Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez said the change should be nothing out of the ordinary.
“Every five or six years, (the parking authority) comes in with a recommendation to review the meter rates, the fines and the amount that they charge for the garage, and I think the last increase for the meters was 2012,” Donchez said.
But that’s hardly the whole story.
The meter changes and potential parking fine increases are intended to help cover the costs of taxpayer-backed bonds for new parking garages — one on Polk Street on the South Side and the other includes the demolition and reconstruction of the Walnut Street garage on the North Side.
The decision is complicated by the division in authority of different aspects of parking in Bethlehem. Donchez controls the meter prices, Bethlehem City Council controls the fines and Bethlehem Parking Authority controls the garage fees.
Additionally, though the Bethlehem Parking Authority is technically an independent authority, Donchez appoints its board of directors.
Bethlehem Parking Authority hired Desman Design Management to assess the city’s parking needs. The consulting group recommended to raise meter rates as a way to increase city revenue.
However, many business owners in Bethlehem vocalized concerns about how these changes will affect their businesses. The small shops on Main Street are already competing with places like the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley and the Lehigh Valley Mall, where parking is always free.
“These merchants are all individual mom-and-pops,” said Bruce Haines, Historic Hotel Bethlehem managing owner and managing partner. “They count on people coming downtown and we need to create a positive image and make it convenient for people.”
City Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt conducted a survey, outside of Desman Design Management, of business owners to ensure the council was getting all the information on what they wanted.
“I did not believe that we could be guaranteed an unbiased answer because I think that this consultant has worked for the parking authority so often they know there’s going to be more business for them if they say what the parking authority wants them to say,” Van Wirt said. “How can you trust somebody whose own financial benefits are contingent on the answers that are provided?”
Through her research, she came up with an alternative solution.
She suggested variable rate parking, a system based on demand. For streets where there’s competition for spots, the spots would be more expensive, and where there’s less need, the spots would be cheaper.
Van Wirt said neither the mayor nor the Bethlehem Parking Authority considered her plan at the city hall meeting where the changes were discussed.
“Because, in fact, at the end of the day it was (the Mayor’s) decision,” Van Wirt said. “He’s not up for re-election because he’s termed out, so he’s not as worried about what the public thinks about him right now. The meeting was more of a show than anything else.”
Bethlehem Parking Authority Executive Director Kevin Livingston did not comment.
The newly built garage on New Street has been a major factor in the debate.
According to a Morning Call article about its opening, the garage costs $17.4 million. The Bethlehem Parking Authority paid that money with general obligation bonds, which are funded by the revenue the garage will make and taxpayer money.
The problem, however, is the garage isn’t earning enough money. The Bethlehem Parking Authority has chosen to only charge $65 per month for garage spots. According to Desman’s report, cities similar to Bethlehem charge an average of $118 per month to park in their garages.
Plans for the Polk Street garage continue forward. It would be primarily used by Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, the Northampton Community College campus in South Bethlehem and the 510 Flats development, which includes apartments and retail stores.
The developer of 510 Flats initially requested the construction of a garage on Polk Street, but it’s outside of Bethlehem’s Central Business District, so according to the city’s zoning codes, the city is under no obligation to provide parking. It should fall on the developer.
“(The developer) wants the city to build him a parking garage that he can use for his own development,” Van Wirt said. “The city’s Department of Economic Development has justified this by saying this is an economic anchor of development and I’m of the mindset that that’s an antiquated notion in the South Side.”
City Councilman Bryan Callahan’s brother works for the 510 Flats developer, though he said that does not affect his support of the garage construction.
“We have opportunity for about 470 sports at full rate,” Callahan said. “In my eyes, it’s a no-brainer and the mayor agrees. He knows that there’s development projects that want to get done there and it’ll add to our tapestry.”
As for the reconstruction of the Walnut Street garage, conflicting reports have emerged as to whether the current plan is more efficient than simple capital maintenance.
“We’ve been deferring maintenance for a long time, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s time that we have to step up and make some investments in the older garages,” Donchez said.
Haines has his own parking consulting company, and he asked them to inspect the Walnut Street garage. They believed Desman Design Management’s estimation was too high and unnecessary.
Haines’s research reveals one thing both sides of the issue can agree on: the system’s flaws. It costs $12 for a day at a meter but $10 for a ticket, so people who park at meters are more likely to not pay and settle for a ticket.
Van Wirt knows the system needs fixing, but she doesn’t think it should happen because the city needs to pay for garages.
“It needs to be done in a planned method and for the right reasons,” Van Wirt said. “Paying for a developer’s parking garage is not the right reason. The right reason to do this is to make a system work efficiently.”