By restoring a historic mansion into commercial office space and building new residential space alongside it, a pair of investors is hoping to create a dynamic entryway for South Bethlehem.
Robert Ashford, a partner in the firm NIP Wilbur Inc., pitched his revised plans for The Wilbur Mansion Office and the Wilbur Apartments to the city’s planning commission Thursday afternoon, where he received final land development approval.
The site is near the Hill-to-Hill Bridge and intersection with Brighton and Wyandotte streets. The project will offer one of the most visible locations in Bethlehem, Ashford said.
“It is located in the western gateway; it is very prominent,” said Darlene Heller, the city’s planning director. “We do try to find opportunities for quality residential development. It will also maintain the Wilbur Mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Ashford said he still needs various permit approvals, which he hopes to secure by late spring or early summer so he can begin construction.
Restoring the Wilbur Mansion, built in 1865, is one of the main drivers for the project. All of interior woodwork from the 1800s, along with stained glass and tile work, will be incorporated into the office design, he said.
“We would like to save this building,” Ashford said. “We are going out now, looking for professional tenants.”
Ashford said his firm applied to be part of the City Revitalization and Improvement Zone for the project, which would take about 8,000 square feet. Bethlehem’s special tax zone district allows certain state and local taxes generated by businesses in the zone to be used to repay debt service to spur economic development projects in the zone.
“After doing market research with potential purchasers, tenants and brokers, we can’t compete with the existing NIZ [Neighborhood Improvement Zone in Allentown] and CRIZ office spaces,” Ashford said.
Ashford is seeking professional office tenants to occupy the space, which could be designed to fit one or multiple tenants. The restored mansion would include an attached glass building for flex office space.
“We are getting ready to take it to full market,” Ashford said. “Everything is designed.”
He estimated the project to cost about $15 million to $20 million to build. If permits are secured, offices could open by first quarter 2018, followed by the apartment building in the fourth quarter.
The new apartment building will consist of 64 one-and two-bedroom units behind the Wilbur Mansion. It will go up on an open grass field that NIP Wilbur Inc. bought. Ashford said the estimated monthly rents would be market rate, about $1,200 to $1,400 for a one-bedroom unit, and $1,450 to $1,700 for a two-bedroom unit.
The residential portion would be ideal for executives, as well as for Lehigh University professors or interns from St. Luke’s University Health Network, he said.
“We are trying to be the first full luxury apartment building in Bethlehem,” Ashford said. “What we like about our project is we are trying to do something special. You can see it from every bridge and it’s very visible. We expect to get a lot of doctors from the hospital.”
The apartment building will include a rooftop deck, underground parking, workout room and open space, he said.
The firm, which includes co-partner John Noble, primarily hired local companies for the project. They included Van Cleef Engineering Associates, which has an office in Bethlehem, Artefact, also of Bethlehem, architect for Wilbur Mansion, and Bernardon of Philadelphia, architect for the apartments. Serfass Construction of North Whitehall Township is the general contractor.
Noble had been looking at properties in the area to develop, saw this property became available and that other developers were looking at it, Ashford said. At that point, Ashford decided to join Noble and form NIP Wilbur, and the firm bought the property in 2015.
“It’s a really key piece of property in Bethlehem,” Ashford said.
The Masonic Temple, an adjacent building now owned by NIP Wilbur that once served as a wedding venue, will be razed to make room for a one-story glass addition to the mansion.
Two engineering reports showed it is not feasible to repair the temple building. Years of water damage have severely destroyed the internal steel, plus the building has mold issues and other structural problems, Ashford said.
“The water has been seeping into the walls; there’s so much mold and damage in that building,” he said.
However, the firm will save a lot of the stone to create a patio and retain the stone railing.