According to the HCC, only one property slated for demolition on this project has relevant historic value, and the developer has incorporated its façade into their design. Adaptive reuse seems to be off the table for this project (and debatably not an option), but, of course, there’s always the possibility of looking elsewhere for a historic property to rehab.
6) Support projects that incorporate green space and/or the development of public spaces into their design
It’s clear that the developers of this project were told by City staff that they need to think creatively about the adjacent South Bethlehem Greenway. The developer has repeatedly assured the HCC that they will work to “activate the Greenway” through events or contributions of some sort to its livelihood, although the details have not been made clear. Despite these assurances, I’m interested in exploring the impact of a massive, looming structure that will be built nearly on top of the Greenway. Will this be a good addition? The Greenway will certainly be a fantastic asset for the residents of this building, but I’m not so sure about the impact of this new building on the users of the Greenway.
7) Support projects that are developed in response to community needs identified by residents and stakeholders, and that engage residents and stakeholders in idea development and the design process
I’m sure that there are business owners who are excited about this project. 82 apartments-worth of residents living in the middle of the business district! I get the appeal to local businesses who envision hosts of new regular customers. However, luxury apartments have not been among the “needs” or even “wants” that residents have identified throughout recent community visioning processes. Affordable housing, youth-serving organizations, and “everyday” retail and service businesses usually come out on top. Restaurants are also popular, so the food court would undoubtedly have fans among some residents. I’d like to see the developers engage the community in the development process. Although this seems like a long-shot for this particular project, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation of developers—at least the kind of developers that will build what’s most wanted in our neighborhoods.
8) Support projects that prioritize sustainable development practices and take proactive approaches to addressing challenges presented by our changing climate
Based on the developer’s initial presentation, I am not aware of any attempts to prioritize sustainable practices or address the climate impact of their project.
9) Avoid projects that cause displacement of long-time residents, low-income residents, and locally-owned businesses
I discussed the potential displacement in earlier responses, but, as a reminder, this project stands to displace three small businesses and an unknown number of residents. Tenants of the apartments at 325 S. New Street were evicted three years ago when the developer’s business partner acquired the property. Ideally, a proposal like this would take advantage of vacant land to build, rather than displacing existing businesses and residents.
10) Do not use projects that are nearly universally considered planning and design failures as precedent for elements of new development
Yes, there are massive apartment buildings in south Bethlehem. The Rooney Building, Litzenberger House, and Broadhead House at Lehigh were all constructed during the Urban Renewal period and would never be approved today due to their design. Since then, urban planners have shifted to recognize the value of place-making and the importance of historic conservation, and I would hope that this developer sticks with contemporary research when modifying their project, rather than depend on obsolete examples.
New York-based Chef Rafael Palomino and developer Jeffrey Quinn have proposed a 12-story mixed-use development project for South New Street that includes 82 one- and two-bedroom apartments and a first-floor food court made up of Palomino’s restaurants. The current proposal includes a roof-top terrace, basement fitness center, and two community rooms for residents. The project requires the demolition of four structures: 319-323 New Street, which includes a single-story retail property currently occupied by JC Jewelry and Gifts, and a three-story structure with Lara Bly Designs and Car Village Title and Notary on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors; 325 New Street, which is a three-story structure that was acquired several years ago by the developer’s local business partners, Juan Carlos and Cara Paredes, and has been left vacant ever since, but which previously housed a bar on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors; and 327 New Street, which is a single-story building that was home to Pat’s Newsstand. The project will also extend to cover Graham Street from the third floor upwards.
Here’s the first test for the principles for responsible development that I proposed in a prior post. As the project winds its way through the Historic Conservation Commission and the Planning Commission’s approval processes, let’s think about what this project means for quality of life on the Southside. Is this a project that aligns with principles for responsible development?
1) Support projects that incorporate locally-owned businesses into their plans, and that lead to a net increase in small businesses
The proposed project would add a food court owned by Chef Rafael Palomino, which he says would feature several options–Mexican, Vegan, Italian, Tapas, and American. Data shows that restaurants tend to keep more money in the local economy than other types of small businesses since labor makes up a significant portion of their expenses, and the food court would likely create some jobs. I imagine that a sort-of fast casual food court would be popular with college students and folks working on the Southside, and the location is easy walking distance from Lehigh’s campus. The idea seems sound from a business perspective, and the fact that the developer is also the owner of the food court means that he will build out the space to the appropriate specifications. That is, if the developer sticks to his plan, I don’t think we’ll be dealing with vacant storefronts.
