell tower, Mulligan promised.

"The deed restriction will prevent us--actually anyone--from every doing anything other than restoring (the Penny Arch)," Mulligan said. "And we're going to do that."

The entire plan to renovate the building will follow national historic preservation guidelines, Mulligan said.

"We're actually going for historic tax credits on this project," he said, adding, "The (national) park service is actually pretty thrilled with this project."

The building has been granted a Keystone Opportunity Zone (KOZ) designation, which exempts the property from taxes. After a 10-year abatement period, the redevelopment will generate an estimated $17,400 in income taxes and about $100,000 in property taxes annually.

The rehab of the 55,000 square foot space into a residential use will add an estimated 7.6 new students into the local school system.

The planning commission's go-ahead on the project Wednesday night included a variance from the city's requirement for the Downtown district that the ground floor space be used for a commercial purpose.

While the building had been used by Northampton County for offices, Mulligan said putting the first floor to a commercial use didn't fit with the project.

"It just never worked as an office building...we just didn't see commercial in it," he said, adding that to change that to comply with the standard zoning requirement would require a lot of interior demolition, and "that would ruin the building."

The former site of Easton High School will house three one-bedroom and two two-bedroom apartments on the first floor, five one-bedroom and three two-bedroom units on the second floor, 12 one-bedroom and three two-bedroom apartments on the third floor, 12 one-bedroom and one two-bedroom apartments on the fourth floor, and one one-bedroom and 11 two bedroom units on the fifth floor, VM Development principal Mark Mulligan told the board.

Mulligan said he's already received some inquiries from potential tenants interested in occupying the building. Most of the building's residents are likely to come from outside of the City of Easton, he said.

"We find they're more likely to be 'move in' rather than 'move up'," he said. "You've got people in the (Lehigh) Valley that are beginning to look at Easton as a place to live."

All of the units will be rentals, Mulligan said.

"But we're going to condo everything when the condo market recovers. Ownership is the gateway to a stable community," he told planning board members.

Mulligan estimated the project will be complete and ready for tenants sometime in 2015.

Mulligan and VM Development have invested in a number of significant properties in Easton in the last few years, including the the former Pomeroy department store building, which has since been renovated and houses more than 40 apartments, two restaurants and medical office space, the National Building on the corner of South Fourth and Northampton streets, the Alpha Building which is planned to be redeveloped into a mix of residential and commercial space when the new city hall is completed, and the former Simon Silk Mill complex on North 13th Street.

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