Allentown intends to follow through on its threat to cut power to the closed Americus Center hotel, trying to "motivate" the owner into redeveloping it or selling it to someone who will.
The city had hoped to cut off the power Friday, but will delay that for a while to allow AT&T to move the wireless telephone equipment it has on the hotel roof.
"We will turn the power off," city solicitor Jerry Snyder said. "It is going to happen."
The date remains undetermined, he said, while the city works with AT&T to give it time to relocate. But he said the shutoff will come soon.
"Are we going to wait until Christmas?" Snyder said. "No."
The move is the latest in the city's battle to redevelop the 13-story property, which is owned by Americus Center Inc., whose majority shareholder is Mark Mendelson of Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County.
After several years of haggling, the city has become more aggressive in trying to force the property at Sixth and Hamilton streets back into use.
Snyder and Mayor Ed Pawlowski said it is Allentown's duty to turn off the electricity because the combination of a leaky roof, poor wiring and piles of combustible trash and furniture make the high-rise a fire hazard and a danger to firefighters.
An attorney for Americus Center Inc., Richard DeMarco of Philadelphia, said the city has not notified his client of the planned power shutdown.
He questioned the legality of the city entering private property to cut the power.
"If they're going to just walk into the property or bust into it like Elliott Ness, they're in for a hard time," he said.
DeMarco said the city should get a court order declaring the property a public nuisance, which would give the city the authority to correct problems. Without an order, he said, the city would be trespassing.
"If it's as bad as they say it is, they should have no problem getting an order from a judge," DeMarco said.
The city maintains it does not need a court order because Allentown's home rule charter provides the authority. Pawlowski said, however, the city probably would get a judge to sign a warrant allowing entry.
DeMarco questioned whether there is enough evidence to get a warrant. He challenged whether the charter provides authority to declare a property a nuisance, because federal private property rights supersede city law.
"You still have to abide by the Constitution," he said.
Americus Center Inc. and the city have battled for years over the hotel's condition. City officials view the high-rise, which is well-recognized in the Allentown skyline, as a significant property that must be redeveloped for the downtown renaissance to take its next big step.
The hotel was built in 1926-27 and named for Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. It is in the National Register of Historic Places.
The hotel's upper floors have been closed since 2002, when the city declared them unsafe. This spring, the city erected scaffolding over the sidewalks to protect pedestrians in case pieces of the facade fall.
The city has been threatening to shut off power since spring, when it evicted four businesses from the hotel's ground floor in preparation for doing so. The hotel's owner asked the state Public Utility Commission to prevent a shutoff.
The PUC ruled last month it had no jurisdiction because the city, not power company PPL Corp., intends to turn off the electricity, and the city is not a public utility.
City officials hope that forcing out AT&T and other communications companies that lease roof space will increase the pressure on Mendelson's ownership group by cutting off a source of income.
"I'm hoping to motivate him," Pawlowski said.
A company spokeswoman said AT&T is looking for an alternate site.
While city officials believe several companies have equipment on the roof, they notified only AT&T of the power shutoff because it is the only company the city has an official record of as having equipment there.
Testimony at a PUC hearing this year indicated Sirius Satellite Radio also has equipment on the roof.
Hotel will go dark, city says
Electricity to Americus Center will be cut, but lawyer warns Allentown may be "in for a hard time.'
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