Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Gov. Wolf Building Gets Zoning Approval, Other Projects Postponed

By Christina Georgiou

The Governor Wolf Building on North Second Street is one step closer to
being renovated into more than 50 apartments after the project gained
the city zoning hearing board's approval Monday evening.

Plans to renovate the Governor Wolf Building on North Second Street into more than 50 one- and two-bedroom apartments were approved by Easton's Zoning Hearing Board Monday night, though five other scheduled hearings for various other projects were postponed until February due to the properties not being posted with the hearing date.

A tech glitch, compounded by a communication failure in the zoning office, resulted in the city not mailing hearing notices to property owners surrounding all six of the properties on Monday night's agenda, and consequently, the properties weren't posted notices of Monday evening's hearing date as well, said Zoning Administrator Cindy Cawley.

The lack of notice left the applicants facing the prospect of any approvals by the zoning hearing board might make Monday being appealed, noted board solicitor Robert Nitchkey.

Five of the proposed projects, which included an application to convert a row of garages on South Tenth Street into a delicatessen and small grocery store, will either be heard at a special zoning hearing board meeting to be held on Monday, February 3 or at the regular meeting on Monday, February 17.

Representatives for the Governor Wolf building, however, chose to go forward with their hearing, saying the agreement of sale to buy the property from Northampton County for $1.92 million is contingent on city zoning approval.

William Vogt, a principal partner of VM Management, which is purchasing the former Easton High School campus, said he'd talked with neighboring property owners and feels their concerns have been satisfied, making the chance of a substantial appeal unlikely.

The Penny Arch will be restored, VM Management partners
have promised.
Architect Lucienne Di Biase Dooley of Artefact, directing the project, echoed statements made by VM partner Mark Mulligan last week, telling zoning hearing board members the building's exterior will not be altered, and that plans include the application for historic preservation tax credits. She added that the group intends to restore the Penny Arch, currently in serious disrepair, and also the former school's bell tower.

Other features of the Governor Wolf building, including an interior spiral staircase and ornamental doors, will also be preserved, she added.

Neighboring property owner Charles Klabunde said he supports the preservation of the building, though he had some questions about the project.

"I think it's a good use," he told zoning board members. "It's not my first choice...(but) I appreaciate the consideration these people are giving this old building."

He added that he was concerned that construction vehicles might cause congestion on the street and inconvenience current residents during the renovation work.

Klabunde also suggested that the clock tower's bell be operated manually after its restoration, saying that the building's residents might not appreciate it ringing every hour through the night. He added the bell could be rung for special occasions, such as on Independence Day.

"It's really worth saving," Klabunde said. "It's the only really big bell we have left, and we ought to maintain it."

Dooley said that construction vehicles will mostly access the building from the rear through the parking lot on Larry Holmes Drive and that traffic along North Second Street won't be affected by the project.

"Historic renovation is what we specialize in," said Vogt. "We're sensitive to the neighborhood. We've done projects like this before. We're looking forward to bringing this building back."

Zoning hearing board members, along with city staff, said they support the project, and noted the variances it requires--including relief from a requirement that the first floor be used for commercial space--largely stem from the nature of the historic building's situation.

"I really think this is a good reuse of an existing building," Cawley said. "They're providing all the parking that's required, and I recommend it."

"Regarding the retail space, they're right. It's too far back," said board chairman Michael Civitella.

Vogt said the board's approval is the last step in ensuring the project will go ahead, and that he expects the agreement of sale with Northampton County to be executed and the property officially transferred to VM Management ownership soon.

It has been previously estimated the project will be complete and the apartments occupied by new residents by the end of 2015.

'We're making a big investment here," Vogt said. "We want everything to work for everyone in the city."

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