After years of planning, "The Waterfront," a $325 million, 1.2 million square-foot planned development on Allentown's Lehigh River, broke ground this week.

The development is part of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone, an area of the city where developers can use state and local tax dollars to pay off the debt they incur to build, rehabilitate or expand buildings. As part of the NIZ, Allentown also got a new hockey arena and various other businesses.

The waterfront development is an attempt to revitalize the former site of Lehigh Structural Steel, which shut down in 1992. Until recently, the former steel plant's buildings were occupied by several light industrial companies.

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Developer Jaindl Properties began construction on the former site of Lehigh Structural Steel to turn the site into a 26-acre mixed-use campus.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY) 

"The Waterfront" will be a mixed-use campus, meaning that it'll have office buildings, apartment complexes, retail stores, restaurants and a main street, as well as river access and public spaces. The developers say they expect the final site to be home to 2,900 jobs and 400 apartments.

We talked to developer Mark Jaindl about a year ago when the project was in the demolition phase. He said the development is an example of "smart growth," a planning approach that favors walkable and bikeable communities over urban sprawl. Yes, people will still need to traverse the Lehigh Valley by car. But the site itself will make use of infrastructure that's already in place, like water and sewer systems, and electric lines. And Jaindl said that because the site is mixed-use, it'll create the "live, work, play" environment that smart growth advocates strive for.

This all reminds us a bit of HafenCity, a development on the Elbe River in Hamburg, Germany that the city is trying to turn into a living, breathing, neighborhood.

It'll be interesting to see how Allentown tackles that challenge of neighborhood building once The Waterfront is finished.

Developers estimate that building the site's infrastructure could take a year and half, and that the site will be complete in eight years. But people will start living and working on the waterfront well before then.

By the way, if you're curious how other Pennsylvania cities are re-imagining their waterfronts...have we got something for you.