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.”
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.