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Allentown State Hospital: What's allowed, what's not if latest plans are approved

Northridge State Hospital
BCT Design Group
The former Allentown State Hospital (left) and a proposed rendering for the Northridge development (right).

  • Allentown planning officials are recommending City Council approve new zoning regulations at the old Allentown State Hospital property
  • The site now is zoned for institutional and governmental uses, such as hospitals and colleges
  • City Center wants to put hundreds of homes, as well as offices, restaurants and other facilities, on the land 

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Allentown’s biggest developer cleared another hurdle Tuesday as it looks to transform the old Allentown State Hospital site with a massive project.
Allentown Planning Commission voted to recommend City Council approve a new zoning overlay district that would let developer City Center to “master-plan” the property, which spans almost 200 acres on the city's East Side.

City Center wants to build hundreds of housing units, as well as offices, health care and educational centers, and other facilities.

But the land is zoned as an institutional and governmental district, which only allows "hospitals, related medical offices and colleges," according to the city's zoning ordinance.

The developer is proposing the mixed-use overlay district to override those zoning restrictions. Allentown officials and company executives have said the proposed district is the “framework” for the entire project.

The planning commission reviewed City Center's proposal in September but asked for more time to read through the zoning ordinance, which spells out a slew of regulations and limitations across 19 pages.

If the ordinance is approved, housing, restaurants, offices and health care and education facilities all would be allowed on the property. But gas stations, warehouses and drive-thru lanes would be banned.

Forest preservation plan

The ordinance also sets maximum building heights and development density while proposing the “master planning” of streets, community amenities and open spaces.

Planning commission member Anthony Toth urged his colleagues to add provisions to "incorporate some type of forestry stewardship plan into the ordinance."

Forest preservation is “not an ‘if’. It’s going to happen."
Dennis McCarthy, attorney for City Center

He called for an expert to take an "overarching look" at trees on the land and determine potential impacts "where development would cut into [the] canopy."

"I don't think it's a great ask to have a forest consultant come in," Toth said. "This is a major tract in the city."

Dennis McCarthy, an attorney for City Center, said the legislation requires the developer to preserve at least 35% of the property — about 70 acres — as open space for outdoor recreation.

Preservation is “not an ‘if.’ It’s going to happen,” McCarthy said.

The developer is working with Emmaus-based nonprofit Wildlands Conservancy to “manage that natural open land over the long term,” according to Charlie Schmehl, of Urban Research and Development Corporation.

Northridge Open Lands
City Center
This rendering shows where City Center plans to preserve and create open green spaces as part of its Northridge development.

Most of the land to be preserved would be on the south side of the property along River Road. Much of that area has steep slopes that would make it difficult to build there.

From hospital to homes

City Center was required to give Wildlands Conservancy an easement to the land as part of its deal to buy the property. That easement gives the nonprofit control of the land, McCarthy said.

Allentown State Hospital was built in the early 1900s and served as a psychiatric hospital until it was shuttered in 2010.

City Center could “put a shovel in the ground before the end of next year.
Robert DiLorenzo, City Center executive

City Center acquired the 195-acre property in September 2022 for about $5.5 million after then-state Sen. Pat Browne introduced a bill to push the deal through.

Opponents of the sale, including state Sen. Jarrett Coleman, R-Lehigh, said the state should have used a competitive process to determine the future of the property.

City Center plans to submit its tentative plans for the property to Allentown Planning Commission in the second quarter of 2024. The developer could “put a shovel in the ground before the end of next year,” company executive Robert DiLorenzo said.