Bethlehem City Hall sign

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Bethlehem City Council postponed making a decision Tuesday night on a zoning amendment request for new development on the site of the former Martin Tower.

Council will try again to vote June 1, once the city and the developer "have more dialogue" on unresolved issues, according to Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith, who made the motion Tuesday regarding the bill's first reading.

The 53-acre property, located at 1170 Eighth Ave., previously served as the world headquarters for the former Bethlehem Steel Corporation and is considered by the city and regional agencies as a key area of development.

The proposal shared Tuesday night by developers Lewis Ronca and Norton Herrick features 300 apartment units, a 130-room hotel, two medical offices, a restaurant and parking.

The developers proposed three zoning changes for the project to proceed. The first amendment involves deleting a current provision which states that "parking spaces placed between a principal commerce building and the curb line of an arterial street along the front of the lot shall be limited to one driving aisle and one row of parking spaces."

The second proposed change involves parking and driveways entering and exiting onto an arterial street. Currently the code states "no new vehicle driveway shall enter or exit onto an arterial street, unless the applicant proves that no feasible alternative exists, such as the use of alleys or a side street." The developer has asked for this requirement to be dropped in the Office Mixed Use district.

The third request involves a setback change. The code requires a 30-foot rear yard setback. The applicant proposes a 20-foot rear yard setback.

Some councilmembers have been critical of the requests. Ronca said Tuesday night the proposed amendments have been requested for the benefit of the project's end user.

"I can't believe this has turned into what it has," said Ronca. "Again, I can't believe it's this much of an issue."

Coming out against the developer's zoning requests was the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, which claimed the presented amendments "would result in suburban scale development patterns that are not consistent with the character of the city or conducive to multimodal accessibility."

Further, LVPC told the city's Director of Planning and Zoning Darlene Heller, "Specifically, the proposal to allow additional parking between a building and arterial street does not 'promote context-specific design solutions and would reduce safety and accessibility for pedestrians and transit users.'"

Instead, the regional planning group said any reinvestment in the commercial area should be at "a pedestrian scale in order for the future development to complement the unique history, environment, cultures and needs of the valley and city."

While the proposed amendments are intended for a specific site, the LVPC also alleged the changes would impact the entire zoning district — in this case, Office Mixed Use. The group recommended the developer attempt to procure a variance from the city's zoning hearing board.

Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt said she was "seriously disappointed" in the project and criticized it for lack of affordable housing, parking problems and lack of adequate stormwater management.

Councilman Bryan Callahan viewed the plan more enthusiastically, stating that Ronca has worked with the city over several years and since the last council meeting two weeks ago to address concerns.

"What is this discussion really about?" Callahan asked. "Two rows of parking. (Ronca) isn't asking for it, the end user is. All the businesses in that area have one entrance. The end user is requesting something that everyone else already has."

Callahan said city council voted to increase property taxes last year.

"All this comes down to $2.7 million in additional taxes coming into the city," Callahan noted. "Council raised taxes 5% last year and that brought in $1.45 million … This is over moving two rows of parking. No more additional parking. Just moving two rows of parking."

He encouraged his colleagues to consider something else.

"I don't know how long before another end user shows up," Callahan said.

Van Wirt said the city would not realize $2.7 million in tax revenue. Rather, that $2.7 million would be divided among three taxing bodies — Northampton County, the Bethlehem Area School District and the city. The city's amount would be $577,000.

"We act like that's the second coming of God," she said about the developers' proposal for the site.

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