Easton Historic District Commission moves forward with 2 major development plans

By: Xiana Fontno | wfmz.com

EASTON, Pa. – The Easton Historic District Commission approved two major development projects in the city’s downtown area.

During a Monday night meeting, committee members unanimously approved a proposal regarding partial demolition and new building construction on the old Kaplan building on Northampton Street under the condition that certain requirements are met.

Members of the board approved the proposal with the understanding that New York developer Garett Vassel will submit elevations for the west end of the property, any changes to the storefront or original building, as well as plans to further shape out the rooftop restaurant proposed with the site.

Vassel wants to install a mixed-use space that will have 32 residential units as well as a 6,000-square-foot restaurant on the rooftop. Vassel said that two entrances will be available, one through the Kaplan building and another through the new building to ensure security for tenants and restaurant goers.

The project was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. Vassel said previously that the project will cost about $15.5 million.

Much of the board seemed apprehensive to make extreme changes to the Kaplan building.

Vassel said that he would like everyone to view the construction as two different buildings, an old one and a new one.

Vassel said that while new additions will be coming to the Kaplan building, he wishes to preserve the site while appreciating its history.

“When you cross over from New Jersey into Pennsylvania and see this building, this is truly an opportunity,” Vassel said. “This is something to be celebrated.”

5-story Apartment Complex

In other business, the board also approved the construction of a 5-story multi-use building on 56 North Third Street.

Peron Development of Bethlehem will be on the project that will construct an 84,000-square-foot building with 70 residential units and 1,800-square-feet of retail space. In addition, the project will also feature a dog park on the site, according to Carlos Tovar of USA Architects.

The proposal was previously tabled until the developer provided additional drawings indicating certain elevations of the project.

The property on Third Street is currently a surface parking area with no structures, but used to be the site of the old Boyd Theater.


With mixed-use Commodore development eyeing approvals in Easton, 1 apartment’s aim is to assist others

By Tony Rhodin | For lehighvalleylive.com

When Garett Vassel seeks more city approvals beginning Wednesday evening for his proposed mixed-use development called The Commodore at the former Kaplan’s Awnings site in Downtown Easton, he will be pitching luxury apartments along with all-to-rare office space in addition to store-front retail.

The eight-story addition to the three-story part of the old building that will remain after demolition will also feature a rooftop restaurant, he said.

There will be plenty of detail how Vassel’s proposal will add to the center city renaissance, which has focused on the high end, whether it be in housing in several renovated buildings or the tear-down, build-up new site for Hearst magazines on South Third Street.

But, in addition to being awarded a $3 million RCAP grant in recent days, the project also received a $225,000 PHARE grant, which focuses on providing affordable housing.

Vassel has quietly been in talks for the last year or more with Third Street Alliance for Women & Children to provide one of the 32 apartments in the building as affordable housing for a family served by the Downtown agency, which is based on North Third Street.

The conversations also involved the Easton Housing Authority, Executive Director Gene Pambianchi said.

Alisa Baratta is the executive director of Third Street Alliance in Downtown Easton.

Since low-income housing developments are often stigmatized by that name, Pambianchi said mixing affordable housing into a market-rate building is an excellent idea. Third Street Alliance Executive Director Alisa Baratta agrees.

While the social service agency is in need of housing now for its homeless clients — there were 321 households in the first half of the year in the 18042 zip code that were homeless — Baratta is pleased with her work with Vassel and his team over many months now.

“Certainly we’re grateful,” she said, crediting Vassel with the foresight to work with the community long before construction begins on the property at Northampton Street and Larry Holmes Drive.

Third Street Alliance through its “housing navigator” currently is working with about 20 landlords in Easton to house homeless families, but more landlords are needed, Baratta said. And as Downtown transforms from what was once a low-income housing neighborhood to a more upscale hub of urban professionals, housing for the homeless is being pushed out into the neighborhoods and even beyond the city’s borders, she said. With back-to-school season here, it’s crucial to get an address for as many homeless children as possible, she added.

Part of Vassel’s commitment to Third Street Alliance is helping to find jobs for those who live in the affordable-rate apartment. The building will need people working in office jobs, food-service jobs and retail jobs, not to mention maintaining what will eventually be a large, if properly scaled structure. But if there’s no work for them in the building, Vassel and his team will look elsewhere to help them find work, he said.

Being that his project will cost as much as $18 million, there are challenges to creating affordable housing within it.

