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A 21-story downtown Allentown office tower? City officials want proof there's a demand

Ideal Tower
Ideal Concepts
This rendering shows the planned Ideal Tower at 801 W. Hamilton St. in Allentown. It's set to be four feet taller than the PPL Tower (far left), which is the Lehigh Valley's tallest building.

  • Ideal Concepts President John Pequeno wants to build a 21-story office tower in downtown Allentown 
  • City officials seem hesitant to approve such a large project without more evidence there is a viable market for that amount of office space 
  • The city Zoning Hearing Board could soon rule on Pequeno’s request to knock down four historic buildings to make room for the tower

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A Lehigh Valley native’s ambitious plans for a new office tower seem to buck a recent trend, with other developers in downtown Allentown looking to convert large office complexes into housing.

But Ideal Concepts President John Pequeno will need to prove to city officials there's a market for the office space in the 21-story building, called Ideal Tower, he's proposed at the northwest corner of Eighth and Hamilton streets.

And he'll need to do that to move forward with his plans to add a new peak to Allentown’s skyline.

The tower's first three floors would house retail and commercial uses, while the top 18 floors would offer about 278,000 square feet of office space.

Jim Buckley, director of building development for Ideal Tower LLC, told Allentown Planning Commission members on Tuesday that Pequeno’s company is set to take over at least four floors of the new building, leaving more than a dozen floors of office space to fill.

“We would not want to see any of the office space at such a prominent location be vacant for any significant amount of time.”
Jennifer Gomez, Allentown planning director

The company also is speaking with several "very attractive" potential tenants, he said.

Allentown Planning Director Jennifer Gomez said her “staff agrees that a major office tenant in the building would be a good addition to the downtown.”

“However, we do have concerns regarding the feasibility of the amount of office space being requested,” Gomez said.

“We would not want to see any of the office space at such a prominent location be vacant for any significant amount of time.”

Other office projects now residential

Gomez reminded the planning commission they've reviewed several proposed office buildings in recent years that “have not been fully realized.”

Bruce Loch, president of Ascot Circle Realty, has about two months to submit new plans for the so-called Landmark Tower, a proposed 33-story building at 90 S. Ninth St.

Loch initially planned to fill about 80% of the building with offices when he first earned planning officials' approval in 2015. He’s now seeking to fill more than 90% of the Landmark Tower with housing units.

The planning commission in July granted Loch a six-month extension on the project.

City Center planned to build a 16-floor, 250-foot-tall office tower at the southwest corner of Seventh and Hamilton streets, but its 1 Center Square project “will likely be scaled down to three stories,” Gomez said Tuesday.

"There is not one square foot of Class A office space available in downtown Allentown.”
Jim Buckley, Ideal Tower director of building development

Meanwhile, two large office buildings within a block of the proposed Ideal Tower could be converted into housing.

Developer Don Wenner of DLP Capital plans to convert most of a Class A office building at 835 W. Hamilton St. into more than 100 luxury apartments, with the complex to be known as the Dream Grand Plaza.

Just across Ninth Street from that project, the PPL Tower could “host a second act that will knock your socks off,” Mayor Matt Tuerk said after the corporation listed its longtime building for sale.

Tuerk has said he sees “a real opportunity” to convert the 24-story building into housing. Gomez on Tuesday said no plans have been finalized for the PPL Tower’s future, but there’s “a good chance it will entail some residential component.”

‘Justify’ the market

Gomez urged Buckley to “justify” plans to build more than a quarter-million square feet of office space to the Zoning Hearing Board, which will rule on Ideal Tower’s request to demolish four historic buildings in the 800 block of West Hamilton Street.

Buckley said he and Pequeno are confident in the ambitious Ideal Tower plans, having recently met with a “very prominent” developer who told them “there is not one square foot of Class A office space available in downtown Allentown.”

The company’s research also shows that most new jobs are office-based rather than remote, Buckley said.

Allentown planning officials and employees are recommending the Zoning Hearing Board require Ideal Tower to get all needed approvals and building permits before demolishing the historic buildings.

The city’s Historical Architectural Review Board reviewed the Ideal Tower plans Nov. 6, with several members saying they supported the project as residents but had concerns about demolishing historic buildings to make room for it.

The four historic buildings — at 801, 805, 807 and 809-813 Hamilton St. — are the last vestiges of an older Allentown on that side of the block, with each representing its own slice of the city’s evolution.

A HARB review said, “these commercial properties … underline Hamilton Street’s transition from a mix of residential properties with small shops to a retail-focused district with large commercial and office buildings.”

Senior planner Meredith Keller said added downtown regulations mean historic buildings should only be demolished as a last resort, urging the developer to prove to zoning officials why he cannot reuse or repair them instead.

Pequeno said coronavirus pandemic-related economic impacts and rising interest rates kept him from incorporating more of the current buildings into the new project.

The 326-foot Ideal Tower would be the Lehigh Valley’s tallest building, if approved as proposed. The tower would be Pequeno’s first major development project, Buckley said Tuesday.