Bethlehem City Council earlier this month unanimously voted to reject an amendment proposed by developer Abe Atiyeh that would change institutional zones in the city. The amendment would have allowed for the construction of a Lidl supermarket on the corner of Center Street and Dewberry Avenue in North Bethlehem.
This specific institutional zone in which the proposed supermarket would have been located is one of the most common in the city and is primarily residential but also contains schools and hospitals. Lehigh University and Moravian College are also in this zone.
Currently, supermarkets are not allowed in this zone, which led Atiyeh to propose the amendment change.
City Council President Adam Waldron said the city decided to reject the proposed amendment because changing an entire institutional zone for one specific project was seen as excessive.
“Anytime we would have changed the institutional zoning of the city, it would have changed for all the properties indefinitely,” Waldron said. “Meaning that if a school district had an old building that they wanted to sell or the city had something they wanted to sell, they could sell that piece of property and a grocery store could be allowed there.”
This is not the first time Atiyeh has had problems getting his projects approved.
Waldron said Atiyeh has a long history of development in the Lehigh Valley and has had some struggles with local municipalities trying to get projects through that were not necessarily popular.
Waldron said Atiyeh has been the owner of the property at the corner of Center Street and Dewberry Avenue for over 10 years and has continuously struggled to obtain community support for his projects. Some of his previous proposals include the creation of a psychiatric treatment center and an assistant care facility.
“There is a long history with this property, but this marks the first time city council had voted on anything regarding the property, ” Waldron said.
Although this specific amendment proposal was rejected, it is possible for Atiyeh to get this project approved by the zoning board.
“Developer Atiyeh would have to get a variance because a grocery store is not currently a permitted use in this zone,” said Darlenne Heller, director of Bethlehem’s Planning and Zoning Board. “A use variance actually is difficult to get. He would have to show that none of the permitted uses in the institutional zone would work on his lot.”
Heller also explained that, once the Zoning Hearing Board receives an appeal, it takes a month for it to get on the agenda and about four to six weeks to complete the review process.
Carol Burns, a local resident who lives near the proposed site, said a supermarket on the corner of Center Street and Dewberry Avenue would be problematic since the area can be busy.
“The traffic at the intersection is not good,” Burns said. “If you happen to come east on Illicks Mill Road and want to turn north on Center Street, you will sit there forever, especially when school lets out.”
Burns said, despite the supermarket being proposed as a neighborhood store, she is unsure whether anyone would want to walk there, and the traffic would make it difficult to access on foot.
She believes the city would have to do a lot to make the area pedestrian and bicycle friendly. She said, however, there is a bus that goes by the proposed location, which is an advantage.
Burns expressed there is a need for a supermarket in the area and said there are currently plans in the works to bring one there.
“There is currently an initiative afoot, by the Bethlehem Food Co-Op, to bring a full service community-owned grocery to the North downtown area,” Burns said. “We want people to know that this is happening and that we are moving along with this project because we see the need for a grocery store as well.”