By Bob Kalinowski, Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice
One day a few years ago, Nick Dye and his real estate business partners visited Wilkes-Barre during the afternoon and saw it as a bustling place with thousands of downtown workers. Then, they returned later that night.
“It was like a barren desert. We asked, ‘Why is nobody living here?’ ” Dye recalled. “The main reason was there was no upscale modern products available.”
Dye and his fellow developers in D&D Realty, which started by renovating apartments in residential sections of Scranton, saw promise in luxury living in downtown Wilkes-Barre. They have since invested millions of dollars there. Currently working on their fourth apartment building, they haven’t been able to build new, high-end units fast enough to meet the demand.
Young professionals are making downtown living the hip and convenient thing to do, he said.
“It’s certainly a nationwide trend,” Dye said. “The downtown is very walkable.”
Scranton is seeing a similar rebirth of historic properties being repurposed into luxury living.
“It’s in demand. Young people, millennials, Generation X’ers and even empty nesters are looking for downtown living,” said Bob Durkin, president of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce. “The developers say they don’t even have to wait to finish the apartments before they are rented.”
Hundreds of new, luxury apartments have been constructed in recent years in downtown Scranton and, like Wilkes-Barre, there appears to be no end in sight.
“The downtown could probably handle another 1,000 units, if not more,” Durkin said.
A big contributor to the demand is people associated with the educational and medical communities in the city, which business people in Scranton call “eds and meds,” he said. In many ways, the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine started the momentum when it opened in 2008, he said.
“Downtown Scranton right now is the place to be,” Durkin said.
The people leading the rebirth of downtown Pittston might have something to say about that, as part of the revitalization includes dozens of high-end apartments.
One of the redeveloped properties is the Newrose Building, a five-story former hotel at 48-50 Main St. The building is best known for the mural covering an entire side of the property, featuring famous Pittstonians, including ex-NFL football player Jimmy Cefalo, and a cameo appearance by the man who personally recruited Cefalo to Penn State, late coach Joe Paterno.
Al Gristina jumped at the chance to rent one of the Newrose units a year ago. He wasn’t exactly slumming it before that, though.
The 53-year-old business executive lived the previous two years in an efficiency apartment in the historic Frederick Stegmaier Mansion on South Franklin Street in downtown Wilkes-Barre. While he says he loved downtown living in Wilkes-Barre, he loves even more the space he now enjoys in his 1,800-square-foot loft apartment on the fifth floor of the Newrose Building. The picturesque view of the Susquehanna River isn’t so bad, either, he said.
Gristina said he loves staying in downtowns when he’s away on business, and living in downtown Pittston gives him a little taste of that on a smaller scale. Everything he needs is a short walk away — restaurants, his bank, his pharmacy, he said.
“If I didn’t work in downtown Wilkes-Barre, I wouldn’t need a car,” Gristina said. “There’s really a lot going on. It’s safe. It’s relatively affordable. In my opinion, for what I am getting, it’s great.”
Charles Jefferson, who has roots in Northeast Pennsylvania, is one of the developers leading the charge in downtown Scranton.
Among his projects are the Connell Building on North Washington Avenue and Mulberry 426 on Mulberry Street, the former Chamber of Commerce building. His firm has created about 130 apartments and is currently building a few dozen more in the former Samter’s department store at Lackawanna and Penn avenues.
“I love being up here. It’s an enjoyable experience. The apartment market is a very good one with a lot of demand,” said Jefferson, a Montgomery County-based developer who says he puts 50,000 miles a year on his vehicle traveling from project to project.
Downtown Scranton is safe, walkable and really close to the interstate highway, he noted.
“I think it’s attractive for a lot of reasons,” Jefferson said.
Jennifer Frey, 44, toured one of Jefferson’s loft apartments in the Connell Building nearly seven years ago when it was still under construction.
“The second I saw my apartment, I signed the lease immediately,” Frey said.
She’s one of the last original residents still living in the same apartment.
Frey said the Connell Building started a downtown resurgence in Scranton, prompting more business to open to cater to the amenities needed by people who live downtown.
Developers in Wilkes-Barre have said the same thing, that residential living helps local businesses and vice versa.
Frey was born and raised in an apartment building in Brooklyn, New York, so she likes atmosphere of the Connell Building. After living in Los Angeles for a few years, she moved to Northeast Pennsylvania. She rented a house in Dunmore, but felt “isolated.” Moving into the Connell Building “felt like I was home” in Brooklyn, she said.
“It’s like a neighborhood. We’re self-contained,” she said.
Another good thing she likes about the place is it’s where she met her boyfriend, who lives a floor away.
Frey, director of a local sleep disorder center, said she pays a sizeable rent, but it’s worth it for the beauty of her place and the type of neighbors she has.
“It’s upscale living. In relationship to the area, you could rent for less. But I think the rent is appropriate for what we’re getting,” she said. “It keeps a certain level of tenants. The truth is, we’re adults and we want to live with other adults who take care of their surroundings.”
Dan and Maria Golaszewski moved to a downtown Wilkes-Barre apartment in 2015 after living in the East Mountain Apartments in Plains Twp. for several years.
He’s an accomplished chiropractor with a weekly radio show on WILK News Radio called “Maximize Your Health.” She’s employed in medical device sales.
Maria Golaszewski, 31, was looking through a real estate website one day in 2015 when she spotted the design plans for the proposed apartments in the Hampton Park building on Northampton Street across the street from the Movies 14 theater complex.
“I was like, there is no way this place is in Wilkes-Barre,” she recalls.
They eventually visited the place and immediately decided to lease one of the units, which was still being constructed. Maria Golaszewski was particularly sold on the apartment’s stylish bathroom, which has a rainfall shower and body jets.
“We’re spoiled. Even when we are in five-star hotels, we’re like, ours is nicer in Wilkes-Barre,” Dan Golaszewski, 36, said.
Another positive is they really like their neighbors. There are doctors, medical students and a professional hockey player who call the place home. The men who own and developed the building live there, too. It’s like one big building of friends, they say.
“Everybody knows everyone. There’s definitely a sense of community,” Maria said. “It’s a nice niche neighborhood.”