However, the project will result in the loss of several small businesses—a jewelry shop, designer-owned clothing store, and a notary. All three are women and/or minority-owned businesses, which is a category that receives special consideration by organizations promoting small business development. Will these businesses survive the cost of moving elsewhere? Will they find another place on the Southside? Maybe, maybe not. Are these businesses that we want to keep in our community? I’d like to hear the thoughts of Southsiders on this point.
I appreciate the integration of small businesses into the planning, but I do have concerns about other businesses being displaced without an option to relocate in the new development.
2) Prioritize development of vacant industrial properties over demolition of historic properties
Rather than choosing a vacant site on which to build, the developer has decided to demolish properties in the heart of the downtown, although the properties slated for demolition have less historic value than many other Southside landmarks. From a City perspective, however, I would rather see a development like this proposed for an empty lot in the redevelopment areas.
3) Encourage new development that does not exceed the size of surrounding properties and blends with historic architecture in order to create a cohesive sense of place and encourage walkability
While the developers have made an effort with the design, and their willingness to integrate the one historically-relevant façade into their project deserves recognition, I’m afraid that the massive scale of the project cancels out most of the efforts made on design. Twelve stories in an area characterized by 2, 3, and 4 story historic properties just doesn’t seem appropriate. The impact of a huge, out-of-place building on the street-level feel and sense of place on New Street will be significant. Rather than a quirky, small-town neighborhood feel, the narrow street will be darkened by the shadow of this monolith and converted into a channel that funnels walkers from Lehigh to the Fahy Bridge.
4) Support projects that incorporate diverse residential and commercial offerings that are accessible and affordable to South Bethlehem’s population
This project proposes 72 two-bedroom and 10 one-bedroom apartments with approximately 10% slated to be affordable housing (9 apartments). Once the height is reduced (as it would have to be to conform to the HCC’s requests), the number of affordable apartments will inevitably decrease as the 10% rate is maintained. The first floor will contain a food court that will serve the broader community, although judging from the portfolio of restaurants owned by Rafael Palomino, pricing will likely be on the higher side in comparison with the average of 50+ other Southside dining establishments.
So how does this project fare when analyzed from an accessibility and affordability perspective? According to the most recent Census data available, 32% of South Bethlehem residents live below the poverty line (an annual income of $26,500 for a family of four). 72% of homes on the Southside are occupied by renters, and 45% of them are classified as “cost-burdened”—in other words, they pay more than 35% of their income in rent. That is, their housing is, by definition, unaffordable. Median rent hovers around $1,000. The data makes it clear: there is a huge need for more affordable housing in South Bethlehem. When the developer says that they will add affordable units, this sounds like a no-brainer. We need affordable housing, and here is someone willing to build it! But there’s a lot more to consider here. Let’s talk a little more about affordable housing in south Bethlehem.
The City of Bethlehem offers zoning-based density incentives to developers who are willing to include a minimum of 10% affordable apartments in their developments. By federal (and City) definition, “affordable” means that the rents will not exceed 30% of the income of families making 80% of Area Median Income, and the rent will not exceed Fair Market Rent. For a one and two-bedroom building, this translates to a maximum rent of $891 for a one-bedroom (which is affordable for a family making over $35,640 a year) and $1,139 for a 2-bedroom apartment (which is affordable for a family making over $45,560 a year). Applicants for these apartments would be restricted to 80% of Area Medium Income based on family size: that is, a maximum income of $43,800 for one person, $50,050 for two people, $56,300 for three people, and $62,550 for four people. Now, I don’t want to diminish the value of building housing that conforms to these definitions of “affordability,” since these numbers do represent lower rents than many luxury apartments throughout the City. However, we have to take these numbers into the context of this proposed development, which is not occurring in a vacuum.
