Movin’ On Up: Wachovia project the latest turning former Downtown W-B banks into apartments

i May 31st 2014

By Denise Allabaugh, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — A historic banking corner in downtown Wilkes-Barre is about to become vibrant again.

Kosovo immigrant and entrepreneur Hysni (Sam) Syla, who has redeveloped blighted properties in Philadelphia, has purchased the former Wachovia Bank building at West Market and South Franklin streets for $285,000. The former owner was Alex Fishbeyn of New Jersey.

Leading a tour of the first floor, Syla said he plans to invest $450,000 to $500,000 of his own private money constructing 10 apartments in the building. He also hopes to attract a bank and commercial developments.

“I love the city,” Syla said. “I’m going to try to bring in some more investors.”

His construction crew is renovating the building, which was plagued with a leaky roof and frozen pipes in the winter. He obtained a permit to fix the roof and plumbing.

Syla, who currently lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and is moving to the area, learned of the building through his long-time friend, Marcello Ahemti, owner of Cafe Toscana on Public Square.

“He likes to have something reborn again. The property was dead and he wants to bring it back to life,” Ahmeti said. “He’s a hard worker.”

The building was constructed in 1914 to house the Wyoming National Bank and its name still graces the front. Several mergers and bank purchases followed.

The Wyoming National Bank merged into Merchants Bank of Allentown in 1985. Merchants Bank was purchased by First Fidelity Bank of Newark, New jersey, which was bought by First Union Bank of Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1995. First Union then merged with Wachovia Bank, which is now part of Wells Fargo Bank.

The building was vacated during Wachovia Bank’s tenure.

Stephen Barrouk, vice president of business development for Mericle Commercial Real Estate Services, has been trying to sell it for years.

Barrouk said seven years ago, the building’s price was $900,000. The latest price was $495,000, but the owner saw the market was bad, the building was deteriorating and he just wanted to sell it, he said.

The corner once was a hub for four banks. Today, only one bank remains open on the corner: PNC Bank.

“Given the amount of work that Sam is going to have to do on the building, he got it at a fair price,” Barrouk said. “It was a tough corner from the standpoint of rentals. Now, you’re starting to see people reinvest in that corner.

Syla made a commitment and closed the deal 10 days after he saw the building, Barrouk said.

“We’re hoping this is the beginning,” Barrouk said. “Sam and Marcello have other contacts and if they could bring other people in to look at Wilkes-Barre with a fresh set of eyes and see the opportunity, we’ll see continued rebirth of the downtown.”

The apartments being constructed add to other residential developments on the corner and throughout the downtown.

Directly across the street, six floors of the historic Citizens Bank building on West Market Street are being converted into 72 luxury apartments. DxDempsey Architecture in Scranton is designing them and the eighth floor is currently being framed for apartments.

“That corner is ready for a rebirth,” Barrouk said. “Hopefully, between what Sam is doing and what the owner of the Citizens Bank building is doing with apartments, there will be more people living downtown. When more people are living downtown, you will need more retail and more services.”

The upper floors of the former First National Community Bank on West Market also are being renovated for apartments, said Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, a public-private alliance for downtown revitalization.

The latest downtown housing developments add to 17 apartments in the 14-story Luzerne Bank Building on Public Square, 16 apartments in a century-old bank building at West Ross and South Main streets as well as 21 condominiums called the Elevations Lofts on East Northampton Street next to Wilkes-Barre Movies 14. Nearby, Nicholas Dye’s D&D Realty Group of Scranton has been turning the Hampton Park apartment building at East Northampton and South Washington streets into 12 condominiums.

Newman said the residential demand in downtown Wilkes-Barre is high and units are being filled as soon as they are built.

“The momentum in downtown is real,” Newman said. “It’s not just real at street level. It’s now happening on the upper floors as well.”