Jul 28, 2014

Future of Three Borough Properties Focus of EPA Workshop

The two-day event was funded by a Sustainable Communities Building Blocks grant awarded to the borough earlier this year. The properties whose potential for redevelopment was discussed included The Movies, Champion Spark Plug and an old chromium factory.

The future of three vacant but strategically important properties in Hellertown was a major topic for discussion at a sustainable planning workshop sponsored and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and held at Hellertown Borough Hall last week.

, which partners private sector experts in sustainable planning with local officials, residents and businesspeople.

The Hellertown event, which was held over two days, attracted a diverse cross-section of residents and professonials involved in urban planning, environmental science, architecture and design, as well as government and elected officials including Borough Manager Cathy Kichline and .

Also in attendance was local businessman George Howey, who owns the borough's former movie theater.

In addition to , the two other properties discussed at the forum were the Champion Spark Plug factory at 1770 Main Street and a fire-damaged former silk mill referred to as the "chromium site" at 320 Front Street. 

Both of those properties are privately owned, and several attendees at the workshop identified that fact as a potential obstacle to their future redevelopment.

Peter Reinke, Vice President of Regional Development at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC), said the owner of the Champion site has been "an unwilling participant" when efforts to have a dialogue about redevelopment have been made over the years.

"For decades she has been unwilling to engage (with the borough)," he said.

Howey agreed, noting that, "the person who owns (Champion) is a very, very tough businesswoman."

Architect Kim LaBrake, however, advised fellow attendees to forget about the practicality of purchase price and the either real or imagined potential for difficulty in negotiating with property owners, in order to focus on what will be best for the community in the long term.

"Don't think about money," she said. "Think about what the community needs."

During a group exercise that involved brainstorming potential redevelopment ideas, LaBrake said the Champion site could possibly become an incubator for technology businesses, along the lines of the well-known  Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Bethlehem.

The Champion site's proximity to the Route 412 exit on Interstate 78 and the new Saucon Rail Trail could also make it an attractive location for both car sharing and bike sharing hubs, she added.

The installation of a "green wall"--made up of vegetation--could help reduce noise pollution from the busy highway, while a green roof on top of the massive brick factory building could help make it more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

LaBrake also noted that the building occupies a key gateway location at the northern end of Hellertown, and is the first landmark many people see when they arrive in the borough.

Mary Himmelberger, Hellertown Borough Business Revitalization and Regional Chamber Coordinator, agreed that redeveloping the Champion site has the potential to be impactful in terms of reshaping people's perceptions about Hellertown.

Himmelberger said that when she first visited Hellertown and saw the hulking former spark plug factory along Route 412 for the first time, she immediately felt it had "potential" in terms of redevelopment.

The Champion factory, which closed in 1982, is currently a federal Superfund site because of environmental contamination that occurred during the manufacturing of spark plugs there over many years.

The chromium site, while much smaller than the former spark plug factory, also presents some challenges in terms of the potential cost of environmental clean-up, participants were advised.

Borough Engineer Bryan Smith, of Barry Isett and Associates, said the building dates from the 1850s and is constructed of brick, block and timber.

"It's surrounded by a number of different uses, including the rail trail, which is on the western side of the site," he said. "This is sort of a unique site."

A recently drafted walkability plan for Hellertown calls for the creation of a rail trail access point at the western terminus of Saucon Street, which is adjacent to the chromium site, he added.

Unfortunately, the interior of the building "is not in good condition" because it's been damaged by "a number of fires over the years," Smith said.

In spite of its proximity to the rail trail and the Saucon Creek, the building sits above a nearby 100-year flood plain, he added.

Adaptive reuse ideas for the chromium site included a conversion to loft apartments on the second story and the development of an eco-friendly cafe with outdoor seating on the ground floor, with a possible conversion to additional retail or business use on the first floor.

Adding parking next to the building and installing solar panels on its roof were other ideas raised.

Finally, The Movies was not left out of the dialogue, as a number of participants expressed a desire to see the blonde brick Art Moderne theater brought back to life as a venue for arts and culture in the area.

Other ideas for reuse of the building included a microbrewery, a microdistillery, a cabaret, a health club, a small grocery store and offices.

According to Howey, the 8,000 square foot theater seated 600 people when it opened more than 70 years ago.

Inside, the theater still has its stage and projection booth, but the vintage seats that once filled it are gone, he said.

Another issue that will likely impact any future redevelopment plans for the building is the lack of parking in the immediate vicinity, which Howey said led him to discuss the issue with the owner of a vacant lot along Oak Alley, behind the theater.

However, a geological survey of the Oak Alley lot indicated that it has not settled and might be unable to support the weight of cars parked on it, he added.

Hellertown Borough Council member Stephanie Kovacs, who attended the forum, recalled the convenience that having a Main Street movie theater afforded parents of young children 30 years ago.

At that time, she said, it was not uncommon for parents to drop their kids off for an afternoon matinee before running errands. 

Children were not permitted to exit the theater while the matinee was in progress, and when the movie had finished they were able to walk home, she said, before lamenting that in Hellertown today, "there is nothing...for 'tweens' and seniors."

At the conclusion of the workshop, many participants expressed gratitude for having had the opportunity to discuss ideas about redevelopment with other like-minded individuals, and for the leadership of the event by Virginia landscape architect Ryan Bouma, of AECOM, and by Susan Gitlin, of the EPA's Office of Sustainable Communities, Codes, Standards and Sustainable Design Division.

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