Buildings on the South Side of Bethlehem. Bethlehem City Council voted in favor of the construction of three new buildings in Bethlehem. (Frances Mack/B&W Editor)

City council green-lights addition of three South Side buildings


Bethlehem City Council voted 6-1 in favor of constructing three new buildings on the South Side. However, there was controversy surrounding the decision due to concerns from Bethlehem’s Historic Conservation Commission (HCC) and supposed fear of a lawsuit from developers. 

Due to the historic district laws in Bethlehem, the developer must apply to the HCC for permission to build the three buildings. The HCC already reviewed these plans and unanimously approved the new projects. The last step of the permission process was for the city council to vote on a certificate of appropriateness (COA), which is a document stating that the project is appropriate and meets the needs of the historic district and local codes.

“While I am against the project, I had to solely look at the COA and the design aspects, and the HCC approved it and so I felt that I had no choice but to vote yes,” said city council member Grace Crampsie Smith. “We ultimately could’ve been sued by the developer if it was a majority no vote.”

Since the COA has been approved, the owner of the property now has permission to build within the guidelines.

“This notion of a lawsuit, that’s where council is put in a position where if we had denied (the construction), then the applicant, within their right, would have likely taken the city to court. So right now, we try to work within this conflict between what zoning and the historic district says,” said Michael Colón, president of Bethlehem City Council. 

The Fred B. Rooney Building located at 4 E. 4th St. The building is senior living apartment complex in downtown Bethlehem. (Frances Mack/B&W Editor)

Colón was one of the 6 “yes” votes. 

Moving forward, the city’s Public Works Office will review the building plans, provide feedback and give input on utilities. This will evaluate the current situation and factors like what the building has to look like in terms of traffic, environmental impacts and infrastructure that will all be reviewed in the land development process.

“It will likely never come before city council again because council’s role in a project like this is strictly the certificate of appropriateness,” Colón said. “We were limited by ordinance and the overhang of potential lawsuits.”

Wandalyn Enix, the newest city council member and the only “no” vote for these projects, said it was an easy decision for her since historical preservation was a priority for her.

“I think we are all wanting our city to move forward. Our city does need to move forward, the building itself was very practical, and it adhered to what was already there in terms of commercial space with residential space above,” Enix said. “My problem is the maintenance of the historical nature of those buildings.” 

In the discussion, Colón brought up a separate issue of affordable housing which he said “is undeniably a big issue in Bethlehem.” 

The owner of the project on S. New Street, the largest of the three proposed buildings, has agreed to make 10 percent of the units affordable, which is outside of the historic designs and guidelines and is positive for South Bethlehem, Colón said. 

He said the use of affordable housing concerns as a reason for voting one way or another would be outside the scope of the certificate of appropriateness.

Crampsie Smith and Colón emphasized that the issue of affordable housing is being addressed by council and others at city hall. 

“We are going to work on legislation to try and get around these issues in the future and fight for more affordable housing and smart development, looking at traffic, infrastructure and the environmental impacts on these developments,” Crampsie Smith said.

Although hesitant to approve the proposals, council members were content with the accommodations made by developers addressing their concerns, according to Lehigh Valley Live.

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