Historic Bethlehem on the North Side features descriptive signs with historical designations. Citizens have raised concerns over buildings proposed to be built in the city. (Han Jiang/B&W Staff)

Bethlehem citizens advocate for city historical preservation


Historic Moravian Bethlehem is in the running to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has made citizens concerned about maintaining the city’s historical integrity.

At the City Council meeting on Oct. 4, the council approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for a residential building called Skyline West, slated to be built at 143 W Broad St.

A Certificate of Appropriateness is a document required for the development of a new building in Bethlehem that addresses historical preservation and the present use of the site for the proposed building. The Historic Conservation Commission is responsible for defining requirements builders need to meet in order to achieve the certificate.

Bethlehem resident and political science professor Al Wurth expressed his concern before the Council’s vote. 

“We’ve made many mistakes on behalf of developers, and if the recent pattern continues, we’ll soon be left using air quotes whenever we use the word historic in conjunction with Bethlehem,” Wurth said.

He said it would be a mistake to trade a UNESCO World Heritage designation for a developer’s new generic apartment building in the middle of the 18th century Colonial Industrial Quarter.

The development of the residential building will bring in money from Bethlehem residents, he said, but a UNESCO World Heritage site designation may prove invaluable to Bethlehem’s economy.

However, Councilmember Paige Van Wirt said she suspects there is little cause for concern as far as the prospect of this building negatively impacting Bethlehem’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.

Van Wirt and other members of council met with the Bethlehem residents who are spearheading the Heritage Site designation process and reported their findings at the meeting.

“I was convinced by their expertise, their dedication to the project and their comfort with the hard process that the impact of this building was not going to harm our UNESCO World Heritage Site designation or our application,” Van Wirt said.

She said the building’s impact will be benign because there will be a tree screen that will shield a lot of the building’s impact on the industrial quarter.

Historical preservation concerns caused the City Council to delay voting in late September, but the Oct. 4 vote, in favor of approval, was four to three — controversial among city council members.

A six-story building with 55 apartments and first-floor retail was also granted a Certificate of Appropriateness at the Oct. 4 meeting.

The building is set to be built at 128 E Third St.

An important aspect of proceeding with a building project is looking at the proposed site and evaluating whether the proposed use would provide more value than the current use.

Darlene Heller, director of planning and zoning for the City of Bethlehem, said the building at the site is currently vacant and has been for 20 years.

The process of achieving appropriateness involves review by the Historic Conservation Commission. The Commission relays this review to the City Council, which makes the final decision.

The proposed six-story building on East Third Street has not been as contentious as the Skyline West project because of the site’s location and the present building’s long state of disuse.

“(We) take a non-contributing building that has been vacant and has been a largely unattractive building and replace it with something that is in keeping with the guidelines and adds new life to the street,” Heller said.

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