The South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission is currently at odds with Clark and Quinn Development over the proposal of a 12-story apartment building on South New Street, an area located in the South Side Historic District.
The Historic Conservation Commission voted against moving forward with the project’s original proposal at the organization’s Feb. 22 meeting due to the disregard of a city ordinance that applies to the historic conservation of the district.
According to the Bethlehem Gadfly, an online community blog about current issues in Bethlehem, the building would have not only taken the place of four existing buildings, but would have also covered the alley at East Graham Place.
Roger Hudak, a member of the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission and chairman of the Mayor’s South Side Task Force, took issue with the expansion of the current property to East Graham Place. He said he is not sure of the legality of it.
“We need clarification on that,” Hudak said. “Who owns that real estate? Does the city own it?”
Hudak said he did not vote against the building because of the idea of it, but because the ownership of East Graham Place was not clear.
“I like the project and I know it will be very appealing to Lehigh University kids because it’s right across from a parking garage,” he said.
However, Dana Grubb, mayoral candidate and the city’s former grants administrator and former deputy director of community development, is not certain who the developer is marketing for.
He said a Lehigh representative called into one of the recent meetings on behalf of the university and said Lehigh is not driving the housing plan.
“They’re not encouraging it because Lehigh is building housing for the students,” Grubb said. “I’m not quite sure where the demand is.”
There is research that contradicts the idea that college students want a new and modern town to live in.
“I’ve read studies where, particularly in a university town, with Lehigh University right next to this area, that history and that feel, that charm is what young people want,” Grubb said.
He explained that providing a welcoming environment that has relevant businesses to students and residents is important in building a college town.
Kim Carrell-Smith, Lehigh faculty member, community activist and South Side resident of 32 years, helped to start a group where residents could get involved with the development of Fourth Street in particular, “the gateway to the South Side.”
This was a response to multiple instances of inconsideration of South Side residents in the development process. She said, in the past five years, many neighborhoods were turned into student housing centers.
“There were these big companies that were very impersonal, didn’t interact with the neighbors and then bought up so much of the housing that it became unaffordable for South Side families and South Side renters,” Carrell-Smith said.
One of the major concerns about development in South Bethlehem has been considering how projects will affect current and future residents.
“Developers generally are looking at upscale rental and that doesn’t help the low-income family in a neighborhood in the South Side or elsewhere that wants to move into Bethlehem,” Grubb said.
According to both Grubb and Carrell-Smith, the attitude towards and perception of the South Side dictates much of the attitude around development in that district.
“It’s always had a historical representation of being the tough side of the town,” Carrell-Smith said. “What my family and I faced living here was this constant feeling that nobody listened and what my kids faced was the constant struggle against this reputation of, ‘Oh God, you live on the South Side.’”
Grubb claims the attitude towards development on the North Side is much different than that of the South Side.
Neither Grubb nor Carrell-Smith wants to hinder development on the South Side or prevent newer buildings from being built.
“When you’re building a building in a national registered historic district, it’s OK to build a modern building,” Grubb said. “You don’t necessarily have to replicate everything there. In fact, it’s encouraged to have a more modern design.”
However, Carrell-Smith said it is important that the Historic Conservation Commission and current South Side residents have a say in the matter.
“You can work with the (Historic Conservation Commission) and you can work with the planning commission. But you have to want to do that and you can’t assume as a developer that your ideas and your expertise trump everybody else’s,” Carrell-Smith said.
The Historic Conservation Commission can only make a certificate of appropriateness recommendation which city council will ultimately vote to support or deny.
Grubb said there are concerns the building will be used as a threshold for future development.
It is expected that the developer will come back with an updated proposal pared down to eight stories, a height that is still much too tall according to the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission.