By Bob Kalinowski and Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
WILKES-BARRE — Would you be willing to pay $1,000 a month or more to live in downtown Wilkes-Barre?
Many people are eager to do just that, according to developers investing millions of dollars in new downtown apartments.
The popularity of trendy, upscale apartments in downtown Wilkes-Barre continues to grow at a rapid pace. Developers say they can’t build them fast enough to meet demand.
In the last five years, developers have transformed empty commercial space into more than 100 luxury condominiums and apartments in Center City. And there’s no end in sight. Construction is slated to begin soon on 50 more apartments in two other downtown properties. The market test of building 21 loft-style residences in the movie theatre complex on Northampton Street started a trend that continues in the most recent projects — the construction of apartments in two former bank buildings at the corner of Franklin and Market streets.
For most of the new places, there’s no vacancy — and the monthly rent isn’t cheap. People are paying between $800 to $1,850 each month to live in the downtown’s newest digs.
Larry Newman, a local urban planner with the downtown management organization Diamond City Partnership, said high interest in the loft-style apartments is a sign of a vibrant, attractive and growing downtown.
“There’s clearly a demand,” Newman said. “The story is really no different than what is playing out in healthy downtowns across the country. In the last few years, millennials in particular have started showing a real preference for urban living.”
LIVING ABOVE W-B
Rob Lent is one of the young people Newman is referring to.
The 28-year-old Shickshinny native recently moved from Kingston into a 12th-floor apartment of the Luzerne Bank Building on Public Square.
“It’s really convenient. There’s a lot of nightlife. There’s good restaurants. There’s surveillance cameras everywhere. The parking garages are secure. The apartments are really nice. Everything is included,” said Lent, a Misericordia University business student who also works full-time at a local construction equipment dealership. Rent, utilities, Internet and parking — along with a great view — are included in the monthly check he sends to building management. He declined to disclose what he pays in rent.
“Part of the reason I like the apartment is because it’s a unique place to live — on the square in Wilkes-Barre. People still give me weird looks when I tell them that,” Lent said. “It’s not something people are used to hearing. With all the development happening, it’s going to be a more chic place to live.”
People are flocking to live in downtown Wilkes-Barre because it’s becoming “the region’s walk-to-everything choice,” Newman said. Within a close proximity, there is a flourishing restaurant and entrainment district, a performing arts center, a movie theatre and a retail department store that downtown residents can walk to, Newman noted. And a long yearned-for grocery store is on the way.
Many people who work downtown, like to live downtown, Newman said. Of wage-earning residents who live downtown, one third of them walk to work, he said.
“Those downtowns that can offer a full package of neighborhood amenities and are attractive and comfortable and provide an environment people want are able to attract new residents,” Newman said. “What we have been seeing — for those developers who are producing quality units and are finished in a way the market is demanding — those developers are available to fill those units as soon as they are created.”
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
That’s what happened when the owners of the Luzerne Bank Building on Public Square decided to create six apartments in the empty top floor years ago.
Don Sanderson, an architect who co-owned the building, designed one of the apartments on the 14th floor for himself and his wife. The couple decided to leave their large Bear Creek home and move into the downtown’s tallest building.
“We figured there’d have to be five other people in the world who would move in here,” recalled building manager Jeff Pyros, whose father co-owned the building with Sanderson.
By the time renovations started, two other units were rented. By the time construction was complete in July 2012, the 14th floor was at full capacity. The building still had some empty office space, so they decided to make apartments out of the 13th floor as well. Again, renters lined up before construction was complete.
“They rented so fast, it was shocking to us,” Pyros recalled.
Because of the success with rental units, they turned the 12th floor into apartments as well. Those also were rented immediately.
The building, including the 17 apartments, is now at full capacity and there are no plans to add more apartments.
“There’s no reason to do another floor at this time. Part of the reason to do the 12th through 14th floor is because we had empty office space,” Pyros said.
When he worked with the Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry, Newman was involved in the development of the 21 condominiums in the complex constructed at South Main and Northampton streets, which included Movies 14. The residential component was included in the revitalization project as a test to see if there was a demand in high-end downtown living, Newman said.
“Obviously, the test worked then,” said Eileen Kenyon, a retiree who was among the first to purchase one of the condos.
All 21 units sold for prices between $121,578 to $287,752. Two of the units are now up for resale.
Kenyon grew up in Wilkes-Barre, moved to New Jersey and always “had this dream in the back of my head of coming back one day.” She returned in June 2010. And she loves it.
“We have young people, old people, people with various occupations,” said Kenyon, secretary of the Lofts on Main Condominium Association. “We have a diverse community in our 21 units.”
During an interview, the first thing she wanted to say was there is a false perception that downtown is riddled with crime.
“No matter what everybody says, it’s not as dangerous as some think it is,” Kenyon, 69, said. “I see people and they say, ‘I would never go to downtown Wilkes-Barre.’ I am like, ’Have you ever been?’ They’re like, ‘No,’”
Kenyon said she enjoys walking to church, the library and Boscov’s. Asked if there’s anything else she likes about downtown living, she responded, “Other than the fact I love it and I’m the best spokeswoman they could ever have?”
MAYOR: DEMAND EXCEEDING SUPPLY
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton, who owns a real estate business, said even he was skeptical that a high-end residential component of the South Main Street revitalization project would work.
“As a real estate broker, it far exceeded my expectations,” Leighton said. “I’d have to say, I didn’t know if the market could absorb that. Not only did it absorb it, it brought more residential development downtown.”
The true benefit of the lofts won’t be realized for a few years yet, Leighton said. Buyers of the condos in the theatre complex were given a 10-year tax break. Once that window closes, the city is in line to collect about $500,000 per year in property taxes, said Leighton, who leaves office in January after serving three terms.
The success of the project also encouraged other developers to build apartments, which are attracting taxpaying residents to live downtown, Leighton said.
Since the condos hit the market, other upscale residential developments downtown include:
• May 2012, South Side Bank Building at 264 S. Main St., 16 apartments
• July 2012, Luzerne Bank Building at 67-69 Public Square, 17 apartments
• January 2015, Hampton Park Building at 45 E. Northampton St., 10 apartments and two condos
• March 2015, “The Bank,” the former Citizens Bank building at 8 W. Market St., 12 apartments
• June 2015, the former Wachovia Bank Building at 24-32 W. Market St., 26 apartments
There’s no vacancy in the South Side Bank Building, the Luzerne Bank Building, or the Hampton Park Building, all of which have a waiting list. Only two units remain open in the Citizens Bank building. The developer of the apartments in former Wachovia Bank is just beginning to market 17 of the units, as construction continues on nine more.
All of these apartments are being rented from between $800 and $1,850 per month.
Leighton pointed out all of these residential developments were financed with private individuals investing their own money.
“I don’t know why people are so down on Wilkes-Barre when you have people from out of the area investing in downtown Wilkes-Barre and you have people paying top-dollar rent,” Leighton said. “The demand is exceeding the supply.”
New residential units downtown have resulted in substantial economic impacts.
First, there are the construction impacts. The 76 occupied units constructed in the last five years represent more than $10 million in private investment and another 22 units are under construction, Newman said.
Another impact is tax revenue. New downtown residents are earning at least the median Luzerne County income of $45,000 and that means the city alone is getting $100,000 in new wage tax revenue from the units, he said.
Additionally, new downtown residents are patronizing downtown businesses.
Of the approximate 900 people who responded to the Diamond City Partnership’s Downtown Wilkes-Barre Perception and Use Survey last year, 38 percent said they go to downtown restaurants regularly. The percentage of downtown Wilkes-Barre residents who go to the restaurants regularly was 53 percent.
Fifteen percent of all residents said they go to Boscov’s regularly. The number of downtown Wilkes-Barre residents who said they shop at Boscov’s regularly was 30 percent. Nine percent of all residents shop at the independent downtown retailers regularly, and for downtown residents, the number nearly doubles to 17 percent.
“We believe that downtown’s growth as a residential neighborhood is one of the most important ingredients to the downtown’s revitalization because retail follows rooftops,” Newman said. “We also believe that the downtown residential units are incredibly important for the health of the city as a whole because it’s one of the best ways we can bring new wage-earning residents into the City of Wilkes-Barre and the proof is in what we’ve seen over the last couple years.”
FROM CHINA TO WILKES-BARRE
Guy Kiraly and his wife, Thanyawon, are among the newest downtown residents. They recently moved into one of the apartments in the former Citizens Bank building at 8 W. Market St. The eighth floor of the biggest downtown building has been converted into 12 apartments. One of them attracted Kiraly’s eye after weeks of searching for places in the Wyoming Valley.
Kiraly, 57, a Chicago native, recently moved back to the United States after living for six years in the third most populous place in China, a city of 15 million people. His company, CCL Tube, transferred him from a manufacturing plant in Guangzhou, China, to a site in the Hanover Industrial Estates.
