Tension between development and history dominated Tuesday night's Bethlehem City Council meeting.
A public hearing involving architect and developer Dennis Connell's request to rezone two properties, 11 and 15 W. Garrison St., from high density residential to central business district designation was held. Connell is requesting the change to construct a six-story, mixed use building with 72 apartments along the 700 block of North New Street.
The two properties are part of nine contiguous properties Connell has acquired over several years on West North, North New and Garrison streets. The acquisitions are required to eventually implement his vision of an important urban redevelopment project.
Connell's journey to building his quasi real estate empire began in 1982, according to city documents. He purchased the properties gradually, as they became available on the market. Until 2012, West Garrison Street from North New Street to Main Street was zoned as central business. During that year, it was rezoned to high density residential. Connell obtained 11 W. Garrison St. four years earlier, when it was zoned central business.
"The underlying element of my request is to return 11 West and 15 West Garrison Street to the CB zoning they had prior to 2012," Connell noted in his request to the council.
The parcels are not in a historic district.
During Tuesday night's hearing, Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt said it should come at no surprise that she is "concerned about the loss of residential" properties. She directly asked Connell what would he do if the zoning was denied?
Connell attempted to answer, pausing several times before eventually giving up.
"I don't think I could honestly answer that question," given the situation, he said.
It was a question neighbors who attended the hearing Tuesday night hope becomes more than hypothetical. Speaker after speaker lamented the changes with various themes centering around how it would negatively transform a Bethlehem neighborhood.
"This is a commercial intrusion into a neighborhood," Bethlehem resident Bruce Haines said. "… Ultimately this decision is about integrity."
The council did not render a verdict Tuesday night. Rather President Adam Waldron placed the matter on its Oct. 1 agenda for its first reading.