On the corner of Third and Adams streets in South Bethlehem is a one-story strip mall that houses a Rite Aid, Maytag Equipped Laundry and Kuki Restaurant, among other small businesses.
Milelli Realty proposed a complete demolition of the strip mall to Bethlehem’s Historic Conservation Commission. The mall would be replaced by a six-story, 125-unit apartment complex, with the first floor consisting of retail space.
After review of the proposal, Milelli Realty was not given approval to carry out its construction project.
Gary Lader, head of the Historic Conservation Commission, said the strip mall’s demolition has been tabled for the time being.
The Historic Conservation Commission is a recommending body that reviews all proposals located within Bethlehem’s historic conservation district and gives the recommendation to the Bethlehem City Council.
Any demolition, alteration or new construction that is visible from the public eye is required to be reviewed and approved by the City Council.
The commission is given a set of guidelines created by the city that outlines their main goals: to preserve, protect and enhance the historic buildings of Bethlehem. The guidelines are made to encourage development that complements existing buildings.
Lader said prior to housing the strip mall, the site contained an old Victorian building that served as a city hall. The building lacked maintenance and purpose, so the city hall was relocated to North Bethlehem.
The commission considers both the strip mall and the proposed building to be “non-conforming,” meaning it does not contribute to the historic character of the district.
“If they would rebuild the building that conforms to the guideline of the historic district, that would certainly be preferable to the one-story strip mall that sits back on the parcel,” said Darlene Heller, Bethlehem’s director of planning and zoning.
Heller said this specific project is considered to be “new infill construction,” which means the commission begins its process by looking at the structure of the building and then scrutinizes the architectural components.
Lader said the proposed six-story building is not compatible in scale or mass to the existing buildings on the street, which are mostly three-story buildings.
“We have guidelines that were developed by the City of Bethlehem and this is how we interpret them,” Lader said. “The guidelines say that, applied to this particular circumstance, the existing buildings in this neighborhood are three stories so we want to follow that as a guideline.”
He said, in addition to the city’s guidelines, there are zoning ordinances designed by the federal government’s secretary of the interior that are meant to help with designing new buildings. These rules say any new project must be sympathetic to historic buildings.
Taking all this into account, Lader said the commission is primarily concerned with the exterior facade of the potential project and how it would tie into the appearance of the rest of the block.
“If a developer came in and presented a project that we felt met our guidelines, we would be entirely in favor of it, but understand too that a lot of this is subject to interpretation,” Lader said.
Joe Buser has lived in Bethlehem for four years and has witnessed the South Side’s development — he thinks the changes have improved the area and made it safer.
“I do think it’s important to preserve the past, but I also believe in the future,” Buser said.