Lehigh Valley

Developer plans to turn Bethlehem building into studio apartments

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Developer Abraham Atiyeh plans to turn "one of the nastiest buildings in Bethlehem" into New York City-style studio apartments with a target market of young people who are just getting out of college.

Atiyeh told the Bethlehem Planning Commission on Thursday that the former Synthetic Thread factory at 830 13th Ave. can be converted into 67 small apartments that will cost $600 to $700 per month, including utilities. The building is off Route 378, on the other side of the highway from B. Braun Medical.

He said his target market will be young people just out of local colleges who may not have started careers yet but "don't want to live with their mom." The building will be transformed into a modern apartment complex with hardwood floors and lots of glass on the exterior, he said.

The textile factory in west Bethlehem closed in 2004 and is not suited for modern industry, Atiyeh said.

"It's not practical be an industrial warehouse" because it has low ceilings and the property layout is not good for large trucks, Atiyeh said.

"It's one of the nastiest buildings in Bethlehem," he said.

Atiyeh's plans are identical to a proposal he submitted in 2010 that was approved by the city, but he did not follow through then because "the economy dropped," he said Thursday. Because years have passed since then, he has to go through the planning and zoning process again.

Paul Greenblatt, owner of an industrial building adjacent to the former silk mill and a member of the family that founded Synthetic Thread, pointed out to the commission that large trucks will be driving near the proposed apartments. He also expressed concern about overflow parking that could impede business traffic.

Planning Commission Chairman Robert Melosky, Vice Chairman Matthew Malozi and commissioners Thomas Barker and Joy Cohen voted to recommend the plan to the zoning board, which makes the final rulings on developments.

The commission also approved the proposed addition to Bethlehem Manor, 815 Pennsylvania Ave., of 54 single-occupancy rooms. The nursing home, another Atiyeh enterprise, will put up a three-story addition of about 30,000 square feet in the residential district. The current building is slightly larger, at 38,320 square feet.

Architect Eugene Berg said the addition will not have a big impact on the neighborhood.

"If you were to view this project from Pennsylvania Avenue, it would be hidden by the building in front," he said.

The expansion meets market demand for single rooms in senior-care facilities, he said, and it will not require more than four staff members during any shift. Bethlehem Manor's existing parking lot is more than big enough to handle that, and the residents will not have cars, according to Berg.

Malozi noted that the addition will mean a 70% increase in residents, to about 129.

Peter Mayes, head of the Rosemont Association neighborhood group, said the manor has been a good neighbor and responsive when issues have come up. He said as long as the senior facility can maintain the "status quo," neighbors do not object to expansion.

Ross Wilson, another Bethlehem Manor neighbor agreed generally, though he noted that late-night ambulance calls and the sounds of diesel engines and vehicle backup alarms can be irritating at 3 a.m.

Another neighbor, Paul Becker of Pennsylvania Avenue, raised concerns about stormwater runoff and border fences.

The site plan review was forwarded to the zoning board by a 4-0 vote.

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The board also recommended a JAMA Properties plan to demolish the Canal Plaza strip mall at 565 West Lehigh St. and replace it with a 30-unit apartment building. Barker did not participate in the discussion or vote because he has a financial interest in the project.

The strip mall houses the office of Lehigh County District Judge Wayne Maura. Other units in the mall are vacant, or soon will be, the developers said. Canal Plaza is in a "limited commercial" zone, which allows housing as long as there is commercial space on the first floor. The proposed Waters Edge Apartments, looking toward the Lehigh River and canal, would not have that commercial space.

"I'm in favor of the project, generally," Malozi said, while raising some issues with the plan.

Melosky, Malozi and Cohen voted to send the plan to the zoning board.

The commission also discussed changing meeting times. It currently meets at 4 p.m. and members discussed moving the time back until later so more residents could attend.

Melosky said the city staff would have to work longer if a change is made. Some meetings that will draw a lot of public interest could be held later, he suggested.

Darlene Heller, city planning director, said later meetings might help improve transparency.

"We are moving generally in the city to more transparency to the public," she said.

Melozi said live-streaming of the meetings is another way to be more open to the public.

Cohen said that when an issue is important, people do get to meetings, though she would be open to any time slot.

No decision on the meeting time was made. A change, if any, might not happen until 2020.

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