The proposed tower would displace two buildings that contain multiple apartments. While I cannot find public information on the total number of apartments at 321 and 325 New Street, a conservative estimate of two per floor multiplied by four floors would suggest a minimum of eight apartments. When the developer’s business partner acquired 325 New Street, he gave all of the tenants 30 days to leave. One of the tenants solicited my assistance since he had nowhere to go and was concerned about finding another place that he could afford as a single person making $10 an hour. At the time, he was paying somewhere between $300-400 per month. While I don’t have concrete data on all the existing apartments, I think it is fair to assume that the existing apartments could be rented out at more affordable prices than the proposed new development, given the costs of demolition and construction of a new building.
Affordable housing is extremely difficult to build. Having spoken to affordable housing developers and collaborated on a team that was seeking to build workforce housing in south Bethlehem, I know just how challenging it is to make the numbers work—even with generous subsidies and zoning incentives. Construction is expensive, and contingency funds are often eaten up by unexpected costs that are par for the course when you’re building in small spaces, demolishing old structures, and potentially dealing with environmental contamination issues. It’s understandable that this new project would limit its affordable apartments to the minimum necessary and maximum rent possible to obtain zoning benefits and improve the optics of the project.
But we are considering this project from a community perspective. If affordable housing is so tough to build, we should make sure that we preserve as much existing affordable housing as we can, and create incentives to prevent apartments that could easily be rented out affordably from sitting vacant. If we consider this project from an affordable housing perspective, our community will be demolishing affordable apartments to build unaffordable ones. Once older, affordable apartments are gone, there’s no bringing them back.
Affordable housing is complicated. We desperately need more, but we need to carefully analyze every proposal that comes before us to ensure that the end result is truly beneficial to our community. What would I like to see? Prioritize new construction of apartment buildings for vacant land, and incorporate 10% affordable apartments where it will be a net addition to the community. Don’t knock down existing affordable housing to put up less affordable housing.
Anna Smith is a Southside resident, full-time parent, and community activist with a background in community development and education.
The February 22nd Historic Conservation Commission meeting was a win for proponents of responsible development, but I worry that the phrase is most frequently used in discussions of what we would NOT like to see occur in our neighborhoods. The process by which development projects are proposed, reviewed, and approved in our city—which is not unique to our community but represents standard operating procedure for most cities like ours—does not make much space for proactive discussions of community-centered development. No one wants to say “no” all the time, so let’s talk about what responsible Southside development could look like. There are great examples of creative projects that got each of these principles right and that can guide us as we envision the future of our community.
Establishing Community-Centered Principles for Responsible
The City of Bethlehem has seen a remarkable number of development projects proposed for its downtowns over the last several years, from mixed-use retail, restaurants, and housing to office space and luxury apartments. Some projects have been in the works for decades, carefully strategized with every detail scrutinized by developers and their partners, while others seem to have been thrown together at the last minute by novice teams of folks new to the Lehigh Valley. Regardless of how they come together, each project undergoes a similar evaluation process that includes review by City officials, the City’s Planning Commission, and often an historic and architectural review or an appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board. Every board or commission has a narrow scope to consider, and although some occasionally overstep their boundaries, no group is charged with actively working to ensure that each project is a productive addition to a long-term vision for a viable community. Residents and small-business owners often attend these meetings to express their views, but the technical aspects under consideration can be intimidating to folks unfamiliar with the City’s ordinances, and many committee members are professionals with a background in development themselves who are capable of quickly checking the appropriate boxes regarding stormwater, architectural design, and sidewalk grading. Throughout these review processes, many of the components of projects that are most important to those who live or work nearby receive only minor consideration.
Let’s take a moment to think about what our approval processes would look like if they truly centered impact on the quality of life residents and small businesses in our community. What if we had a resident- and small business-centered framework to evaluate each development proposal that comes in front of our City government? After all, our residents and small businesses are the foundation of our community, and our City government exists primarily to serve the interests of these constituents. We are the voters and taxpayers; we are the ones who live, work, and play in the neighborhoods and downtowns, and our interests should play an important role in thinking through the costs and benefits of any new development project proposed for our community. And those interests extend beyond the technical aspects of projects outlined in the City’s ordinances. What would that framework look like? Here’s my first try at a list of principles for responsible development on the Southside with some examples of recent-ish projects that I think have successfully embodied each approach. What would you add or change?