“I loved the work in China. It was fun. Living there was so-so,” Kirlay said, recalling how the city was bustling non-stop and very congested. “One of the reasons I said OK to Wilkes-Barre is because Philly and New York weren’t that far away, but far enough away to not have the bad things like traffic.”
In his new place, Kiraly has a nice view of the Susquehanna River from his bedroom. He likes being able to walk to the YMCA, the library, or a restaurant. He likes the easy, close access to the Kirby Park bike trails.
After a few months, Kiraly said it’s safe to say he’s liking living in downtown Wilkes-Barre — and he loves the building he now calls home.
“It has a uniqueness when you get off the elevator and you’re in an old bank building and see an old vault,” Kiraly said. “It has character.”
Only a Starbucks in the now vacant lobby could make it better, he said.
The developer of the Citizens Bank building has even bigger plans for the property.
New York businessman Mendy Gansburg of Citi Tower LLC recently applied for $3 million in state grant money through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to rehabilitate the historic bank building, which was built in 1911. He’s seeking to build more apartments, along with renovated office and commercial space, in the property.
And he’s not alone in seeking to continue downtown Wilkes-Barre residential development.
D & D Realty, which created 12 units in the Hampton Park building on Northampton Street across from the theatre complex, is on the verge of buying another downtown Wilkes-Barre property to create 20 more apartments, said co-owner Casey Donahue.
“I think Wilkes-Barre is a good opportunity,” said Donahue, 30, a Scranton native who helped construct dozens of apartments in that city.
Donahue said he and his business partners have done market studies and they don’t believe downtown Wilkes-Barre’s residential market is oversaturated. Many of the 13,000 people who work downtown may choose to live downtown if they found a nice place, he said.
“The workforce downtown is huge,” Donahue said. “The downtown is small and you can walk everywhere.”
Likewise, New Jersey businessman Sam Syla, who just developed 26 apartments in the former Wachovia Bank, is looking to add 30 more high-end apartments at the former Sacred Heart School on North Main Street.
Syla, who learned the construction trade in Kosovo before immigrating to the United States 20 years ago, said he’s already invested $1.67 million of his own money in Wilkes-Barre with more to come.
“I like Wilkes-Barre. I love the people and I like the administration,” Syla said.
Prior to Wilkes-Barre, Syla developed properties in Philadelphia. He said he learned of the vacant bank building in Wilkes-Barre from his friend who owns Cafe Toscana on Public Square. After it languished on the market, he decided to buy it. “I try to give life to old buildings,” Syla said.
And giving life to old buildings and making them desired residential properties has helped breathe new life into the entire downtown.
By Bob Kalinowski and Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice
Downtown living is the new big trend in Wilkes-Barre. More than 100 new, trendy condominiums and apartments have hit the market since 2010 and developers say the can’t build them fast enough to meet the growing demand. Here’s six of the recent projects:
Former Wachovia Bank building (three floors):
24-32 W. Market St.
Units: 26 apartments
Openings: 17 available, construction continues on nine others
Rent range: $800 to $1,500, includes water and parking spot for two-bedroom renters
Open to tenants: June 2015
“The Bank,” former Citizens Bank building (13 floors):
8 W. Market St.
Units: 12 apartments on floor 8
Openings: Two apartments
Rent range: N/A; tenant pays electric; parking in South Franklin Street parking garage; free high-speed Internet
Open to tenants: March 2015
Hampton Park (three floors):
45 E. Northampton St.
Units: 10 apartments, two condominiums
Openings: No vacancy
Rent range: $1,000 to $1,800; tenant pays electricity and parking
Open to tenants: January 2015
The Luzerne Bank building (14 floors):
67-69 Public Square
Units: 17 apartments on 12th, 13th and 14th floors
Openings: No vacancy
Rent range: $975 to $1850 per month (includes all utilities, parking in the intermodal garage, and high-speed Internet)
Open to tenants: July 2012
Former South Side Bank Building:
264 S. Main St.
Units: 16 apartments
Openings: No vacancy
Rent range: $885 to $1,000 a month (as of September 2012)
Open to tenants: May 2012
South Main and Northampton streets
Units: 21 condominiums
Openings: 2 units for re-sale
Sale range: $169,000 (one bedroom) and $265,000 (two bedroom)
Open to tenants: February 2010
Available 2 bedroom unit: www.lewith-freeman.com/developments/the-lofts[/pb_lay_raw]