The Mayor answers SBHS

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods)

Chew on this.

Followers know that the May 22 South Bethlehem Historical Society letter touched Gadfly deeply and kicked off a thread that started here and continues, a thread that has several thoughtful responses, especially the series by Anna Smith.

The Mayor sent SBHS a letter June 12? That’s two weeks ago. Damn. Nobody tells Gadfly anything.

Sara K. Satullo, “Does the gentrification of South Bethlehem pit preservation against progress?”, June 27, 2019.

Today, the face of the Southside is changing amid a growing gentrification as those with disposable income are drawn to an arts district, restaurant and burgeoning craft beer and spirits scene that’s been many years in the making. As South Bethlehem increasingly is seen as a hot place to live, developers are serving up building after building of luxury apartments, where the rents are sometimes double the going rate for nearby homes.

All of this has left the South Bethlehem Historical Society fearful that development may drive out the very residents that built the neighborhood’s vibrant social fabric. This led the board to write an open letter to Mayor Bob Donchez and city council members, which President Lou James read to council May 22. The letter was posted on Facebook Tuesday.

Mayor Bob Donchez, who is a Southside native, penned a response to the historic group June 12. “I’m on the Southside a lot and frequent many of the businesses on the Southside,” Donchez said Wednesday. “I understand their concerns. You try to find a balance to economic development where you want to preserve history and move the city forward with economic development.”

The mayor knows that it can be hard and controversial to find the right balance between preservation and economic development, but it is gratifying to see a renaissance that’s been talked about for more than 30 years finally taking shape. “There is a process that each developer has to go through prior to the demolition, rehabilitation, construction of a particular project,” Donchez wrote in his response to the historical society. “There are various city departments, boards, authorities and commissions that assist with development in the city of Bethlehem often paying close attention to the historical nature of the site and the potential impact the development will have on neighborhoods.”

The historic society and Negron worry that this rapid redevelopment of the Southside with luxury apartments and new Lehigh University student housing is pricing long-time residents out of the area or into apartments in deplorable conditions. The group and Negron want to see proper code enforcement and slumlord landlords shut down.

In his letter, Donchez points to the Neighborhood Works revolving fund as a program that can help create affordable housing. The program provides money to rehabilitate homes in Southside in need of substantial repairs and the homes are then sold to low/moderate income, first-time homebuyers. The proceeds from the sale go back into the trust to rehabilitate more homes.

Negron said she knows of several smaller developers who are bullying residents to sell their properties to them. “People are literally being chased out,” she said.

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