Bethlehem City Council discusses zoning ordinances and COVID-19

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Bethlehem City Council met on Feb. 16 and discussed local developer Abe Atiyeh’s request for a proposed zoning ordinance, COVID-19 handlings and other community updates. 

 The council also made progress on the new Student Overlay District Zoning Ordinance that would limit student housing in the South Side community. 

Developer Abe Atiyeh’s Zoning Overlay Request  

Before moving onto regular agenda items, the council conducted a public hearing to accept public comment on developer Abe Atiyeh’s request for a proposed zoning ordinance amendment. The amendment would allow a new institutional district overlay at 1838 Center St. and Dewberry Ave. in connection with the construction of a grocery store.

Institutional zoning is used for buildings such as hospitals, schools, libraries, office buildings and auditoriums. An overlay creates a special zoning district, allowing for varied uses beyond those permitted in the underlying zone. 

Atiyeh has proposed this plan before the City Council previously.

“Lidl is a good option for this site,” Atiyeh said. “There is a void in the grocery store business… you can’t find a grocery store anywhere in Center City.”

Atiyeh mentioned that Lidl is just a potential option for this site. He listed other businesses as being compatible uses with his proposed overlay zone.

“(The overlay zone) allows other options on this site,” Atiyeah said. “Right now I’m stuck with an institutional zone and the institutional uses are very difficult to find.”

Darlene Heller, director of the Bethlehem Planning and Zoning Department, reported that the City Planning Commision does not support the request.

“It’s a very limited proposal,” Heller said. “We feel that even if an overlay were to be considered here, it really needs to be more well thought out. In the application, there really isn’t much of a purpose spelled out.”

Councilwoman Grace Grampsie Smith clarified that while there are food deserts in Bethlehem, the site of the proposed zoning change is not one of them and there are other grocery stores in this area.

The proposed ordinance was placed on the agenda for Mar. 2. 

COVID-19 Updates 

Mayor Donchez reported that 10,500 people have been vaccinated in Bethlehem and the next vaccination date is Thursday. 

Donchez said there was a recent COVID outbreak at Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering. The health department will be working with St. Luke’s University Hospital Network to provide regular surveillance testing at the shelter.  

Student Overlay District Zoning Ordinance

The proposed ordinance would create a Student Overlay District that will limit student housing in South Bethlehem. 

Councilman Bryan Callahan said, “I think the homeowners and families that live outside the district are going to love it because it’s going to allow their neighborhoods to become family neighborhoods again.” 

This zone is aimed to address problems related to the locations of housing units occupied by students, to stabilize and protect neighborhoods, to promote the development of on-campus housing within the zoning district and to direct concentrations of college students closer to the Lehigh University campus.

The zoning map will provide parameters to where student rental homes can be developed and regulate off-campus housing. 

“I heard and I think we all heard the concerns of the property owners of student rentals, but I think they will also see their property values go up too,” Callahan said.  

The first draft of the ordinance passed in a 7-0 vote. 

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