Long-Abandoned Catasauqua Site Gets New Life as “The Iron Works”

By Colin McEvoy on November 10, 2014

A rendering of a possible vision of Catasauqua's The Iron Works, as presented by Spillman Farmer Architects.

A rendering of a possible vision of Catasauqua’s The Iron Works, as presented by Spillman Farmer Architects.

It’s been a decade since the F.L. Smidth site in Catasauqua was first abandoned, and the smoke stacks and brick buildings of the one-time industrial hub of activity in the Lehigh Valley have stood empty and rusting ever since.

In the years since, borough officials and the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. (LVEDC) have been working to redevelop and breathe new life into the 12.5-acre property on four blocks of Front Street along the Lehigh River. Now, those efforts are starting to come to fruition, and a possible vision for the site’s future has been established.

Catasauqua officials hosted a reception Saturday to present possible plans for the F.L. Smidth site, which has been rebranded “The Iron Works.” Boutique retail stores and restaurants, cobblestone walkways with a European piazza feel, a farmers’ market and an urban park-like public gathering space are among the possible features envisioned for the property.

LVEDC’s Lehigh Valley Land Recycling Initiative (LVLRI) has been assisting the redevelopment process of the site since 2005. The initiative is focused on promoting economic development in the region through the reuse of abandoned and underutilized commercial and industrial properties (known as brownfields), and the Iron Works site has long been considered a redevelopment priority by the borough, Lehigh County and LVEDC.

“These sites, once redeveloped, are the kind of catalytic project that will spur economic development in the region in a great and demonstrative manner that will affect people’s lives, generate wealth and strengthen our communities by creating jobs,” said Andrew Kleiner, LVEDC director of redevelopment and external affairs, who heads the LVLRI. “It will help the borough, it will help the Lehigh Valley; it’s a win-win.”

LVLRI directly assisted the environmental assessment work at the Iron Works property with $125,000 of Environmental Protection Agency grant money. The initiative also worked with the Catasauqua Main Street program to find other source of funding, and is currently partnering with the borough to provide assistance for further assessment work and to market the property.

Other ways LVLRI assists in brownfield redevelopment include serving as an intermediary between parties involved with brownfield transactions, assisting on technical matters like grant and loan applications and buyer/seller agreements, and maintaining an inventory of underutilized commercial and industrial properties in the Lehigh Valley.

A reception was held Saturday to present possible plans for the Iron Works site.

A reception was held Saturday to present possible plans for the Iron Works site. (Photo courtesy Al Zuzic)

Saturday’s event allowed members of the public and prospective developers to see the site’s redevelopment potential firsthand. Looking ahead, borough officials will work with LVEDC and Lehigh County to pursue state and federal funding for early phase site work, such as demolition, environmental work and infrastructure improvements.

The plan presented Saturday includes 47,000-square-feet of retail and commercial space, as well as 136 apartments, 35 townhouses and 27 condominiums. Prepared by Spillman Farmer Architects, it portrays Iron Works as a lively area with brick facades, walking trails, outdoor seating areas beneath canopies, lighted orbs over green grass and flower planters, and some existing F.L. Smidth structures adaptively reused or preserved to embrace the location’s history.

But Catasauqua borough manager Eugene Goldfeder stressed that the vision is merely a possible blueprint for the optimal use of the site. It is not “set in stone,” and the borough would be receptive to any ideas from investors or developers interested in the property.

“Iron Works is essentially one side of our main business district, and revitalization of this property, in whatever fashion it ends up taking, will have a tremendous benefit to the borough and the region,” he said. “It will start the process of the rebirth of Catasauqua and bring us forward into the future.”

Catasauqua officials also plan to establish a 38,000-square-foot municipal complex at the site to house its fire station, police station and borough offices. Demolition on that portion of the project could begin as early as mid-2015.

The Crane Iron Co., one of many ironmaking firms established in the region during the heart of the Industrial Revolution, operated at the site from 1839 to 1921. It changed hands several times over the subsequent decades, but has been vacant since F.L. Smidth moved out in 2004. Catasauqua officials debated for years about what to do about the property before purchasing it last year for $750,000.

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