By Jerry Lynott, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — Amid the traditional 19th- and 20th-century architecture of downtown Wilkes-Barre, proposed designs revealed last week for a modern mixed-use development on the former Hotel Sterling site depict a project that’s bound to stand out.
The question is how much.
Renderings prepared for Wilkes-Barre-based Gateway Center Associates show an angular, multi-storied building with top sections bulging out from the lower floors and rectangular, floor-to-ceiling windows slotted across the facade.
If built as shown, the project would present a stark contrast to the brick and terracotta high-rises that have long defined Wilkes-Barre’s skyline.
But one key downtown development official who gave his blessing to the project cautions that any such plan is likely to go through many reviews and changes before construction gets the green light.
“It’s only the beginning,” said Larry Newman, who is executive director of the Diamond City Partnership and a member of the committee that reviewed proposals for the site before making a recommendation to city council on which group the city should sell the land to.
Council on Thursday voted 4-1 to sell the 2-acre site to Gateway Center Associates for $600,000. The property, made up of three parcels covering just over 2 acres, has been vacant since the Sterling’s 2013 demolition, which set in motion the city taking ownership of the land from Luzerne County.
Since the designs were first unveiled to the public during a council work session two days earlier, their distinctive modern lines have been the subject of much discussion — some of it critical.
As if anticipating such remarks, council president Tony Brooks commented shortly after the designs were presented Tuesday that the Sterling itself represented a radical departure from existing structures when the hotel opened in 1897.
On the Times Leader website, for example, some commenters called the design “ugly,” “monstrous” and “grotesque,” among other things, even as some of them also expressed general support for the project and the sale.
Newman has heard similar comments. To those raising concerns, he cautions that the development team is hearing the same reactions, and he expects they will be attuned to such concerns and address them.
Newman also said he was encouraged that the team was receptive to beginning the conversation on considering alternatives to arrive at a final design.
“Design is an iterative process,” said Newman, who holds degrees in architecture from Princeton and Harvard.
Then, too, he pointed out that the center city area already holds a mix of styles and designs from different decades, which make up what Newman called a “very complex” and “very heterogeneous” downtown fabric.
Living and working downtown, Newman watched over the years as the Sterling lost its stately stature, succumbed to a failed attempt at development, deteriorated, and finally crumbled under the crash of excavators’ steel toothed-buckets and bulldozers’ blades against its stone and steel.
Newman was on the six-member selection committee set up to review the two proposals for the site. He did not cast a vote, but drew up the score sheet for the committee that unanimously chose Gateway over The McClure Company Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla. The committee has not made public the scores.
Gateway, headed by Kosovo native Hysni “Sam” Syla, has proposed a $35 million project for the site that would include a hotel, retail and office space, parking and condominiums selling for as much as $500,000.
Syla, who’s developed other local projects including converting the former Wyoming National Bank building on West Market Street in Wilkes-Barre into apartments and the Vault Grill & Bar, is partnering with ARAMARK, a leader in the leisure and hospitality industry, and Diamanti Co., a construction company based in Pristina, Kosovo.
He’s selected 3plusarchitects of Tirana, Albania, as the designer and George Albert Associates, of Wilkes-Barre, as consulting engineers.
Genetti weighs in
Watching with interest is hotelier Gus Genetti. His Best Western Plus Genetti Hotel & Conference Center on East Market Street is the only hotel downtown.
“I welcome the project,” Genetti said.
Genetti admits he also had concerns about the conceptual design. But after speaking with others involved in the project, he’s not as worried.
Still he doesn’t want to be surprised, saying “The design should fit in with the rest of the community, certainly.”
Not the Sterling
The request for proposals that the developers responded to left the design up to them. They weren’t asked to duplicate the 19th-century Sterling, but to come up with the best use of the site, Newman noted.
“You couldn’t rebuild the Sterling. For better or worse, the Sterling is gone,” Newman said. “So now the question is, ‘How do we, in this process, end up with something that is a worthy successor on the site?’”
The location at the intersection of West Market and North River streets affords the developer the opportunity to make a statement with the project, Newman said. What is said is just as important as how it’s said, he explained.
“There is a desire to do something of your time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something that’s contextual,” said Newman.
“Modernism and contextualism are not incompatible.”