The status of the development of Bethlehem’s Polk Street garage remains undecided more than a month after an Oct. 20 city council meeting delayed a decision on the potential South Side structure.
The North Side’s Walnut Street garage is being further considered through a feasibility study.
Councilman J. William Reynolds said citizens should consider the postponement of a decision on the Polk Street garage as temporary. This will allow the city and the Bethlehem Parking Authority to seek greater clarity on the future of parking and the economy.
There is no set date for when the $19.4 million garage will be reconsidered. There have been no official decisions made by the Bethlehem Parking Authority or Mayor Robert Donchez.
Alicia Miller Karner, director of Community and Economic Development for Bethlehem, said the Bethlehem Parking Authority and the city are currently conducting analysis regarding the Polk Street garage.
“That structure is very similar in the sense that the parking authority would borrow money to pay for that and use revenues of users to pay down the debt, with a guarantee by the city to pay the debt if something catastrophic would happen,” Karner said about the possible development of the Polk Street garage.
As for the Walnut Street garage feasibility study, the current Walnut Street garage undergoes yearly development by the parking authority in order to remain operational. Reynolds said a new Walnut Street garage could facilitate development of the downtown area on the North Side, specifically retail and housing.
“As you walk up toward the garage, there’s no kind of energy … this is an opportunity — if you’re going to build a new Walnut Street garage — to create more energy up there that would benefit our downtown with bringing some type of vitality to that area,” Reynolds said.
The feasibility study will aid in understanding potential merits of a reconstructed Walnut Street garage.
Reynolds said because the parking garage was built in the mid-1970s, it takes up about 40 percent more space than it would if it was built today.
“That’s important for our downtown businesses, because on the other 40 percent or whatever percentage will be decided, there is a possibility to put a combination of apartments or retail businesses that would then bring more customers to our downtown Bethlehem,” Reynolds said.
Councilwoman Paige Van Wirt said the close relationship between Desman, the firm hired to consult on the project, and the Bethlehem Parking Authority can present a conflict of interest when consultants advise the city whether or not to tear down the Walnut Street garage.
“So I do think a different consultant, someone who is very unbiased and unaffiliated should come in and take a look at the engineering needs of the Walnut Street garage and let us know what’s real,” Van Wirt said. “If it does have to come down, so be it, but I think it needs to be on a hard set of data backed by two different sources, not just Desman.”
Van Wirt said there is concern about the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s ability to pay back bonds that were taken out for the development of the Polk and Walnut Street garages. She is unsure whether they will pay back their private debt or their taxpayer backed debt first.
“I’m always thinking, ‘Are we going to get into a situation where city council has to raise taxes on the citizens of Bethlehem so that we can pay off bonds that the parking authority took out that are backed by the taxpayers?’” Van Wirt said.
Donchez has already proposed a five percent property tax hike and staff cuts to balance a budget hit hard by the pandemic.
Karner said there are other ways for the city to pay off debt from these garages where they are not directly raising taxes on residents and business owners to cover debt, should the parking authority not be able to meet its financial obligations in the midst of the pandemic.