Support projects that incorporate locally-owned businesses into their plans, and that lead to a net increase in small businesses. Examples: Riverport Market, Flatiron Flats
Prioritize development of vacant industrial properties over demolition of historic properties. Examples: The Factory, 510 Flats
Encourage new development that does not exceed the size of surrounding properties and blends with historic architecture in order to create a cohesive sense of place and encourage walkability. Examples: Polk Street building
Support projects that incorporate diverse residential and commercial offerings that are accessible and affordable to South Bethlehem’s population. Examples: proposed Palace Row redevelopment
Support adaptive reuse of historic buildings. Examples: Brinker Lofts, Flatiron Flats, Grace Mansion (in progress), Goodman building (proposed), Wilbur Mansion project (in progress)
Support projects that incorporate green space and/or the development of public spaces into their design. Examples: Brinker Lofts opening onto the Greenway
Support projects that are developed in response to community needs identified by residents and stakeholders, and that engage residents and stakeholders in idea development and the design process
Support projects that prioritize sustainable development practices and take proactive approaches to addressing challenges presented by our changing climate. Examples: The Flatiron Building
Avoid projects that cause displacement of long-time residents, low-income residents, and locally-owned businesses
Do not use projects that are nearly universally considered planning and design failures as precedent for elements of new development (e.g., Urban Renewal projects like Rooney building, Litzenberger House, Lehigh’s Brodhead House, Rite Aid shopping center.
Historical Conservation Commission meeting on proposed new construction on South New St. February 22, 2021: chapter 3.
HCC chair Lader turned to public comment.
Which public comment — calling out the developer for a clearly improper proposal and calling on the Commission to do its sworn duty — made Gadfly proud and provided the coup de gras for the proposal in its current form.
The comments are all short, and Gadfly encourages you to at least listen to some.
Model public participation. Democracy in action.
Gadfly loves your voices. Take the opportunity to listen.
It’s difficult to choose between them, but if you have time to listen to only one clip, Gadfly would recommend Seth Moglen’s.
Hard, economical, no nonsense, bulls-eye words there.
They sum up the situation for Gadfly.
Anna Smith: “You’re here to filter out the argument that things can only be done one way and that passing up a single development opportunity will doom our community forever after. . . . You know that the developers have learned how to play the game, ask for 12 stories when you want 8, which the evidence suggests is what the developer is aiming for.” A conclusion that Smith backs up very nicely by doing some math with the data about parking spaces.
Kim Carrell-Smith: “Compatibility, that is, being context-sensitive . . . is vital in historical areas.” Carrell-Smith draws on research studies such as we’ve seen in her “Historical preservation pays” posts, reminds the Commission of the guidelines, reminds them that height matters. She points out that there are no renderings of the streetscape from the north, which perspective would clearly show how out of scale the proposed building is. “I urge you to maintain the integrity of your guidelines.”
Dana Grubb: Grubb, who helped write the ordinance, wonders why we have guidelines when he sees this proposal. He worries about creating a canyon in this area of New St. “It’s almost disingenuous” for a developer to come in with this kind of proposal. What would happen if such a thing were to be proposed on the Northside. He questions the sincerity of the developer. Too many open questions. “Your charge is to help protect that district.”
Rachel Leon: “Affordable housing doesn’t always mean accessible housing.” The price of these apartments is double, triple the amount of a mortgage. Leon is also worried about the negative affect on the air quality from the construction, even if short-term.
Al Wurth: The historical district is a small place, and it’s not good to jam such an inappropriate structure in. Worth is worried about the building looming over the street and encroaching over Graham Place and especially the Greenway. And how about air rights? “I’m depending on the Historic Commission to protect us from this overreach.”
Breena Holland: You must evaluate the building for its compatibility with predominant building size in the district between 1890s and 1950? Why is the developer and some of the public referencing more modern buildings. The size at the Zest building is the exception that tests the rule not the exception that proves the rule. The Zest building does not fit. We still need the rule. Imagine the sun being blocked on the New St. corridor. This proposal would create a dark canyon, a tunnel kind of feeling.
