Lehigh University opens new dorm with plans to increase student body


BETHLEHEM, Pa. – During its Tuesday night meeting, Bethlehem City Council reviewed a potential zoning text and map amendment that would create a student overlay district and provisions to address student housing.

Proponents of the proposed ordinance, which was discussed during a public hearing, say the changes to the city's code are needed "to address the locations of housing units occupied by multiple college students and related noise, litter, other nuisances, overcrowding and parking problems."

The ordinance outlines four primary goals that it aims to address:

– Acknowledging the unique challenges of housing college students specifically.

– Maintaining the supply of affordable housing for families while providing student housing.

– Promoting the development of additional on-campus housing by colleges and universities within the city's institutional zoning district.

– Directing concentrations of college student housing to locations proximate to a college and where public transit services are available. This is needed, the ordinance states, "to minimize parking shortages and to reduce congestion."

"It's been a couple of years that we've been working on this," said Darlene Heller, director of planning, of the bill.

The bill also establishes new definitions, including what comprises a regulated rental unit, which would be defined as a dwelling unit occupied, under one rental agreement, by three to five unrelated persons enrolled at a college or university. Any housing unit occupied by one or two college students would not be considered "a student home" under the new law.

Under the law, student housing will be permitted, by right, in various city zoning districts. They would be the central business, limited commercial, industrial redevelopment-residential option, and student housing overlay districts.

However, only three students would be permitted in the first three districts, and only five students allowed in the student housing overlay. These laws would apply to any new student home use commenced after the ordinance is enacted. Any existing regulated rental unit meeting the current requirements will be permitted to continue.

The bill also alters the maximum height in the medium and high density residential districts and provides provisions for off-site parking with rental units for students.

"I'm in full support of this," said Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt.

"I think it's going to increase the property values of everybody down there," said Councilman Bryan Callahan of the area near Lehigh University. "I'm 100% in favor of this district."

"These changes are way overdue," said Councilwoman Olga Negrón. "This was truly a community development process...I know the process made it go longer, but in the end it was worth it."

The bill will receive its first reading at an upcoming council meeting.

Other business

In other news, a resolution designated the chimney swift as the official bird of the City of Bethlehem. The birds have "special value" to the city and have a lengthy history there, according to the resolution offered by Negrón. Further, the bill noted the species are insectivores and "contribute to the health and safety" of the city as an alternative to pesticides.

Finally, discussing the two-day snowstorm, Michael Alkhal, director of public works, said, as of Tuesday night, "Overall, the city is in good shape and we will continue to work around the clock removing snow."

"For the most part, the citizens have been very understanding," said Mayor Robert Donchez. He added he was pleased with the Department of Public Works for their efforts. The mayor said Bethlehem received between 28 and 30 inches of snow.

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