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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zoners Approve Plans to Restore Wilbur Mansion, Build Iconic Apartment Building

Wilbur Mansion Office
Following a lengthy hearing attended by about 30 people on March 23, Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board voted 4-0 to approve a series of dimensional variances that will allow developers John Noble and Bob Ashford, with no government assistance of any kind, to preserve and rejuvenate the historic Wilbur Mansion that serves as a gateway to South Bethlehem. It will be converted into Class A office space. The adjacent Masonic Temple, which served as a banquet hall as recently as December, will be replaced by  an iconic two four-story apartment building that Noble describes as "Frank Llloyd Wright West Coast, with a touch of South Bethlehem."

Noble and Ashford, who were represented by prominent land use attorney David Backenstoe, are both longtime residents and business owners in the Lehigh Valley. Ashford lived in Bethlehem for over 20 years before recently moving to Coopersburg. Noble, a Lehigh grad, lives in Lower Saucon.

"The driving force for this project was the desire to get something going in Bethlehem," testified Noble.He and Ashford wanted to "get involved in something that would make a difference." When he heard that the Wilbur Mansion was available, Noble made a phone call, and 24 hours letter, had a signed agreement. Eight months later, he had a vision for what he calls a "spectacular mansion, one of the few mansions left in the State of Pennsylvania."

Unlike many other recent Lehigh Valley projects, Noble and Ashford haven't sought a dime from the public. "I'm not subsidized," he said. No NIZ, CRIZ, KOZ, TIF, LERTA, RACP or any of the alphabet soup of handouts that are often given to developers.

The one goal Noble has had from the onset is "preserving a historic landmark that has been there since 1865."

The mansion was originally built by Elisha Packer Wilbur, who was President of Lehigh Valley Railroad, Treasurer and Board member at Lehigh University and was associated with a number of local businesses, including the E.P. Wilbur Trust Bank. He was also a Director at the Lehigh Valley National Bank of Bethlehem. The mansion was sold in 1925 to the Masons, who added the Temple Building  

Noble testified that the Wilbur Mansion features "fantastic" wood work from the 1800's, along with beautiful stained glass windows and tile work. Years of upgrades are needed for electricity and plumbing, but he wants the "function and appearance to remain intact." He not only wants to bring the mansion back to life, but plans to accentuate it on the 4-acre tract so that it stands out. One way to do that is with a 4,200 sq ft glass-encased entrance.

Class A office space in the mansion will be for attorneys, engineers, architects and realtors, but not for "customer-driven" professions like medical arts.

But two separate engineering studies dictate that it's unfeasible to rejuvenate the Masonic Temple, thanks to decades of water damage that has eroded the internal steel structure and black mold. He called the building "structurally deficient, kinda' like the bridges in Pennsylvania." He didn't ant to restore the building as "cookie cut-up building with a whole bunch of windows that look like a factory."

Bethlehem City View Apartments
Instead, Noble himself designed a 64-unit apartment building - it's actually two buildings connected by a 60' wide entrance enclosed in glass - that will consist of one and two bedroom apartments designed to attract a mix of empty nesters tired of a large home and yuppies Underneath there will be 64 parking spaces.

Noble explained that it's actually a parking deck, and the only one of its kind in the Lehigh Valley because they are expensive to build. Every apartment will have its own balcony and there will also be staggered roof height instead of the typical monolithic block. In front of the building will be a parking lot for overflow parking, but everywhere else will be a "sea of green in an urban environment."   He called it a "dynamic community" that would also include an exercise area and other amenities. He is unsure how much rent he'll be seeking, but knows it will be at the upper end.

From both the apartments and the Wilbur Mansion offices, Noble stated there would be beautiful views of the City and Lehigh River and open space in an urban setting.

Though traffic studies are in their infancy, Van Cleef Engineering's mark Bahnick testified that the traffic from the apartments would be about half of that of the apartments and offices.

Most of the audience was complimentary.Robert Vidoni,, who manages the nearly Brighton Court Apartments, asked whether construction would inconvenience his tenants. Noble answered that there is enough room on the four acres to do all the construction on site. He indicated he ideally would like to see the project finished by the end of next year.

Peg Church, who lives in the Wilbur Carriage House, said she's "glad to see someone take the Wilbur Mansion and try to do something good."  Her only complaint was that a four-story apartment building "is a bit of a leg out of the character of the neighborhood."

John Harrington, who lies nearby, applauded the project, but warned that traffic will be terrible between 3 and 6 pm because of St. Luke's.

