The plans to build a parking garage in South Bethlehem have been approved, and construction is scheduled to begin this month. The Parking Authority says it is planning for future development.
The 626-space, six-story garage will cost $17.7 million and will be constructed at the intersection of New Street and Graham Place. It will be built simultaneously with a new building by developer Dennis Benner, which will house medical offices for St. Luke’s University Health Network and advancement offices for Lehigh. With the new building, 29 percent of the spots will be set aside for it its employees.
The Bethlehem Parking Authority has received both negative and positive comments from the community in response to the parking garage.
Breena Holland, an associate professor of political science and member of the Environmental Initiative, an interdisciplinary program focused on the interaction between humans and nature, believes the parking garage is a waste of money because there is little to no demand for extra parking on the South Side.
“It’s a solution for a problem that does not yet exist,” she said, “and if it existed it would be the wrong solution, at least based on the data that we have so far.”
There is already a surplus of parking in the area, and with minimal need for the garage at this time. The data to which Holland refers is from a Parking Demand and Feasibility Study by DESMAN Design Management for Bethlehem Parking Authority. DESMAN studied the parking demand in a specific study area, which included parts of both on- and off-campus areas.
The study defined the peak demand time to be 1 p.m. and charted the available parking in the study area during this time. They found, during this time period, only 44 percent of the 894 on- and off-street parking spaces were occupied.
The demand for parking for the employees of the new St. Luke’s building and Lehigh is 180 spots. Including tenants, the demand is only 300 parking spots.
The Parking Authority is building the garage, despite the surplus of spots, for this possible future development which has not yet been planned or approved by the City of Bethlehem. The remaining 326 spots would be left for future development, said Tim Tracy, the executive vice president at DESMAN.
“Part of what this project is an investment in the city for the future,” Tracy said. “Whether it is development that could occur today, tomorrow, next week, but hopefully we will be able to support the redevelopment, the repurposing, the reoccupancy of a lot of existing building . . . for years to come.”
Some Bethlehem residents and business owners recognize a need for more parking in both the North and South sides, as many parking lots for places such as Steel Stacks and the Banana Factory are always full.
“It would be fantastic to get people to go into parking decks throughout the South Side so they have to walk, perhaps, over to Steel Stacks, explore some other shops and merchants along the way, much like we had done with Musikfest on the North Side,” said Kassie Hilgert, the president and CEO of ArtsQuest.
Holland, however, believes spending taxpayer’s money on development that is not, for the most part, approved, would be a waste. Instead, she says the city needs to become more walkable so people feel comfortable walking longer distances to their destinations.
“You would park in the garage and then you have to walk to the place you want to go to,” Holland said. “You have to walk past all of these other businesses to get there, and it creates what is called ‘foot traffic’ for all of the other businesses, not just the one you are going to. That’s what makes for more walkable and more thriving downtown areas.”
Holland said if they were to build a parking garage that would be beneficial to the South Bethlehem community, it should be built on the border of the city to create foot traffic.
The parking garage will also have a pedestrian bridge connected to the new building. The employees of the building will never have to venture outside of the developments to arrive at work, creating even less foot traffic for the surrounding businesses.
“That’s kind of a missed opportunity to capture those folks, even for the three minutes that it would take them to round the corner,” said Karen Pooley, a member of the South Side Initiative. “They may never hit the sidewalk and therefore never take advantage of any local store or restaurant.”
At the Bethlehem City Council meeting March 31, several Bethlehem residents shared the same opinions of the parking garage.
Dwight Taylor, a partner of the Taylor Family Fuel at the corner of Third and New Streets, is concerned the garage will create standstill traffic and negatively impact business at his store as well as other businesses in the area.
“People will avoid the area, instead of go there, and that is contrary to the whole premise of development,” Taylor said. “It’s to bring people to the area, not to make them avoid it.”
Graham Place resident Emily Gallagher and her neighbors have not heard from any Parking Authority officials about what the possible implications of the garage will be for them. She said the residents do not know where they should park once the garage is built.
“I understand that there are commercial gains to be had from this parking garage, and I appreciate that, but I also think that the residents and our lives need to be considered as well,” Gallagher said.