A forum to discuss Lehigh’s proposal to temporarily close Packer Avenue between Webster Street and Vine Street held on Jan. 23 at Broughal Middle School exposed some disconnect growing between the university’s proposal and community reactions.
The meeting, intended to create a more pedestrian-friendly walkway out of Packer Avenue, was attended by Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez, Broughal Middle School Principal Rick Amato, Lehigh officials, students, and South Side residents — but not all the parties agreed on a path forward.
A trial closure will occur from March 9 to April 30, the university announced in an email to the campus community on Jan. 15. During this period, Packer Avenue will be closed to normal vehicle traffic and limited to emergency vehicles, Lehigh University Access Transport, and deliveries and trash pick up for Packard and Fritz laboratories.
“The purpose of the closure is to enhance safety, better connect Lehigh with South Bethlehem by having more foot traffic to support local businesses (and) improve the pedestrian experience for everyone walking across Packer Ave.,” University Architect Brent Stringfellow said in an opening presentation of the university’s proposal.
The presentation included graphics that depicted the set up of how the closure will function. Stringfellow said there will be barriers and gateways leading up the closure, and that the street can easily be reopened in the case of an emergency situation.
He added that there will be warning signs of the temporary closure installed 30 days prior, and that LUPD will direct traffic for the first few weeks until traffic patterns settle down. The Bethlehem Parking Authority plans to do utilization counts to study the impact on parking and traffic in the South Side.
Attendees questioned whether this temporary closure is not for the reasons Lehigh provided, but rather is just a part of Lehigh’s plan to turn Packer Avenue into Lehigh-owned property and brand it as the “Packer Promenade.”
Packer Avenue is currently owned by the City of Bethlehem.
Donchez, in attendance at the meeting, responded quickly to this comment, saying “closing Packer Ave. has been talked about for the past 20 years, but no decision has been made to close it, period.”
Donchez appeared in support of Lehigh’s proposal.
But Amato wasn’t convinced the plan would benefit his students’ safety.
“Everyone is just going to be using Broughal to get around,” Amato said. “It’s already congested on a daily basis and now we are just going to put more traffic around the school, therefore affecting the safety of my students crossing. We continue to keep on putting my students out on high traffic areas and now Lehigh is just diverting more traffic in front of the school.”
Some in the audience were skeptical of Lehigh’s proposal.
Nancy Kim, ‘20, believes there are no benefits to reap from this closure and that it will only negatively affect Lehigh students and the South Bethlehem community.
“My main concern is the loss of parking on campus,” Kim said. “Additionally, all the traffic that is going to affect the South Side community — especially the Broughal Middle School students.”
Kim said that the closure will only make it worse to be a pedestrian because of the increased traffic in surrounding areas.
She said that she felt as if the meeting was conducted solely for the purpose of appearance rather than genuine concern for stakeholders in the issue.
“Almost every answer was filled with fluff or just completely ignored,” Kim said.
Stringfellow ended the forum by saying that all the questions and answers were recorded and will be accessible to the public shortly.
“I don’t think Lehigh knows how much this is going to negatively impact the surrounding community,” Amato said. “Do I think that piece is really going to connect the South Side to Lehigh? No. I think it’s just going to make it like it’s a Lehigh continued campus.”