By Jerry Lynott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Demolition began Monday for a new hotel downtown, almost five years after developer Sphere International LLC announced plans for the corner of South Main and West Northampton streets.
But instead of a 10-story high-rise building to add to the skyline as first proposed, the latest architectural rendering depicted a structure half as tall that will be home to a 102-room Avid Hotel with retail space on the ground floor.
“We feel a lot better than what we used to feel like a few years back,” Sphere president Hitesh Patel told reporters after a ribbon cutting on site.
The estimated $28 million project will be built in phases, Patel said, starting in the rear of the former Frank Clark Jeweler building on South Main Street where an excavator operator maneuvered the machine’s toothed-bucket to pull away wood and bricks.
Announced on Oct. 31, 2015, the project languished for years, raising questions about its viability and the Flemington, N.J., developer’s commitment to follow through on its grand plans for the prime real estate in center city. Start dates came and went with nothing to show, leading Mayor George Brown to question whether the revenues from building permit fees his predecessor Tony George used to balance his final budget would materialize.
But Brown, who was on city council in 2015 and took office as Mayor in January, welcomed the progress.
“This is great, the beginning of a new Wilkes-Barre,” Brown said.
Patel deferred to his attorney Jack Dean to answer additional questions.
Dean said Sphere did its homework in choosing the site and location.
“This is where this boutique hotel in a college town, in a revitalized downtown, after their market study, it is clearly established this is the place that will help the economy. And they feel they’ll be successful and will help downtown Wilkes-Barre be further successful,” Dean said.
He explained why the project has taken on a different look.
”This project has been fluid for the last five years. One of the big problems we ran into was land acquisition. S0 the hotel is not on the same footprint it was five years ago due to some problems with land acquisition we ran into and we’re excited,” Dean said.
Sphere acquired the former jeweler’s building and city-owned property in 2016, but not the building between them. It could not come to an agreement with the owner of the Place 1 at the Hollywood and will build around it.
Michalene Coffee, co-owner with her mother Barbara of the Place 1 building, watched the demolition.
“It’s nice to see that it’s finally happening. It’s been a long time coming,” Coffee said.
When asked if she would like to have been part of the project, Coffee replied, “Technically, I’m still a part of it.”
She moved her business to Scranton in 2013 after the city condemned the adjacent property it owned and demolished it for safety reasons.
Dean assured that the Sphere-owned buildings will be razed and the former women’s clothing store left standing.
“There is a way to do it and our demolition guys have come out and looked at it and they should be able to move forward,” Dean said.
Whether the facades of the jeweler building and half of the Engel Building next to the Coffee property will be part of the new construction remains to be seen. Sphere met with representatives of the Downtown Residents’ Association, the downtown revitalization organization the Diamond City Partnership and the Wilkes-Barre Preservation Society about possibly preserving the historic architecture of the buildings more than 100 years old.
An amendment to the Sphere’s deed for the city property stated if the developer has the opportunity to incorporate the facade or an historical element it will consider doing so if it’s economically feasible. The sale agreement also included a reverter clause for the city repurchase its properties if certain benchmarks and deadlines are not met.
“We’re OK with the contract,” Dean said.
Downtown resident Collyn Hinchey carried a hand-lettered sign that read “Facadism is not preservation,” to be clear on her stance.
“I’m carrying the sign because I care about this building,” Hinchey said. “It’s our fault. We have to do more.”
When the demolition gets to the front of the jeweler it will stop so the project team can work on alternatives for the preservation. Dean estimated it will take several weeks to raze the building and between 14 and 18 months from when the concrete footer are poured to complete the first phase. The second phase will involve the half of the Engel Building whose side faces West Northampton Street.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.