Bethlehem City Hall sign

BETHLEHEM, Pa. – After much discussion, the Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission on Monday night approved a revised plan for a shorter and smaller mixed-use building on the city's South Side.

Rafael Palomino and his business partner Jeffrey Quinn and their 325 South New Street Development LLC first came to the commission in January with a proposal for an apartment building and food court at 317-327 S. New St.

Over the course of several meetings, the developers changed the proposed height of their project from 13 to 12 and then 10 stories. Their latest design shows nine stories, dropping the building's height from 104 to 88 feet, and the number of proposed apartment units from 65 to 61. The developers confirmed that 10% of the units would be affordable housing.

The height of the building has always been a sticking point because it's incompatible with the other buildings in the historic district.

The developers plan to raze 319, 325 and 327 S. New St., which are no longer deemed to have architectural value. They will, however, save and incorporate the Italianate façade at 321-323 S. New St.

The commission also approved those demolition plans as part of the motion put forth by Commissioner Mike Simonson, who also asked that the developers return to go over architectural features.

Voting with Simonson were Chairman Gary Lader and Commissioners Roger Hudak and Chaz Patrick. Commissioners Seth Cornish and Craig Evans dissented, and Commissioner Kenneth Loush abstained.

Working in an advisory role, the commission reviews redevelopment projects and exterior work to buildings in the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District and the West Side's Mount Airy neighborhood. City Council can disregard or accept the commission's recommendations.

Before the vote, Jeffrey Long, the city's historic officer, reviewed the history of the plan and explained how it has evolved based on the commission's recommendations. In April, the commission rejected the plan for a 10-story, mixed-use apartment building.

Long noted that even the nine-story plan deviates from the South Side historic district's norm of buildings that are three to four stories and that the overall design could use "more exploration" because the "rhythm" of the street-level design with the integration of the façade is not repeated on the upper floors.

Succinct in his response, Jordan Clark, with the development company overseeing the project, said the new plan reflects the reused façade, a scaled-back design in terms of the building's height and the demolition of the buildings whose usefulness have come to an end. Noting the parking garage across the street, he said the new plan is consistent with neighboring structures.

His attorney, Jim Preston, urged the commission to make a vote so the plan could go back before city council.

Hudak, acknowledging that he liked the proposal, said the height of the building “bothers me to no end” and criticized city council and the mayor’s office for continually kicking back the plan to the commission to avoid upsetting the developers.

Simonson said he appreciated the façade and how the project has come a long way since it was first submitted. He said the height was in a more appropriate range but noted that design of the upper floors need to be addressed.

Lader said he felt the height was headed in the right direction but expressed concern about the brick color and how the upper art of the building looks different than the lower part.

Former Commissioner Beth Starbuck was more blunt in her assessment, saying that the upper floors look like they are “plopped on top” and resemble modern hotels that are not historically appropriate “and not even attractive in my mind.” She urged the commission to adhere to the city’s building height guidelines.

Cornish said an overwhelming number of buildings in the district are two to four stories. "That's the rhythm of South Bethlehem," he said, noting that the commission has erred in the past by granting certificates of appropriateness.

That doesn't mean the commission needs to make more errors by losing sight of the fact that height is very important to South Bethlehem, Cornish added.

As the board began considering how it would vote, Cornish made a motion supported by Evans to deny the proposal based on the height while noting, in a clear signal to city council, that a five-story plan could be supported and made historically appropriate. Voting against his motion were Simonson, Lader, Hudak and Patrick. Loush abstained.

In a June 4 letter to Darlene Heller, the city's director of planning and zoning, the developers noted there is a strong need for market-rate apartment housing for workforce individuals, health care providers, young professionals, life science and university communities, and graduate students.

"We believe our development will encourage other area residents to visit new and existing downtown retail venues, growing the downtown and growing the tax base," the letter said.

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