The southward view from the Fahy Bridge is comprised mainly of trees, coating the smooth curve of South Mountain with a leafy, multihued green blanket. Several spires poke skyward, loosely framing the stone dormitories and houses perched beyond. Modest homes and buildings, for the most part, dot the landscape’s lower half, forming a temperate, subtle skyline.
But that skyline may soon stretch far higher.
In late 2014, local developer and attorney Dennis Benner unearthed plans to demolish the abandoned house at the intersection of the South Side’s West Fourth and Vine streets. In its place, Benner hopes to construct a nine-story building complete with commercial space and 37 apartments, The Morning Call reported.
According to The Express-Times, Benner’s proposal aims to combat complaints that there is not enough for college students to do locally. His retail plans reportedly incorporate high-end restaurants, lounges and a wine bar.
The building, if completed, will tower over its peers in what is an historic district of Bethlehem.
“The $10 million structure…is expected to pump some life into a sleepy neighborhood that the city has tried to revitalize for decades,” The Morning Call stated. “But society members fear it would eclipse the block celebrated nationally and locally for its two- and three-story buildings built between 1895 and 1950.”
Many of those shorter buildings are home to prized local eateries such as “The Goose,” Déjà Brew and Blue Sky Café and feature the architectural accoutrements of Bethlehem’s past.
The prospect of having a sophisticated hotspot so close to campus is no doubt attractive to many Lehigh students. Indeed, it may help draw in aspiring young professionals even outside of the Lehigh community.
But the effect that the building and others like it may have on Bethlehem’s permanent residents may not be quite so beneficial.
The relationship between the Lehigh and Bethlehem communities has long been a rocky one, and the architectural proposals seem hopeful to further integrate the two. However, that logic may prove flawed, as the everyday interests of the two communities likely differ. While trendy apartments and restaurants may be seductive to much of Lehigh’s largely affluent population, permanent Bethlehem residents may see their introduction as a departure from the city’s character and history.
The intended building’s physical appearance would no doubt be a drastic change from Bethlehem’s usual style. But its economic and social implications would pack far more of a punch. According to U.S. Census data, the median Bethlehem household income from 2009 to 2013 was $46,292 – roughly $6,000 less than Pennsylvania’s average. While the claim is certainly not universal, multiple-person families living on such an income are not overwhelmingly likely to frequent upscale retail joints.
Perhaps the new businesses will bring in jobs, or the apartments will result in an influx of people with fresh perspectives. But as reality has it, the bulk of the group likely to gain from Benner’s idea will leave after a mere four years.
How much good will that do for those who will be around far, far longer?
In short, the building plans are geared toward a specific audience and not, necessarily, Bethlehem as a whole. Of course, there is the argument that the existence of the now deserted, idle house in the tower’s intended location does not benefit Bethlehem in the slightest. While the house is not necessarily healthy or integral for the city at the moment, a tower may not necessarily be the way to solve the problem it poses. There are no doubt other ways to attract and retain both old and new residents – some of who may not realize what already is here.
Exploring Bethlehem, or any new place, is not simply about finding the environments that feel most comfortable or seem most initially enticing. Rather, it is about getting a sense of all that a place has to offer and pushing personal limitations to adapt and embrace it. Just because we may flock to specific places physically in Bethlehem does not mean we are immersing ourselves in Bethlehem’s culture or mingling with its people.
If the constructions will help the town prosper without harming those who already live here, there is no question that they will be an asset to the community.
But if they aim to simply sweep those residents into a dustpan and hurl them out in favor of profit, they are a gross injustice to those who call the city home.