Even Bill Scheirer, who criticizes most zoning plans, made some attempt to be positive. "There's a quite refreshing difference between this developer and another one who wants to build on the South Side," he said in an obvious dig at developer Dennis Benner.

There were dissenters. "It's not a European City, it's Bethlehem," complained Joseph Legenberg. Others were concerned about parking , although they were repeatedly told that no zoning relief was being sought from parking requirements.

In granting the litany of variances, zoners did condition approval on the requirement that all parking be on site. They also want the architecture to be compatible with the rest of the neighborhood.

Michael Sanatanasto was detained on business and was unavailable.


Unknown said...

Sounds amazing, truly upscale. If I were in the market for a serious apartment or condo, this is the sort of property I would consider.

Anonymous said...

Very refreshing to see that they weren't asking for a handout.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a wonderful project. Isn't this mansion adjacent to Rt 378 and will truly be visible for thousands visiting Musikfest and other downtown Bethlehem events. Best wishes on restoration, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Maybe these business developers can partner with other south side Bethlehem leaders and plead with a nearby restaurant chain to reduce the size of its ugly restaurant sign.

Anonymous said...

A much more "noble" plan than the monstrosity government hand out ugly building and un needed parking debacle at the other end of the bridge.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"This sounds like a wonderful project. Isn't this mansion adjacent to Rt 378 and will truly be visible for thousands visiting Musikfest and other downtown Bethlehem events. Best wishes on restoration, for sure."

This is a true gateway project, unlike so many others in the middle of the City that are portrayed as such. I love the fact that this plan actually reduces impervious surfaces below what currently exists and creates a much bigger green footprint. It promotes walkability and sustainability and preserves Bethlehem's rich history. There will even be an homage to the masons in the lobby of the restored mansion, with items taken from the Temple that will be showcased.

But what really got me is not the restored mansion, even though that is the focal point of this project. What got to me is the apartment building. Its design is so unsusual and actually so artistic that even I was floored by its beauty.

If I could afford the price, I'd be moving there.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"A much more "noble" plan than the monstrosity government hand out ugly building and un needed parking debacle at the other end of the bridge"

I like that plan, too,and for the sake of South Bethlehem, you better hope it succeeds. If it fails, it will be a long time before anyone proposes anything else on the South Side.

Anonymous said...

This is a great venture that should also be taking place at the earlier this weeks metioned mansion too¿ This Backenstoe zoning lawyer I think was once a south whitehall code enforement officer an still might be¿
Time is also a monitary calculation in the figures of this very subject of historic replication of one of the many truely great times in Americas past¿ Most refuse to want to give credit were credit is due¿ Than as we all see and read, white boxes built and inpervious parking is the multiple twiZtZ¿
redd independant Republican
patent pending

Anonymous said...

What about all the empty apartments and garage that are at where Starters used to be? Does the Valley really need more apartments? And the traffic is a nightmare down there as it is!

Bernie O'Hare said...

First, those are not apartments, but condos. Second, they were built with public assistance in a bad location with the only amenity being a bar that went tets up. Third, we really do need more apartments. That is the current trend for many reasons, not the least of which are the obstacles to home ownership imposed by banks. Fourth, the traffic in both areas is a real nightmare. The traffic on the south side is a real nightmare. The traffic in any urban core is a real nightmare. The City needs to take a hard look at its congested areas to improve traffic patterns. One of the nice features of Noble's plan is that it promotes walkability and actually adds to the City's open space by eliminating much of the existing imperious coverage. This is true economic development unlike the artificial examples made possible by public incentives. If it is a bad idea, it will fail, and the risk will be borne by the developer. You will not lose. If it is a good idea, both developer and the public will profit.

c said...

Seems like a great re-use. Will miss the Masonic Temple, great times there. Wish the developers all the best.

Patriot2 said...

Wonderful project that preserves historic structures while expanding downtown living putting more feet on street for businesses of both north & Southside. Contrast this with the greedy CRIZ projects at Martin Tower & New Street that focuses on retail or creates huge losses for the parking authority. Benner should be building the garage with his money rather than the taxpayers footing the bill!

Anonymous said...

Love the project!!! I love that the South Side area is growing and getting more and more vibrant. For everyone who has watched the South Side struggles over the years , it' great to see all the energy continuing to grow!

Unknown said...

Does anyone have the contacts for the developers. I would be very interested in renting a two bedroom. I left Bethlehem years ago and want to return. I don't want to own a home anymore. Please contact me if you have any information. thanks.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Diane, I will forward your comment. Send me your contact information. BOHare5948@aol.com