The Bethlehem City Council approved the vacation of Second Avenue in a meeting on March 20, allowing the road to be narrowed as part of the effort to restore parts of the Bethlehem Armory. The plan also includes construction of a new apartment complex behind the armory.
The council voted 6-1 in favor of the vacation. Councilman Bryan Callahan abstained because his younger brother works for the developer involved in the project, he wrote in an email.
The city of Bethlehem received 10 proposals for the construction before choosing Peron Development. The plans were reviewed by the city’s redevelopment authority.
Darlene Heller, the director of Bethlehem’s Bureau of Planning and Zoning, said the projects are reviewed against city ordinances and that Peron Development, once selected, had to discuss the proposal with the city’s zoning hearing board.
“There was a walkability study done several years ago, and this block ranked very low in terms of traffic and safety for pedestrians,” Heller said. “It had been on our radar. When the armory was proposed for redevelopment, it seemed like an opportunity to take advantage of. The developer was willing to do it for parking purposes.”
Heller said the street vacation is also critical in ensuring the safety of drivers and pedestrians.
“If you look at the block of Second Avenue between Lehigh Street and Prospect Avenue, it is almost twice as wide as what the standard street is,” Heller said. “Narrowing the street means the traffic pattern is less confusing for drivers and will make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Councilwoman Olga Negrón agreed that Second Avenue is dangerous.
“There are two sets of islands in the middle which, in my opinion, is very confusing,” Negrón said. “I’m surprised that we haven’t had more accidents. It’s so wide that it looks like there’s actually two streets.”
The restoration of the Bethlehem Armory, located on Second Avenue, will also be a large part of the project. The armory is owned by Pennsylvania and therefore does not pay taxes to the city. Councilman Adam Waldron said this will likely change after the construction, which will bring in more tax revenue to the city and help general funding.
However, the armory is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which Heller said could cause some complications.
“There are some restrictions on development since the armory is on the National Register of Historic Places, but we are always looking for projects that bring new residents into our downtown areas and revitalize the neighborhood,” Heller said. “This plan is an asset for our business owners.”
Waldron said the economic benefits of the apartment building will be especially helpful to businesses on Main and Broad streets. He said a lot of value will be added to the properties because there are an estimated 100 residents who will be within walking distance of downtown Bethlehem.
“Residents were looking at this horrible space, full of decay,” Negrón said. “It will turn into a residential space, which is what the area is zoned to be. Neighbors will have a beautified space, refurbished and full of families — which is what it should be.”
Although the project might have a positive effect on Bethlehem’s economy, residents still have mixed feelings about its potential impact.
“I know there are lots of residents who are not very happy with the way the process was handled,” Negrón said. “A lot of it happened at the redevelopment authority’s desk. City Council does not intervene until the decision is presented to us, but we try our best to be as fair and helpful as possible.”
Both Peron Development and Donchez have yet to answer repeated requests for contact.
Peron Development still needs to submit a land development plan, which then goes to an internal review. One more public hearing will be held through the planning commission.
Heller estimated construction could begin in three to four months.
Editor’s note: The original photo included with this story mistakenly pictured Second Street in Bethlehem rather than Second Avenue