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N.Y. developer makes Iron Works pitch

At the ad hoc Catasauqua Iron Works Committee meeting held Sept. 21, Randy Lee, of the Real Estate Property Group of Staten Island, N.Y., pitched a tentative plan for the development of the Iron Works property.

Lee circulated a design of a possible use of the property to Catasauqua Borough Council and residents. Council took no action regarding the Iron Works site at the meeting.

At a later time, Lee explained his group is interested in purchasing and developing the brownfield site, “if it is economically feasible.” His purpose for being at the Sept. 21 meeting was “to be respectful of the board and residents present” and to share his thoughts about the project.

Lee’s plan as a tentative “maximization of the site” could include up to 312 rental units. Up to 28 retail stores could be installed on Front Street as well, he said.

He reported, even though the plan calls for apartments, council can choose to have condos and homes, low-income or even age-restricted rentals, such as 55-and-older residents only, developed at the site. He added the number of retail outlets can also be reduced.

To move the stalled project forward, council members have to decide, according to Lee, if they want to have the Lehigh County Redevelopment Authority involved, which would have the authority negotiate directly with the developer, or put out a request for proposal for developers to bid and put forth other proposals.

Lee said his firm is interested in bidding to develop the project - whichever path council follows.

Lee noted the depot building located near the Pine Street Bridge is possibly a good location for some form of tavern or restaurant.

He emphasized his firm is flexible and wants to attend to the desires of council and residents. Lee said he wants to know and satisfy what Catasauqua is seeking with the development of the Iron Works property.

The Iron Works brownfield site development has been ongoing for more than 12 years. Millions of dollars in grants and public funds have been used to prepare the site for development by a real estate development firm. Dunn Twiggar, a local company, was contracted by the borough to develop the site.

The new council installed in January pulled the plug on the effort in early June when a requested extension on the contract was denied. At that time, Dunn Twiggar said it still wanted to develop the site but needed additional time to continue its planning.

Council leaders said Dunn Twiggar pulled out of the contract. Dunn Twiggar disputed that statement. It was estimated the development was a $42 million project expected to generate around $900,000 annually in tax revenues for the borough after completion.

Previous councils received an award of distinction from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission for their planning efforts to develop the site.

After the Sept. 21 meeting, Councilman Paul Cmil said it is unwise to have the Iron Works site populated with only apartments. He noted Catasauqua, in his opinion, has too many apartments, so adding more rentals will not garner his support.

“Where will the money come from?” Cmil asked, noting he is bracing for a large Catasauqua real estate tax hike for 2023.

In fact, at the borough council meeting Sept. 26, council voted to approve a 33% tax increase. This hike puts Catasauqua as the highest real estate tax rate in Lehigh County, surpassing the previous top three municipalities, Coplay, Emmaus and Fountain Hill.

Cmil is also the borough’s public utilities committee chair. Because of substantial maintenance issues at the sewer and water plants, he said he also expects a large water and sewer fee increase for 2023.

At recent meetings, some council members have said the borough is bankrupt and that the tax millage rate should have been incrementally raised over the years. The borough solicitor has stated publicly the borough is not bankrupt.

At an earlier meeting, Howard Cunningham, council vice president, suggested a possible state takeover of the borough finances. The borough bond adviser, also noting the borough is not bankrupt, questioned the need for having the state assume the finance responsibility.

It was reported the borough solicitor noted there are legal issues and ordinance changes regarding the Iron Works project that may delay issuing a request for proposals perhaps up to 90 days. Requests for proposals might not occur until January 2023.

PRESS PHOTO BY BILL LEINER JR. The Real Estate Property Group of Staten Island, N.Y., is interested in the development of the Catasauqua Iron Works site.