By Steve Mocarsky, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — An excavator tore into the back of a long-closed South Main Street jewelry store Monday to clear the way for construction of a new downtown hotel.
After a ribbon cutting ceremony, officials from Sphere International announced that an Avid Hotel will be erected at the site of the former Frank Clark Jeweler building at 63 S. Main St. and an adjacent parking lot.
Hitesh Patel, one of the Sphere principals, described the building design as “a boutique hotel on a 102-room property.”
Retail space fronting South Main Street between Dino’s Pizza Express and Place 1 at the Hollywood dress shop will occupy part of the first floor of the five-story structure. The hotel entrance will face the city parking authority lot off Northampton Street.
Hitesh Patel and Suresh Patel first announced the project in October 2015, when it was estimated to cost $28 million and would include a convention center, luxury apartments and condominiums, stretching all the way to East Northampton Street.
Sphere attorney Jack Dean said the project is “not on the same footprint that it was five years ago due to some problems with land acquisition.”
Sphere, based in Flemington, New Jersey, purchased the Clark building for $265,000 from Ken L. Pollock Inc. and five of six other parcels of land at the site from the city for $500,000 in 2016.
Place 1 owner Michaelene Coffee said in December 2018 that negotiations to sell her mother’s building to Sphere had fallen apart, and she was told the developer would “build around it.”
Coffee, who was on-site for the start of demolition Monday, moved her shop to Scranton after the city condemned the surrounding buildings in 2013. She said she hopes to reopen or open a new business in Wilkes-Barre after hotel construction is complete.
Dean said demolition should take a few weeks. Then, after a footer is poured, construction should wrap up in 14 to 18 months.
He said Sphere had been working with the Diamond City Partnership, the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society and the Downtown Residents Association “to see what we could do to preserve the façade” of the Clark building, “if feasible.”
Tony Brooks, a councilman and director of the preservation society, said he was glad to work with a developer who appreciates the city’s historical architecture. He’s “hopeful the façade will be saved and incorporated into the design.”
“What we are hopeful about is that dialogue has begun,” added Larry Newman of Diamond City Partnership.
“This façade happens to be one of the most important remaining artifacts from the days when South Main Street was the region’s primary shopping district and when shopping was something that people really celebrated. It was special, and you see that when you look at the detail of that beautiful façade,” Newman said.
“There are too many people who think about things as progress versus preservation. That’s a false choice; preservation is progress. And when you can incorporate the past into new construction, you get the best of both worlds,” he said.
Newman said the Engel building, which houses both Place 1 and an abandoned storefront, is also historic, but that building and the adjacent empty lot at South Main and Northampton streets are not included in the first phase of the project.
No details of a project’s second phase were released on Monday.
Mayor George Brown described the project as “the start of a new beginning.”
“It’s going to be a beautiful hotel with a lot of amenities. So, this is going to be sort of an anchor for the start of the other projects that are going to be coming forth over the next four years,” Brown said.
The mayor said the hotel would be “a quality building with large size hotel rooms” and “something different from the norm. There’s going to be a rooftop bar that overlooks the rest of the cityscape here. … But also, it’s an investment in the city, in bringing back the economy.”
Brown said building permits from this and other upcoming construction projects will help the city recover after the coronavirus pandemic slowed many revenues to a trickle.
Brown expects a hotel and condo project at the former Hotel Sterling site and the restoration of the historic train station on Market Street Square also will begin soon.
He said a tenant is already lined up for the train station, and a Planters Peanuts museum also will be located there.
“I can’t say an exact date, but the developer is anxiously awaiting, and we’re going to be making an announcement on that in the near future,” Brown said. “Economically, it’s a big shot in the arm for us.”
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