Seth Moglen: “This is a simple and straightforward situation.” The project is “grossly out of line” with the guidelines. The developer has indicated a “deep disrespect” for the Commission and the Southside. The people speaking here are deeply committed to the vitality of the Southside, people who would support “responsible development” at this location. “This is simply a project which is entirely out of scale,” and the Commission should send an “unambiguous message” to the developer, who is trying to “strong arm” the Commission. Tell them they must bring a project which is in scale.
So The HCC decided against voting on the developer’s request to approve demolition. They approved a motion to do nothing at this time.
Gadfly is not sure.
At the end of the meeting chair Lader offered to the developer that he had received “clarity.” The developer agreed. But said nothing more.
We’ll have to see what happens. Ball in the developer’s court again. HCC in the middle again.
Gadfly worries about the politics.
He hears the developer several times refer reassuringly to his several meetings with the Mayor, City Administrators, and even Council members.
Even Council members.
And wonders what signals and what support he is getting from those sources.
Proposed streetscape February 15 — HCC meeting February 22
showing Rooney Building***
Historical Conservation Commission meeting on proposed new construction on South New St. February 22, 2021: chapter 2.
Gadfly has said that the developer blew some smoke.
No malice intended. That’s what developers do. Just part of the dance.
But we expect our volunteer representatives to be street smart.
Listen in now as the Commission members engage with the developer during this second visit on the project.
Frankly, Gadfly feels a bit tentative about new HCC chair Gary Lader. Chair Lader felt at times a little too willing to compromise on the height guidelines for Gadfly’s liking. For instance, he suggested that the developer include the Zest building (306 S. New) as a point of reference and said that “we” were “hoping” the developer would come back with a proposal in the 8-story range. Maybe Gadfly is not being fair saying so. Maybe in his role as facilitating chair, Lader feels he needs to keep the conversation going with the developer on amicable terms, keep him hooked, as it were. But there’s a time or two in the meeting when Commission members speak back rather strongly to their chair. For instance, when chair Lader talks about the 8-story “building across the street” as point of reference for a “compromise,” he is immediately and rather dramatically met with a chorus of “Hold ons” from his committee, reminding him that the Zest building is 6-stories, was itself an exception to HCC guidelines, and is not considered a contributing factor to this proposal. “Right, ok,” he replies. As if awakened.
In any event, Commission members responded firmly to the developer. This “isn’t close to what I suggested,” says Seth Cornish. “I’m afraid I find it somewhat discouraging that it comes back one story taller,” says Beth Starbuck.
In response to a direct question about the new 13-story design from Commissioner Starbuck, the developer explains that it was added (“in haste” — an excuse? — since they had to submit new plans for this meeting) because of an adjustment made necessary to keep the facade on 321-323 that the HCC requested last meeting and that some details in the design would be “rectified” later.
Felt like more smoke to the Gadfly.
And for the second time Commissioner Cornish pointed out that “we’re avoiding the elephant in the room.”
Now it becomes really interesting. You have to listen to this.
The point in the dance when the developer plays hard ball.
We will continue to do our “homework” on such things as the size of the building (implying a belief that a size above HCC guidelines is negotiable), says the developer, but if the HCC doesn’t give approval now to demolish the building, “then the project goes away today.”
The project goes away today.
Do you have a “comfort level” to cut the size of the building in half, asks chair Lader pointedly? “Not yet” is the reply. But “we want you to vote tonight” on the demolition.
Watch what you ask for is always good advice.
At which time chair Lader turns to comment from the public, of whom there were a healthy 30 or so Zoomed in.
*** Even Gadfly knows the Rooney Building is grandfathered in and should not be part of the discussion. Including it is more smoke from the developer.
You are wondering how last night’s meeting at the Historical Conservation Commission on the proposed development of 319-327 S. New turned out.
Gadfly was rather astonished at what occurred.
Remember that the ball was in the developer’s court.
The upshot of the January 25 HCC meeting on this project was the identification of several issues for the developer to address last night — especially the 12-story height of the building.
On January 25, Chair Gary Lader had called the 12-story height a “big stretch” for the HCC.
To a person, the Commissioners who spoke January 25, while recognizing appropriate stylistic elements in the facade design and positive aspects in the concept (apartments plus Food Court), had substantial concern about the height.
Commissioner Seth Cornish, for example, laid down a marker: a 5-story limit for the new project.
