A six-story parking garage in South Bethlehem is currently under construction. The parking garage will be used by Lehigh students and St. Luke’s University Health Network staff. (Maddie Braman/B&W Staff)

Voices of South Side residents remain unheard in parking garage controversy

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In late 2015, Bethlehem officials announced the construction of a six-story multi-use parking garage and office space on the South Side.

The 626-spot parking garage will soon be available to St. Luke’s University Health Network staff and Lehigh students, faculty and visitors.

For some Lehigh students, the garage is a positive addition to the South Side.

“I am so excited for the new parking garage to be done,” Vanessa Pedraza, ’20, said. “I spend so much time looking for parking because there just isn’t enough. Having this garage will ensure I’ll always have a place to park.”

Some South Side residents, however, are not as happy about the construction.

Breena Holland, an associate professor of political science and South Side resident, and Mary Foltz, an associate professor of English, are members of the South Side Initiative, a program that aims to foster communication between the Lehigh and Bethlehem communities. Both professors said they are upset about the new garage and its impact on South Side residents.

“The garage towers over the smaller, historic buildings in the South Side,” Foltz said. “When you drive over the Fahy (bridge), that’s the first thing you see — a grossly tall parking garage. It undermines the historic, cute and quaint buildings that have been here for many years and that the South Side residents are proud of.”

Though the garage is taller than most buildings in the area, it is still in compliance with Bethlehem city code. Tracy Samuelson, the assistant director of zoning and planning, said the garage is in the Central Business Zone, which permits buildings to be up to 150 feet, or 15 stories.

Foltz said the location of the parking garage is also not ideal because the area is congested with traffic. 

She said her commute over the Fahy bridge used to be five minutes, but now takes her almost 30 minutes. She said the garage will only increase traffic levels in the area. 

Foltz and Holland said a traffic simulation was completed before construction started, but it was extremely flawed. In the simulation, pedestrians walked a maximum distance of 350 feet to their car, however, people often need to walk farther. Foltz and Holland said the simulation also ignored pre-existing traffic in the area.

“(The need for) a parking garage is understandable,” Holland said. “(The need for) a parking garage in that spot is absurd. There are plenty of other spots this parking garage could have been placed that wouldn’t cause an extra amount of traffic and infringement onto the community.”

Kevin Livingston, the executive director of Bethlehem Parking Authority, did not respond to requests for comment about why the location was chosen, or if there had been any discussion to move the garage elsewhere before ground broke.

Holland said South Side residents were also upset about the outright refusal to make the garage “green” or even implement a community design.

“There are so many ways to maybe make something good out of the garage by putting solar panels on it, or using sustainable practices to make it less harmful to the environment,” Holland said. “This was just completely shut down by the city council.”

Foltz and Holland said local residents are particularly upset about the Third and New streets’ glass walkway that will connect Lehigh and St. Luke’s to the parking garage. They are upset because no one from these institutions will have to walk through the South Side, but instead, they will walk over it.

While some South Side residents are not pleased with the project, there are still others who are excited for the new garage to open.

“I think the new parking garage is a good addition to the South Side,” resident Darron Luckenbill said. “There’s really nowhere to park, so it’s solving that problem. It’s definitely not doing anything great for the skyline, but overall I think it will be a good addition.”

Another resident, Meriah Cahill, said she is looking forward to it because she thinks it will increase business in the area.

Foltz and Holland said the project could have included opinions of the South Side residents during the many debates between the city council and South Side residents.

“When it came to the actual unveiling of the garage, and the reactions of the residents, there was little to no debate (of what was going to be done),” Holland said. “The big conglomerates like Lehigh, St. Luke’s and the city council told the residents this was going to be done and that was that.”

Holland said a historic restoration of the parking garage could have been a topic of discussion. She said this could have allowed the garage to blend into surrounding structures, rather than look like a skyscraper in comparison.

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