Big plans for Easton’s waterfront: A rooftop restaurant

By Rudy Miller | For | Posted February 11, 2019 at 06:45 AM | Updated February 13, 2019 at 02:40 PM

The Commodore at 100 Northampton St. in Easton will be attached to the Kaplan’s building to its right. (Rendering courtesy of architect Christine Ussler)

Garrett Vassel sees a future where diners sip wine, feel the breeze off the Delaware River and look down on the free bridge from seven stories up.

The New York developer bought the Kaplan’s Awnings building and hopes to preserve it, add onto it and showcase what he calls one of the city’s key gateways.

Garrett Vassel on the roof of the Kaplan’s building. (Rudy Miller | For

His plan for “The Commodore,” a building with a rooftop bar/restaurant, two retailers and 32 apartments, will get its first public review Monday, Feb. 11, by the Easton historic district commission. 

“We are hoping to have a restaurant/bar on the seventh floor overlooking what I believe to be the one of the best views of the Lehigh Valley,” said Vassel, president of the Optima Durant Group. “There will be a lot of glass, great views from bridge to bridge to the falls to the valley. In my opinion it will be one of the great places the community will want to meet for a meal or a drink and get together.”

Courtesy photo

He wants to preserve the building at 100 Northampton Street that dates back to the 1800s. His estimated $12 million to $18 million investment will expand it toward the river and toward the sky.

He said he wants the neighbors, the elected leaders, the tenants and the diners all to embrace the plan. 

“My goal is for the finished product to mean something, to have a positive impact on Easton,” Vassel said.

Rudy Miller | For

The project is at a conceptual stage. The Monday review was set up for the city’s historic district commission to “take the temperature” of the project. He hired the commission’s consultant, Christine Ussler, as his architect. 

While his plan isn’t widely known, he’s already been approached by restauranteurs from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to Connecticut about opening the restaurant. He hasn’t decided whether to bring in an out-of-towner or a local owner, whether to bring on someone experienced or fresh, or even what will be served.

“I don’t want it to just serve one segment that’s interested in feeding themselves. I want it to be a broader offering. I’m trying to think through that,” he said.

The ground floor of the Kaplan’s building. (Rudy Miller | For

The Kaplan family sold the building in July and relocated its awning business to 1298 Spruce St., the former Ealer Electric supply house. The two retail stores Vassel plans at Kaplan’s will go to the left and right of the existing entrance. Vassel said he’s gotten a lot of pitches for the small, ground level retail spaces, including:

  • A bodega for organic food
  • A boutique pharmacy
  • An artisan commercial kitchen
  • A doggie daycare and retail space
  • A shared work space for small entrepreneurs 
  • A dry cleaner
  • A gym
  • A coffee shop
  • A restaurant 

“I don’t quite want to pull the trigger on any one tenant yet,” Vassel said. “The interest is there so I’m very encouraged by that.”

At one point the site had four buildings on it, Vassel said. Now it has just Kaplan’s, although the original 1880 structure has a 1946 rear addition. The addition is in disrepair, Vassel said.

It has a leaky basement. It has a faux-brick façade over a wood frame. “The whole addition is basically a nightmare,” Vassel said. He wants to tear down the addition, restore the original Kaplan’s and build around it.

He’ll put apartments in the second and third floors of Kaplan’s and in floors two through six of the new building. The new construction will wrap around an open-air grass courtyard built onto the roof of the old Kaplan’s.

“The goal is to protect the historically significant part of Kaplan’s while making it worthwhile to build around it and to build a strong, stable new addition to the building,” Vassel said.

Easton has seen its share of historic renovations, but a privately-funded new construction project of this scale hasn’t been seen downtown in decades. A key to its success is its location, Vassel said.

“I characterize it as the gateway to the city of Easton, to the state of Pennsylvania, to the Lehigh Valley,” Vassel said. “We are talking about one of the most significant entrances to the city.”

Plans are tentative, but Vassel envisions a tenants-only entrance at the current Kaplan’s entrance. The new construction will be on a parking lot on the river side of the building. The ground floor in the new building will have about 15 parking spaces for tenants, Vassel said. He’s in the process of finding nearby parking for the other tenants, too.

“I think it’s really important to offer that amenity,” Vassel said. An entrance in the new section will lead to a lobby and elevator exclusively for restaurant patrons. Tenants’ privacy and security are an important consideration, Vassel said.

