The changing south side of Bethlehem


BETHLEHEM, Pa. – A zoning amendment to regulate off-campus housing for college students in Bethlehem is one step closer to becoming adopted.

The Bethlehem Planning Commission voted 4-1 on Wednesday afternoon to recommend to city council changes it made regarding the creation of two student housing overlay zoning districts at the edges of Lehigh University's Asa Packer Campus in South Side Bethlehem.

Returned to planners earlier this fall following a defeat by city council, the amendment now includes several modifications.

It grandfathers in existing housing in the zoning areas with a maximum of five students per residence. According to Darlene Heller, the city's director of planning and development, these homes will still be required to be inspected annually.   

Newly-built student housing with a maximum of three occupants per unit would be permitted in most commercial neighborhoods located farther north near the Lehigh River. 

Heller also noted that off-street parking spaces will be required for homes occupied by the maximum of five student residents and for multiple unit dwellings.

She pointed out the definition of a rental unit in the ordinance was rewritten for uniformity and increased clarity. 

"This is not an attempt to create affordable housing or to reduce the number of students on the South Side, but an overall way to manage housing better," Heller commented.

She explained the changes are "proactive" in regard to the future development of student housing and ensuring it is compatible with the surrounding community. 

Casting the only dissenting vote to the changes, planning member Matt Malozzi said the student housing overlay zoning districts are merely an extension of Lehigh's campus, and the few homeowners still living in the area will be gone eventually.  

James Byszewski, managing partner of Fifth Street Properties, said the boundaries proposed in the ordinance are not indicative of where students actually live off campus. He also questioned how the city plans on enforcing who lives where, depending upon whether or not a resident is a student.  

South Side resident Anna Smith applauded the city's three-year-long planning effort to stabilize the area's housing stock, especially as there are increasingly more developers and property buyers investigating opportunities near the university.

She said she secured more than 150 signatures from residents supporting the student housing zoning overlays in the amendment.  

The changes will come before city council for their approval at their next meeting. 

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