By Jerry Lynott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Just as the former Hotel Sterling stood out when it was built more than 100 years ago, so will its proposed replacement, said the development team that wants to build on the downtown site.
The design and size is still in flux, but what Gateway Center Associates eventually decides will be worthy of the prominent location at the intersection of North River and West Market streets, the team members told city council during a project presentation Tuesday night.
The estimated $35 million project will include a hotel, retail space and condominiums — some selling for a half-million dollars, or just under the $600,000 price the developer is offering for the 2-acre site.
George Albert, whose local architecture and engineering firm is providing consulting services on the project driven by Kosovo native Hysni “Sam” Syla, presented a video for council that displayed the multi-faceted exterior of a high-rise building, plus aerial and interior views of the development.
“Being the gateway coming over Market Street, the footprint needs to be magnanimous,” Albert said.
The project will be 190,000 square feet of new construction housing a hotel with 60 to 100 rooms, 20 to 60 condominiums or apartments, street-level retail space, offices and possibly conference rooms, Albert said.
The video showed two buildings eight stories high. But Albert said the team is leaning toward one building between 10 and 14 stories.
“We’re still in the programming stages. We would like to go up a little higher to capture the views of this particular, really wonderful property on the corner where we could overlook the (Susquehanna) River and north and south of the valley,” Albert said.
The project has an aggressive timetable with a groundbreaking estimated for 12 to 18 months after its approved, Albert said.
Additionally, the vacant Hotel Sterling annex building adjacent to the property that’s used as a parking lot could be purchased, Albert said. The plan is to renovate it and restore it for future use, he said.
City council, which got its first look at what the developer wants to put on the site of the former landmark, is expected to vote on the sale of the property at its public meeting Thursday night.
The property was acquired by the city a few years ago after it condemned and demolished the vacant hotel in 2013 after a failed development attempt by the non-profit CityVest. There was just one other response to a request for proposals for the site. Gateway’s plan won unanimous approval from the six-member committee assembled to review the proposals and score them. Mayor Tony George also recommended Gateway, setting up Tuesday night’s presentation.
Former Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry executive Steve Barrouk, who works as a real estate broker, said he’s worked with Syla on other projects and spoke glowingly of his work.
“I’m hoping really to introduce you to a number of people and to a concept that we think will in many ways will revolutionize the image of our city,” Barrouk said.
The concept will be “a 21st century icon” similar to what the Sterling was in its time, Barrouk said.
The two men met when Barrouk was trying to sell the former Wyoming National Bank building on West Market Street that Syla bought and transformed into the Vault Grill & Bar and 30 apartments.
“I tried to sell that building for seven years,” Barrouk said.
Syla, who Barrouk described as war hero in the Balkan wars, had developed properties in Philadelphia and saw something he liked in the bank building, Barrouk said.
Syla’s other projects include the former Sacred Heart church and school on North Main Street. He’s converted the church into an art gallery and the school into apartments. He’s also renovating an industrial building on Elm Street in Kingston into townhomes, Barrouk said.
Barrouk lobbied for Syla’s Gateway project, saying it could bring future development to Wilkes-Barre.
“We need to make a bigger pie. All these hotels are building like crazy around the city. I think it’s time we start attracting more to the city by providing a variety of hotel options,” Barrouk said.
For his part, Syla wanted his work to speak for him.
“My English is not good enough, but my job is, I think,” Syla said.
He agreed the Sterling property provides a big showcase.
“We try to do something nice for the city,” Syla said. “I think we’re going to do it. I hope so.”