“I am working closely with the PHARE (Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund) administration to provide an impact, while weighing financial restraints,” Vassel said in an email. “It’s been a pleasure working with them, there is a lot of respect on both sides.”

Pambianchi said he envisioned several affordable units in the building, but that’s just not fiscal reality, Vassel said, adding he sought “some mixture between market rate and affordable.”

“With the PHARE grant I received, a one-unit offering became the number that was financially possible to accept the grant,” Vassel said.

When weighing his commitment, one thing was clear, Vassel said.

“I have visited the Third Street Alliance for Women & Children on multiple occasions now over a few years, and I feel very good (on a personal level) about this partnership,” Vassel said.

But the reality is, this is a market-rate building, and market rate is no longer cheap Downtown.

“It has been estimated between state tax, state income tax, city, Easton Area School District tax, Northampton County tax, city EIT (earned income tax), The Commodore project could generate over $700,000 annually (and into perpetuity), which will repay the state’s investment in a matter of a few short years,” Vassel said.

When it comes to the $3 million RCAP grant, “I will seek to repay it with righteous actions, economic activity and job creation, and bold, yet measured investment for many years to come,” Vassel said. “My intentions are clear: I want to make a positive impact on the communities in which I invest.”

What’s next?

The project will first go before the Easton Planning Commission at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in city council chambers on the third floor of city hall at 123 S. Third St. Vassel said the next stop would be Monday before the Historic District Commission.

“Final permitting would follow,” he said. He hopes to start building in the fall, he said.

The city planning staff has determined the project “is consistent with the nature of the surrounding area, and will be a vast improvement to the current site.”

There will be 14 off-street parking spaces, and three trees are planned along Northampton Street, although the city forester recommends Gingko Biloba rather than the proposed Trident Maples, according to paperwork. The Zoning Hearing Board already granted a variance for residential use on the first floor with commercial space above, something not typically allowed in the city. A note will be added to the application indicating the building is in a 100-year floodplain. The plans have been submitted to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission for review.

Boscola Announces Funding for Lehigh Valley Redevelopment Projects

Bethlehem, August 1, 2019 – State Sen. Lisa Boscola today announced $6,750,000 in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) funding to six redevelopment projects in the 18th Senatorial District.

“These state funds will be used to assist in the redevelopment of five important economic development projects in the cities of Bethlehem and Easton along with assisting in the construction of a new public safety complex in Whitehall,” Boscola stated.  “By investing in these projects, the Commonwealth is providing important capital to make not only make these projects economically viable, but also create additional economic development projects that will not only create jobs, but also positively impact businesses located in our urban areas.”

The projects being awarded RACP funding are:

Commodore -Optima Durant
The redevelopment of 100-116 Northampton Street in the City of Easton, which is a blighted property that serves as the gateway to Pennsylvania, into commercial, residential and a 6,000 sq. foot restaurant on the roof;

Whitehall Township Police and Municipal Services Complex ($1,000,000):
Whitehall will be constructing a new 29,000 square foot police station and sally port adjacent to the existing municipal complex and renovating approximately 9,000 square feet of the existing complex;

Boyd Theater Redevelopment
A mixed use redevelopment of the former movie theater into ground floor retail and 120 one and two bedroom apartments in Bethlehem’s central business district;

Heritage Lanes Building (Easton)
Heritage Riverview, LLC, will be redeveloping the vacant Heritage Lanes building into a multi-use structure that will allow for additional levels of the building. Hearst Corporation has already been announced as a primary tenant and will occupy the entire first floor;

Riverport Market – Bethlehem
Project will demolish the former Starters Riverport and convert it to an urban market, which will be home to 30 vendors and businesses. This $3 million project will build upon the successes of other urban markets throughout the Commonwealth; and,

ArtsQuest Community Cultural Center
Projects consists of the construction of a new 80,000 square foot arts and cultural center at the site of the current Banana Factory Arts Center in Bethlehem.

“I am pleased to have worked with Governor Wolf on these joint priorities to make this funding a reality,” Boscola stated.  “We both recognize the importance of redeveloping sites such as this in our urban cores to make neighborhoods vibrant once again.” 

The RACP (Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program) is used for the acquisition and construction of regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects. Qualifying projects have a regional or multi-jurisdictional impact, help create or maintain jobs, and generate economic activity.

Which local projects were awarded millions of dollars in state aid? Who missed out?