You will share Gadfly’s astonishment when you hear that the developer came back last night with the 13-story design that you can see in the rendering of the streetscape above.
13 stories. One more than last time.
Without mentioning the height issue, the developer proposed dividing the issues. His desire for last night’s meeting was solely that HCC vote to approve demolition of the 3+ buildings (they would save the facade at the 4th building 321-323 S. New, as HCC had requested) with the understanding that the developer would not “pull the permit” for demolition nor actually perform the demolition till the issue of the size of the building was decided.
Gadfly likes to give you the flavor, the drama of the meetings he covers, not just the bottom line, so he invites you to listen to the developer make his pitch. You will recognize that, like on January 25, he again heaps up positive aspects of the project to obscure the height issue.
However true and good in what the developer says, it is all off-point, off the main point. He’s blowing smoke.
Commissioner Seth Cornish has a good smoke filter, though, for he immediately responded to the developer’s peroration with “I want to cut through, you know, to the elephant in the room, which is the height.”
This is the important meeting on the proposal for a 12-story building in the 300-block of south New St. that Gadfly has spent several recent posts describing. This is your chance to weigh in on the proposal and to see an important resident-run City ABC (Authorities, Boards, and Commissions) in operation.
I’m writing to share information on a significant development project proposed for the Southside downtown area and an upcoming opportunity to share your thoughts on the project at a public meeting on Monday, February 22 at 6 pm.
New York-based chef Rafael Palomino and developer Jeffrey Quinn have proposed a 12-story mixed-use development project for South New Street that includes 82 one- and two-bedroom apartments and a first-floor food court made up of Palomino’s restaurants. The current proposal includes a roof-top terrace, basement fitness center, and two community rooms for residents. The project requires the demolition of four structures: 319-323 New Street, which includes a single-story retail property currently occupied by JC Jewelry and Gifts, and a three-story structure with Lara Bly Designs and Car Village Title and Notary on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors; 325 New Street, which is a three-story structure that was acquired several years ago by the developer’s local business partners, Juan Carlos and Cara Paredes, and has been left vacant ever since, but which previously housed a bar on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors; and 327 New Street, which is a single-story building which was home to Pat’s Newsstand. The project will also extend to cover Graham Street from the third floor upwards. The developer’s original plans and an update can be downloaded here: ORIGINAL and UPDATE.
Since the project is located with the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District, it must go through a review process to ensure that it aligns with the Design Guidelines for the district. The Historic Conservation Commission reviewed the developer’s application at their January meeting and will continue to discuss the project at this month’s meeting, which is scheduled for Monday, February 22 at 6 pm. The HCC is currently discussing the proposed demolition of the four properties as well as the proposed height of the structure. They have recommended incorporating the historically significant structure at 319-323 New Street into the project and they have asked the developer to look into reducing the height of the structure.
As community stakeholders, I encourage your followers to attend the meeting to learn more about the project and express their thoughts during public comment. At this point, the HCC will accept public comment on the appearance of the building, and in particular on the proposed height of twelve stories. HCC members have emphasized that the area is characterized by primarily four and five story historic buildings, and have mentioned that the City is currently working with a consultant to better align existing zoning regulations for the historic district with the historic guidelines interpreted by the commission. Restricting building height has been a major component of the public feedback provided to the consultant.
It is extremely important that residents and community stakeholders are involved in determining the future direction of our downtown and neighborhoods. I hope that your followers will take some time to review the proposed project and provide feedback on the building’s appearance at Monday’s meeting, which will be held virtually.
With a focus on developer arguments now, we can finish our examination of the proposal for a 12-story building on the Southside presented to the Historical Conservation Commission January 25.
It’s valuable that we have a grip on the issues for this controversial project since it is again on the agenda for tomorrow’s meeting of the HCC, where, perhaps, a vote will be taken.
Remember that chair Gary Lader called the proposal a “big stretch” for the HCC.
Indeed, for all of the Commissioners who spoke, the 12-story height of the building was a stab in the heart of the proposal.
How did the developer respond?
