BETHLEHEM TWP., Pa. -

Residents of west Bethlehem told a city council committee Monday night that they don't want part of their paradise paved over and turned into a parking lot.

The majority of public speakers at a meeting of the Bethlehem Parks and Public Committee marched to the microphone and ripped into committee members and other council members in attendance concerning a proposed three-year $1 lease of about 1/2-acre of the eight-acre Rose Garden Park to the Bethlehem School District.

The plan hatched by the school district and recommended by city administrators, calls for the section of the park at 10th Avenue and West Union Boulevard to be utilized for teacher and staff parking for Nitschmann Middle School during a $53 million, three-year renovation project.

As a result, the three-member committee voted by a 2-1 margin to send the matter to the full city council for consideration at its June 17 meeting.

Committee members Michael Recchiuti and Bryan Callahan voted in favor of that motion. Committee chair Cathy Reuscher cast the dissenting vote.

School district officials and Arif Fazil of Bethlehem-based D'Huy Engineering presented the plan to the committee that explained how 81 parking spaces would be created on a 225-foot-by-150-foot section of the park.

The cost for that, Fazil said, would be about $150,000.

Fazil noted that adding a new playground and trimming trees that already needed such work will cost the school district upwards of $200,000.

"We've documented every tree. Nobody is cutting down any of the sycamore trees. Where the driveway will be located is where trees will be cut, including a white pine that is keeling over," he said.

"It's the right thing for the neighborhood. It will relieve (traffic and parking) stress in the neighborhood," Fazil said.

Callahan, who noted several times during the meeting that he attended Nitschmann, said the parking lot in the Rose Garden was "the best of a bad situation."

"The school is land locked. Option B (school staff parking on local streets) is not a better option," Callahan said. "I understand where you are coming from. I know what you are feeling. Three years from now, the state of where it is will be better. It will increase your property values and a good thing for your neighborhood."

Residents demand exploration of alternatives

West Bethlehem residents who packed council chambers weren't buying the school district's plan.

They peppered council with scenarios of how quality-of-life would suffer with school construction happening in back of their homes and looking out on a parking lot from their front doors.

Resident Dale Seibert produced a petition with 712 signatures urging council to find alternative parking areas for Nitschmann staff.

"Don't do this at the expense of an icon of the city and the elimination of green space," he said. "This is much more than anyone should be asked to endure for three years."

Resident Leo Kurtz said west Bethlehem residents will "stop this project by all means necessary."

"We're not playing games. We're serious folks. You're not touching our Rose Garden," he said.

Alternative parking areas for school staff being pitched are located at Martin Towers, an abandoned car dealership at 11th Avenue and Broad Street and a local KNBT Bank parking lot.

Two Nitschmann teachers lamented having to haul bags and books down Eighth Avenue if they miss a shuttle bus, or didn't want to wait for one.

"Option B, parking on the street, is the other option," Fazil said. "Contractors will show up first, around 6 a.m., followed by the teachers. They'll park in the first available space closest to the school, rather than take a shuttle bus."

Nitschmann principal Peter Mayes said the majority of the school's athletic contests will be moved off-site during construction, in addition to 12-to-18 major events that will now be held at Liberty High School, Moravian College and Lehigh University.

Mayes said this will lessen the need for evening parking at the school.

Nitschmann staff and students will be affected by the construction beginning in the 2015-16 school year.