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Developers ask court to reverse zoners' decision on $11 million housing project

EASTON, Pa. - The developers of a proposed $11 million housing project involving a former Catholic church property and a nearby vacant lot in South Bethlehem have gone to court in hopes of salvaging their plan.

The non-profit HDC MidAtlantic and South Bethlehem Partners filed an appeal Friday in Northampton County Court to a Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board decision three months ago that put the highly touted project in limbo.

The zoners voted 5-0 on Sept. 26 to deny HDC a series of variances needed to build the South Side Lofts -- 28 apartments at the former St. Stanislaus Catholic Church at 5th and Hayes and another 18 low-income apartments a block away near East 5th and Atlantic streets. Their written decision was issued on Nov. 9.

The appeal says the zoning hearing board's decision was "improper" and "inconsistent" with the board's decision last December.

A year ago, the zoners approved HDC's plan for 36 apartments at the former church, provided the developers could come up with one parking space for each apartment. HDC had proposed 11 spaces.

HDC came back with a more ambitious plan in September. The developer sought to meet the parking requirement by buying two lots on Atlantic Street and dropping the number of apartments at the former church to 28.

HDC also proposed an 18-unit, three-story building with one-, two- and three-room apartments on the Atlantic Street property.

The developer pointed out that 48 parking spaces would be available for the 46 apartments in the South Side Lofts project -- two more than required.

City officials were excited about HDC's plan. A week before the zoners' decision, Mayor John Callahan held a news conference at the site to trumpet HDC's proposal. The city even pledged $700,000 in federal housing grants toward the project.

At the zoners' Sept. 26 meeting, five people living near the proposed project expressed concern about an already tight parking situation; increasing the density of an already heavily populated area, and the kinds of people the project would attract.

The zoners said nothing to explain their decision that night, but in their Nov. 9 written opinion they said HDC did not meet the criteria of the zoning ordinance for the variances. They noted that the developers did not show their project "is in harmony with the neighborhood." They also faulted them for trying to "fundamentally change" the nature of the project, adding they presented no proof of the economic need for more apartments.

In their appeal, HDC MidAtlantic and South Bethlehem Partners strongly disagree with the zoners' conclusions, saying the Atlantic Street plan was "reasonable" because it proposed a number of apartments and a parking plan permitted by the city's zoning ordinance.

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