The apartment plans call for a gym, a tenants-only lobby and maybe even a doorman, Vassel said.

He envisions one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, although most will probably be two bedrooms, Vassel said. He wasn’t ready to commit to what rents he’ll charge, although he mentioned he’s “encouraged” by the rents paid by tenants across the street in the Penn Building. 

A two-bedroom apartment in that building was going for $1,895 a month on Feb. 8. Rents that steep are affordable for empty nesters looking to downsize, New York-metro area professionals looking to Pennsylvania for the cheap cost of living or employees of the new Hearst publications office going in on South Third Street. 

No one has lived in the apartments on the upper floors of the Kaplan’s building for decades, as evidenced by these photos.

As the Kaplan family packed up, they fielded weekly questions from interested tenants looking to reserve their apartment in a building that isn’t even designed yet, Vassel said. (For more information or to put your name on the list, email

Vassel has invested in real estate elsewhere in the Lehigh Valley but always had his eye on Easton due to its proximity to New York and Philadelphia.

“In the long term I think that the Lehigh Valley will become a more desirable to raise a family. It already is,” he said.

He is excited about the possibility of putting his stamp on Easton’s already vibrant residential and restaurant scene with what could be the downtown’s crown jewel. The rooftop restaurant someday might be a wedding destination, a place where Lafayette students take their parents to showcase Easton, a place to wow a client or for a special date.

“In my opinion it will be one of the great places the community will want to meet for a meal or a drink and get together,” Vassel said.

Awning business moving to the West Ward, freeing up space for downtown apartments and retail


For nearly 100 years, Kaplan Enterprises Inc. has called Easton’s riverfront home, but next month the maker of custom awnings, flags and banners will move from downtown to the city’s West Ward.

The move will free up a prime location on Easton’s Northampton Street gateway for development of apartments and retail, while at the same time bringing new business to the vacant Ealer Electric Building at 1298 Spruce Street.

Handpainted signs are seen. Kaplan’s, in its third generation of family ownership, was founded in 1923 by Morris Kaplan in Easton.
Handpainted signs are seen. Kaplan’s, in its third generation of family ownership, was founded in 1923 by Morris Kaplan in Easton. (APRIL GAMIZ / THE MORNING CALL)

Co-owner Randi Kaplan said her family has owned the business in Easton since 1923, starting out in a barn behind the family home on Church Street, where they stayed until 1928.

From there, the family moved the business to three different Northampton Street locations, before settling in their current location in a four-story red brick Victorian-style building at 100 Northampton Street in 1984.

“You figure this is our fifth location. It’s the business that’s the history, not the location,” Kaplan said when asked if she will miss the building after so many years.

Siblings David and Randi Kalplan pose in their current building.
Siblings David and Randi Kalplan pose in their current building. (APRIL GAMIZ / THE MORNING CALL)

According to Northampton County property records, the Kaplan family sold the property on July 23 to ODG 100-116 Northampton LLC.

The LLC is tied to developer Garrett Vassel, founding president of Optima Durant Group, a real estate company that focuses on development, construction, design and property management, according to its website.

The New York-based company was founded in 2017 and pursues projects in New York, Pennsylvania and Texas, the website says.

On Friday, Vassel said he’s planning apartments and retail for the property.

Like other developers in the city, Vassel was drawn in by Easton’s resurgence.

In recent years, dozens of projects have come to fruition in the city, including the Easton Public Market, Simon Silk Mill and multiple restaurants and boutique shops.

Vassel is particularly interested in plans for Hearst Magazines Enthusiast Group to move into the former Heritage Lanes Bowling Alley on South Third Street later this year.

Vassel hopes the apartment units he’s proposing will appeal to the young professionals Hearst will hire.

He says the units will be high-end, but Vassel does intend to offer more affordable units.

He calls his strategy a “mixed-bag approach” with units in different sizes and formats that will offer various price points.

Coupled with Easton’s proximity to New York City and the potential for rail transportation in the future, “I have to believe that this is a very good long-term investment,” Vassel said Friday.

Randi Kaplan shows an 1925 work order book.
Randi Kaplan shows an 1925 work order book. (APRIL GAMIZ / THE MORNING CALL)

Kaplan said her family decided to move from Northampton Street for several reasons.