As you might expect, the developer shied away from the subject of height as much as possible in making his pitch and answering questions, though he did eventually clearly say “going to 5-6 stories definitely wouldn’t work.” Here is a climactic interchange between the developer and HCC chair Lader. Lader seems to suggest to the developer that in further discussion, in order to better make his case, he might talk of height in relation to the Zest building across the street and talk in terms of feet rather than stories.
Instead of focusing on the problem of the height, the developer stresses:
other decisions such as the tall building approved at 4th and Vine
they’ll save the facade of 321-323 (but not the inside of the building)
that the apartments will include affordable housing (details not specified)
they’ve already modified the height from a previous higher height design (nothing specific)
that it’s a great design, appropriate for the area, for the future (not specified — is this a look away from history?)
if you want to keep things as is, that’s up to you (ironic to say that in front of an “historic” body — is this a denigration of history?)
that there have been multiple meetings with the Mayor and DCED
they’re doing stuff for the community, for the Greenway
they have passion, they’ve worked hard
Gadfly can see that economics — which, remember, is not the purview of this committee — is the elephant in the room. The building will plunk lots of people smack on the New St. corridor, and the Food Court has the potential for creating a lot of energy, a lot of vibrancy in what the food guy implies is a sleepy Southside. Listen to the developer and his food guy in full court press mode throwing everything but the kitchen sink into their case for their project. “Everything is spot on,” says the developer with wonderful understatement, “except for the height a little bit.”
All good except for the height.
In the only “public” comment at the meeting, Missy Hartney — much respected head of the Southside Arts District — positively drooled at the economic security and stability that infusion of new bodies, patrons of business on the Southside would provide.
A compelling point, thought the Gadfly.
Ok, understand the positions?
The ball is in the developer’s court.
They will return with design revisions and/or arguments to sway the committee at the Zoom meeting tomorrow Monday February 22.
We’re going slow (as usual for Gadfly!) trying to get a sense of the dynamics that played out when the proposal for a 12-story building (82 apartments!) on the Southside came before the Historic Conservation Commission on January 25.
In the last post we looked in detail at Historic Officer Jeff Long’s opening presentation, one in which, while finding good things in the proposal, Long advised against total demolition on the site and advised that the height of the building was inappropriate.
Now let’s look at the discussion that followed Long’s presentation: first by the Commissioners in this post, then by the developer in the next post.
To a person, the Commissioners who spoke, while recognizing appropriate stylistic elements in the facade design and positive aspects in the concept (apartments plus Food Court), had substantial concern about the height. One Commissioner stressed that economics was not part of this Commission’s purview.
HCC chair Gary Lader:
Lader, who has called the project “exciting,” here lays out the mission of the HCC for the developer. The HCC focuses on “maintaining the historic exteriors of the buildings . . . the streetscape . . . the scale and massing . . . maintaining the integrity of these neighborhoods . . . We’re in a challenging position . . . We want to see development . . . help enhance and protect the community . . . We want to encourage folks like you to come in and do great stuff, but we gotta preserve some of these buildings . . . Right now what we have in front of us is going to be a pretty big stretch for us.”
“The building is attractive . . . The problem I deal with is the 12 stories being beyond what’s anywhere around it, and I’m not sure how to deal with that, but that’s the challenge I have to grapple with first. Stylistically, I think it’s commendable. In terms of development, I think it’s important to do. But we have to do it right . . . How high is it?”
“It’s high, high, way too high . . . It’s like a cavern . . . The size of that thing bothers me . . . It’s way too tall . . . I just think it’s too tall.”
“As a real estate broker, I’m really fond of development . . . make money . . . revitalize areas . . . a Southside that is predominantly 2-3-4 stories high . . . couple notable exceptions . . . that rhythm of 2-3-4 story buildings is one of the most important keys to our historic district . . . We are a historic commission, and while we are supposed to be concerned with economics, the economics are not really what drives us . . . What really we are charged to do is preserve what is there, the vibrancy of the theme of the area . . . My opinion is that in that particular location, 5 stories is historically appropriate . . . Above 5 stories, I’m probably not going to agree that it’s historically appropriate.”
“Something’s coming down the pike . . . we will have some more restriction on height, and it’s certainly going to be quite a bit lower than 12 stories . . . We need to make this building a lot shorter . . . That being said, there is a lot about the building that is very nice, and I really appreciate the effort that has gone in trying to making it have some of the character the surrounding buildings do.”