By Rudy Miller | lehighvalleylive.com

The Pennsylvania governor’s budget office awarded millions of dollars in grants Thursday for projects local officials that aim to help boost the Lehigh Valley’s local economy.

Not everybody got what they wanted, though.

The awards go out every year through the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program. For consideration, the awards must help acquire land or build a project that will boost “regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational and historical improvement projects.” The state is looking for a big return on investment, which is why the grants are often six to seven figures.

The Commodore
Asked for: $9.3 million
Awarded: $3 million

Plans call for preserving the historic section of a blighted building at 100-116 Northampton St., called the gateway to Easton. The new structure will have a rooftop restaurant and 32 apartments. It was home for decades to Kaplan’s Awnings.

Lehigh Township public works facility
Asked for: $368,000
Awarded: $0

Heritage Lanes
Asked for: $750,000
Awarded: $750,000

This redeveloped bowling alley at 132 S. Third St. in Easton will become an office building. Most, if not all, of the building will be occupied by Hearst Publishing.

Lidl grocery store
Asked for: $1 million
Awarded: $0

The German-owned grocery store opened earlier this year on South 25th Street in Wilson Borough.

Riverport Market
Asked for: $1.2 million
Awarded: $750,000

This project calls for a $3 million renovation of the former Starters Riverport pub in South Bethlehem into a market for as many as 30 vendors.

Lafayette College – Rinek Rope complex
Asked for: $1.5 million
Awarded: $0

The Easton college wants to renovate and repurpose the former Rinek Rope manufacturing complex at 991 Bushkill Drive.

ArtsQuest Community Cultural Center
Asked for: $4 million
Awarded: $500,000

ArtsQuest in Bethlehem wants to construct a new 80,000-square-foot arts and cultural center at the current Banana Factory Art Center. The project calls for razing four of the six current buildings.

Lafayette College – Kunkel Hall
Asked for: $4 million
Awarded: $0

The Easton college wants to renovate this building for academic and administrative offices consistent with its campuswide expansion plans.

Boyd Theater
Asked for: $5 million
Awarded: $750,000

The redevelopment of the former Boyd Theater property in Bethlehem will be the first new mixed used residential development project on West Broad Street in over 35 years. Plans call for demolishing the obsolete two-story commercial structure and single-screen movie theater and replacing them with 120 one- and two-bedroom apartments with modern layouts and amenities.

Polk Street parking garage
Asked for: $5 million
Awarded: $0

This seven-story, 585-space parking garage is planned for a surface parking lot maintained by the Bethlehem Parking Authority.

Da Vinci Science City
Asked for: $8 million
Awarded: $0

Plans for this science museum in Easton are now off the table after the city and museum board couldn’t agree on a site.

Readington Farms
Asked for: $20 million
Awarded: $0

The Readington Farms project in Palmer Township includes the construction of a 350,000-square-foot dairy processing and distribution facility on a 35-acre parcel.

Here are the Lehigh County projects:

Allentown Metal Works
Asked for: $500,000
Awarded: $500,000

The Allentown Commercial and Industrial Development Authority owns 606 S. 10th St., a 19-acre former manufacturing property. The project includes a phased renovation of three buildings.

Bogert’s Bridge restoration
Asked for: $1 million
Awarded: $250,000

The historic covered bridge’s railing system, approach road and timber deck all need serious repairs. Many systems have completely failed. Without significant rehabilitation, this bridge may be lost.

Mansion on Seventh rehabilitation
Asked for: $1.5 million
Awarded: $500,000

Plans call for rehabilitating a historic Allentown mansion to host a restaurant for hospitality training and to provide commercial office space. Empty parcels adjoining the mansion will be developed as public green space and for the construction of two commercial units and eleven townhouses.

Iron Works Catasauqua
Asked for: $2.2 million
Awarded: $0

The project calls for the redevelopment of the former Crane Iron Works site in Catasauqua for a mix of commercial, residential, and public uses.

Asked for: $2.5 million
Awarded: $2.5 million

The German specialty chemicals company Evonik plans to open a $50 million business and technology center at 7201 Hamilton Blvd. in Upper Macungie Township.

Little Lehigh infrastructure
Asked for: $3 million
Awarded: $1 million

This Allentown development will provide housing for low and moderate income Allentown families. It calls for the demolition of 10 structures and the new construction of 16 buildings with 76 homes.