Mostly, it’s because the Northampton Street building is too big, she said. The building is 24,000 square feet, including a parking lot that Kaplan estimates would have 15 spaces once a garage is removed.

The building dates to the 1880s and is across the street from the Separatist Beer Project and directly across the Delaware River from Phillipsburg. It has high-arched windows and detailed trim above striped awnings that top the storefront windows on the first floor.

At one time the building was a chocolate factory. Later it became Louis Ralph Furniture Store, then a liquor store and clothing store before the Kaplans moved in 1984, Kaplan said.

The upper floors are used for storage, which can be difficult for employees because there is no elevator, Kaplan said. Although there is a conveyor belt, it can only carry smaller parcels and isn’t much help when workers have to lug customer’s awnings to the top floors for storage in the winter, she said.

Sewing machines used since the Great Depression are seen.
Sewing machines used since the Great Depression are seen. (APRIL GAMIZ / THE MORNING CALL)

Because the building is in the city’s historic district, the Kaplans have been limited in changes they can make, such as widening the entrance doors so it’s easier to drop off large bolts of fabric.

“The move makes it so that the business can run more efficiently. It’s just something that makes sense,” Kaplan said.

She said the business is robust and still plans to have about eight employees — three to four full time and four to five seasonal workers.

In addition to selling brands like Hunter Douglas window treatments, the company also makes flags, awnings and banners for local fire companies, colleges, nursing homes, hospitals and other businesses.

A photo copy of family photos.
A photo copy of family photos. (HANDOUT FROM KAPLAN FAMILY / THE MORNING CALL)

The business was founded by Morris Kaplan and taken over by Sid Kaplan, Randi’s father. She now runs the business with her brother David Kaplan. The siblings have been helping around the shop since they were both children. They learned to sew on an old pedal sewing machine before using electric ones.

Kaplan says she still has her grandfather’s record keeping books for 1923 to 1924, which will make the trip to the new West Ward location.

At the former Ealer Electric building, Kaplan will occupy the first floor and have about 10,000-square-feet of space, she said.

Property records show that West Ward building was purchased by GLCJ Holdings LLC in October for $335,000.

The LLC is registered to an address associated with Chad Helmer, a senior project manager with Taggart Associates in Bethlehem.

Helmer said in a recent email that he has sold his stake in the partnership and directed questions to former Easton Director of Community and Economic Development Gretchen Rice, who Helmer said is one of the partners in the Spruce Street development.

Rice didn’t return a request for comment.

City officials had been trying to locate a grocery store in the former Ealer Electric building, but that project fell through last year. The building is two stories. Kaplan wasn’t sure what the second story would be used for.

Awning business to leave riverfront, Optima Durant Development in progress

For nearly 100 years, Kaplan’s has been a Downtown Easton staple.

The flag and awning makers won’t be downtown next year, but they’ll remain in Easton.

They’re making final preparations to leave their home of 34 years at 100 Northampton St. Their new location will be 1298 Spruce St., the former Ealer Electric supply house in Easton’s West Ward.

“We’re looking forward to it,” said Randi Kaplan, a co-owner of the family business.

They’re downsizing from 24,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet. And the new site offers bigger doors to move awnings in and out of the business. The current site is in the historic downtown, which limits the business’s ability to modify the size of the doorways.

Kaplan said negotiations over the move are nearly complete.

“We’re just dotting all the i’s and crossing the t’s,” she said.

She hopes to move by December or January, weather permitting.

Kaplan said her family sold the building to Garett Vassel of the Optima Durant group. Vassel was on vacation during the week of Thanksgiving. He said he’d be available soon to discuss his plans for the prime riverfront spot. It’s across Northampton Street from Separatist Beer Project‘s taproom.

Northampton County tax records say the building was transferred on July 23 for $590,000 from Sidney and Helene Kaplan to ODG 100-116 Northampton LLC. Sidney Kaplan is the father of Randi and David Kaplan, who run the flag and awning business, according to their website.

Ealer Realty Corp sold 1298 Spruce St. to GLCJ Holdings LLC for $335,000 on Oct. 16, according to online tax records.

At one time that site was pegged for a grocery store but financing didn’t materialize, Easton Mayor Sal Panto Jr. confirmed.

Kaplan’s has been in business in Easton since 1923.

Remain apprised of Optima Durant Group updates and developments