Lehigh Valley

Bethlehem may become new owner of old armory

City also applying for streetscape improvement grants

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem plans to seek state funding to make streetscape improvements along both Main and Fourth streets -- and may become the new owner of a former federal armory across from Lehigh Valley International Airport.

The inconspicuous, one-level, red brick building is at the intersection of Airport Road and Avenue A, just north of the Pennsylvania State Police barracks.

It is in the northwestern tip of the city.

The words "U.S. Army Reserve" are on the front wall of the building and a sign near the flagpole identifies it as "99th Regional Readiness Command, Wilson-Kramer USAR Center."

On Tuesday night, Mayor Robert Donchez encouraged Bethlehem City Council to arrange to take a tour through the Wilson-Kramer building with Police Chief Mark Diluzio.

Donchez said the city has wanted the building for the last eight or nine years and the federal government should be ready to turn it over to Bethlehem in October.

But the mayor wants input from City Council before Bethlehem seals the deal.

He said the city has gone through a lot of bureaucratic red tape to get this far in the process to become the new owner of the building. He indicated the transfer is basically free, adding it might cost the city one dollar.

In the past, city officials often talked about the possibility of the building being used for public safety, including storage of records, training and training, according to Donchez. He indicated it has numerous classrooms and even a firing range.

Donchez later added that "the federal government's main point was the building would have to be used for public safety."

When the mayor and his cabinet toured the building two weeks ago with a federal government representative, they learned millions of dollars will have to be spent to get it into shape.

"It is in need of major, major work," Donchez told council.

He said his administration is developing a rough proposal of what it will cost the city to renovate the building and bring it up to code.

"It's a much larger building than I thought it was," said the mayor.

He added it is setting on "seven and a half acres of prime real estate. It's a large tract of land."

Donchez wants council to look at the property so he can get opinions from its members about obtaining the building.

"I want council to go through the building," said the mayor. "I want their input.

"We have to decide by October if we want to pursue this or if we want to turn it back to the federal government.

"If we decide to keep it, we may have to at least stabilize it. It needs a new roof, number one. That's probably close to $400,000. And the boiler is old."

He indicated if the city decides it does not want to accept the building, the federal government it will sell it and it will go back on the tax rolls "but we will lose that opportunity for such a facility for storage, etc."

Main Street improvements

During Tuesday's meeting, City Council unanimously approved the administration submitting identical applications to both the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Commonwealth Financing Authority in an effort to win one $250,000 state grant.

That grant would help the city pay for phase II of planned streetscape improvements on both sides of Main Street, between Market and Walnut streets.

If the city wins a grant, it plans to do the project in the spring of 2015.

Michael Alkhal, Bethlehem's public works director, told council the $500,000 project involves replacing sidewalks and "completely refurbishing" the streetscape, but offered no additional details.

If the city wins a grant, property owners along Main Street will be asked to contribute a total of $125,000 to the project -- half as much as originally envisioned.

The city will contribute the other $125,000.

The long-planned project already has been postponed once or twice, said Alkhal. "Part of the reason is the funding."

The $500,000 project cost estimate is based on bids previously received for the project.

"We had bids ranging from $400,000 to $900,000," said the public works director. "The engineer's estimate was $500,000, which was right in the middle."

He noted detailed engineering plans already have been drawn up for the project.

Because the work was never done after those bids were received, the city will have to re-advertise for bids.

"I'm confident we'll get very competitive bids once again," said Alkhal.

"We could be in position to go to construction first thing in the spring," he told council. "We would be in a position to start in the beginning of March, weather permitting. If we get the grant, everything's a go."

He said construction will be completed within 75 days.

Alkhal stressed the work will be done with minimal disruption to vehicular or pedestrian traffic. Contractors will redo sidewalks in front of only one property at a time, he said, and will maintain access to each property throughout the construction.

Council member Michael Recchiuti asked if Main Street businesses are on board with the plan.

"If we get this grant, we'll be going back to them," said Alkhal. "Their share is going to be half of what was previously discussed."

He explained the city should know by around September if it succeeds with the first of the two grant applications, in time to include the $125,000 city share in the 2015 budget to complete the project. He said the city won't find out about the other grant application until December.

Alkhal told council he doesn't think the city can accept both grants for the same project, so the second application probably will be withdrawn is the first is approved.

Phase I of the Main Street project involved the renovation of the area around the intersection of Main and Market streets, explained the mayor after the meeting.

Phase I, which included creating the image of the Bethlehem star in the intersection, was completed in November 2012.

South Bethlehem streetscape

City Council also voted to unanimously approve the administration applying for another $200,000 grant from PennDOT for "south Bethlehem streetscape enhancements."

That project is different from the proposed Main Street project on the opposite side of the Lehigh River "but very similar," said Darlene Heller, the city's planning and zoning director.

She said sidewalk repairs and improvements will be done along 4th Street as well as along other streets in south Bethlehem.

She said the local matching funds to win the grant come from several sources, including $50,000 from Lehigh University.

"Will this application be bidding against the other application we just approved?" asked Recchiuti.

Replied Heller: "Technically, yes." But she added: "It's a large pool of funds and I don't believe it's unreasonable to guess that we would be able to receive more than one grant."

She also suggested one funding source could approve funding for the south Bethlehem project, while the other could approve the Main Street project.

Retired firefighter honored

Paul Harvilla received a standing ovation from council, which honored him for 37 years of service to the city fire department.

A citation read by council president J. William Reynolds said Harvilla assisted thousands of city residents during his career and made a special contribution to the safety and well-being of those residents.

Harvilla, who joined the fire department in 1977, has retired.

After Harvilla thanked council, Reynolds noted the firefighter suffered an injury a few months ago. "It was in February," said Harvilla. "My last fire call. I broke my ankle."

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