Whitehall Township police and municipal services complex
Asked for: $5 million
Awarded: $1 million

Plans call for a new 29,000-square-foot police station at the current township municipal complex at 3219 MacArthur Road, renovations to the township building, a new shared lobby, two new elevators and associated site improvements.

Local officials react to the grant announcements:

State Rep. Robert Freeman said he’s grateful for the $3.75 million awarded to the Commodore and Heritage Lanes projects in Easton. “Projects like these encourage people to live downtown by offering affordable housing and they also provide businesses with opportunities to expand their operations leading to more jobs for area residents,” he said in a news release.

State Sen. Lisa Boscola thanked the governor for the $6.75 million in awards for projects in her district. “These state funds will be used to assist in the redevelopment of five important economic development projects in the cities of Bethlehem and Easton along with assisting in the construction of a new public safety complex in Whitehall,” Boscola said in a news release.

Garett Vassel is the president of the Optima Durant Group, which is developing the Commodore in Easton. The project got the most RACP dollars in the Lehigh Valley. Only seven projects in Pennsylvania got more than $3 million, according to an Optima Durant consultant.

“I am so grateful and encouraged for this deserving project,” Vassel said.

Easton’s proposed Commodore building gains a floor and a lot more office space

July 2, 2019

The developer of a proposed building called “The Commodore” at Northampton Street and Larry Holmes Drive in Downtown Easton has added a floor and expects to fill it and a mezzanine level with 15,000 square feet of office space.


The rest of the 91,000-square foot project is not vastly changed from the original pitch earlier this year for the old Kaplan’s Enterprises building, Garett Vassel said Monday. Plans still call for 31 apartments, a 6,200-square-foot rooftop restaurant, two lobbies, a 1,600-square-foot gym for tenants, a total of 1,700 square feet of street-level retail space, 14 integrated parking spots and a 1,200-square-foot open-air courtyard.

Vassel is in discussions with Fortune 500 companies as well as mid-sized Lehigh Valley companies to lease the office space, which is triple the original design, he said. Whether it be one tenant or more companies or a WeWork space, he said, it will fill a need in the city and also enhance Easton’s reputation with its already “revitalized business scene, culture, cuisine and nightlife, plus its family-friendly vibe and accessibility to nature.”

Vassel’s Optima Durant Group is prepared to build the space on spec and, based on the city “evaluating possible infrastructure upgrades within the telecommunications realm,” be able to present an opportunity for a large company to “have a regional office at a significantly lower price than in a major city.”

The building, at one of Easton’s gateways as it sits across from the Easton-Phillipsburg free bridge, will be eight stories plus a mezzanine but will not require a height variance, he said.

A 350-square-foot “semi-private” lobby will be built on the east side of the lot and will allow access to the office space and the restaurant, Vassel said. Public use will not interfere with the residential portion, which will have another lobby between the current store fronts, he added.

Much of the rear of the building is being torn down and replaced by a taller building and much of the office space will be new construction as it wraps around the old, he said.

The project at 100 Northampton St. has already been through the zoning phase with the city and Vassel expects by August to go through the formal planning and historic reviews and follow that with the permitting process.

In this scenario, demolition and construction would begin sometime in the autumn and the development would open in fall 2020, he said.

The “goal is in front of me and it’s on track,” Vassel said about planning and financing the project.

That the Hearst Corp. is bringing up to 175 jobs to the Heritage Riverview development in the 100 block of South Third Street is only good news to Vassel as he markets the city’s attributes to possible office tenants. Hearst employees could eventually live in The Commodore, he said.

He says he is a huge “cheerleader” of Lou Pektor’s project which is underway and expected to be complete by year’s end.

By adding office space rather than more apartments, Vassel figures he’s making the city a better draw for businesses.

“I’ve got a lot of interest already,” he said, even companies willing to sign letters of intent. It would be great to have the office space signed off on before construction starts — as happened for most of Heritage Riverview — but it’s not essential, he said.

The number of office jobs is dependent on the use but Vassel figures it will be a “fair amount.”

He calls both residential and commercial interest “astounding” in his project.

“Due to Easton’s proximity to both Manhattan and Philadelphia, not to mention its charm and affordability, the city has become an ideal location for urban professionals looking for a higher quality of life.”

Garett Vassel

Optima Durant Group

Optima Durant Group is a fully integrated real estate company that focuses on development, construction, design and property management. Optima Durant, the motto of the founder’s primary school, translates to The Best Endures. The Company was founded in 2017 and pursues projects within the New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas markets.

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