Parking has been a long-standing problem for Bethlehem residents.
In 2017, the Bethlehem Parking Authority opened the New Street garage to ease the parking burden on the South Side. It also conducted surveys to gauge opinion on impending parking changes on the North Side.
Most recently, Desman Designs completed a 10-month survey and made several suggestions to improve parking in the city of Bethlehem, including tearing down the Walnut Street parking garage on the North Side and increasing street parking meter rates.
As Bethlehem expands, the city has prioritized parking as a way to improve and promote business in the downtown area.
“The goal of the parking study was to develop a plan for improving the parking operations in order to address current challenges and to prepare for the impact of potential future development,” said Kevin Livingston, the executive director of the Bethlehem Parking Authority.
However, many different interest groups in Bethlehem have conflicting and strong opinions on the study.
“The question is how do you make a system run that benefits all of the people in Bethlehem who live in the neighborhoods, shop in the neighborhood, the people who own the stores, and the people who pay the taxes,” Bethlehem Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt said. “There’s so many conceding stakeholders in this process and there’s no one that trumps the other, so it’s all about finding a compromise.”
Many business owners are not supportive of suggestions to draw attention to parking garages and raising the cost of parking on the streets, because they believe it will drive customers away.
“The businesses want turnover,” Van Wirt said. “They want to encourage shoppers to park on the street in front of their businesses.”
Tim Brooks, the manager of the Downtown Bethlehem Association, doesn’t consider parking a real problem, but a perceived problem. He said there are many parking spaces within walking distance of downtown shops, but people are unwilling to walk a block or two to get to their destination.
“We can do a better job together with the business community and the parking authority to get the message out about the parking availabilities downtown,” Brooks said. “We have two parking decks that are great and are basically a block from the major retail center and restaurant center of the downtown.”
One of the major suggestions highlighted in the study was the possibility of replacing the Walnut Street garage.
Van Wirt said the parking garage has needed repairs for years. However, they were never completed, resulting in the garage’s dilapidated condition. She said fixing the garage would be incredibly expensive, with repair costs around $4 to $5 million — money the Bethlehem Parking Authority does not have.
“Right now, the parking authority has floated a lot of debt,” Van Wirt said. “Currently, they have $25 million in bonds and to add another $20 million on top of that is a challenge.”
To help battle this debt, the study suggests raising the cost of street meter parking and the cost of parking tickets. These price increases would also incentivize residents to park in the garages long term.
“Our street metered parking is servicing the debt of the parking authority, rather than going back into the city itself,” Van Wirt said. “This sets up the dynamic where we’re doing things to service debt rather than the betterment of the community.”
Ideally, Van Wirt said, revenue from street meters would improve sidewalks and lighting throughout the city, ultimately making it a better place.
Desman Designs will present to Bethlehem Parking Authority board members in May to seek approval of the proposed projects.
“The (Bethlehem Parking Authority) board will decide on each recommendation and if they want to implement them,” Livingston said. “I believe each recommendation will have to be thoroughly evaluated before the (Bethlehem Parking Authority) would consider moving forward.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to accurately portray the repair costs of the Walnut Street garage.