The discussion at HCC on the proposed 12-story mixed-use building on the east side of the 300 block of New St. during their January 25 meeting took about an hour.
Let’s break the lengthy meeting down into parts in order to more easily grasp what went on.
Per usual practice, HCC Historic Officer Jeff Long sets the table for the discussion between the Commissioners and the developers (mins. 49:30-1:09:20):
Min. 49:30: Long describes each existing building to be demolished in physical detail and historical context. The buildings date from the period 1880s-1900. For the most part original architectural facade features have been lost in alterations and renovations over the years, so several of the buildings now lack a defining architectural style.
Min. 56:20: Long lists each of the guidelines used to render his judgment about the appropriateness of the proposal. This is an official “historic district,” and it is governed by a set of national and local guidelines.
Min. 58:04: Long summarizes the developer’s proposal. A report submitted by the developer justifies demolition on the poor condition of the buildings.
Min. 59:40: Long identifies the 3 components of his evaluation/analysis: the demolition, the size and scale, the facade construction itself.
Min. 1:00:20 demolition: Long’s judgment is that buildings 319, 325, and 327 warrant destruction, but the building that houses 321 and 323 does not.
Min. 1:04:04 size and scale and proportion: Long concludes, “The current proposal for a 12-story structure is inappropriate for the immediate streetscape and, more generally, for the overall historic conservation district.” He uses what I will call the 4-story “Subway” building to the south of the site as the point of reference to say that the proposed 12-story building is out of scale with its surroundings.
Min. 1:06:58 other guidelines: Long finds some positive elements here and makes suggestions for some other elements and resources to be further considered. There are things that the developer does well in aligning the facade with its neighborhood and historical context.
Ok, where do things stand after Jeff Long “set the table”?
As Gadfly sees it (and he’s ready for correction), Long’s role is to be objective. He stops short of a judgment on the entire project. He does not render an up or down.
In Gadfly’s experience going to HCC meetings, the Commissioners can choose to follow him or not, just as City Council in a future step in the process can choose to follow the HCC judgment or not. Council has the last word. And they have rejected HCC rejections in well known “hot” cases.
But let’s think about where we are at this point in the meeting.
Long’s split decision on demolition seems very awkward. What is the developer to do with his plan or any plan if it has to work around keeping a structure right in the middle of his site?
The height of buildings in the Historic District here has been a particular sore point in the past. Witness approval for a tall building at 4th and Vine that has not been acted on yet. Witness the “Zest” building at 306 S.New. Long is categorical in saying the height is not appropriate. But there are tall, though not as tall as the proposed building, buildings across the street.
In talking about his last point, Long seems to be giving positive advice if the proposed height is approved or for a revised proposal for a shorter building if not.
The Commissioners must consider what Long has laid out, but experience would show that they are not bound to it.
Which has not set well in many quarters in the past.
Gadfly can remember a City Council meeting in which Councilwoman Negron bitterly decried the lack of attention to rules and guidelines.
And look at how follower Peter Crownfield responded to Gadfly’s previous post: “It is the HCC’s responsibility to enforce the historic district guidelines. This building does not fit the guidelines, so the developer should simply be told to come back with a proposal that does. The HCC is making itself completely irrelevant if it spends its time on the details of signs while ignoring glaring non-compliance with the guidelines.”
So, should a developer who proposes a 12-story building in an area predominately made up of 2-3-4-story buildings simply be told straight out that it won’t fly?
Let’s go on in the next post to see how the discussion went.
Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.He is currently a candidate for the office of Mayor.
I’ve been reading the commentary provided by Kim Carrell-Smith concerning development in general and in the Conservation District in South Bethlehem. As always, Kim’s analyses are spot on in my opinion and on point with the amazing research she completes. In fact it agrees with everything I’ve felt and learned as a former city administrator.
The other thing that should be reviewed when considering demolition of the existing structures is whether any of them were recognized by both the City and Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission as contributing resources for the creation of this district. If so, and I suspect they may have been (I just can’t recall since it has been about twenty years since I helped to craft the Conservation District Ordinance as a city administrator), then the erosion of the base line through this proposed demolition should be of grave concern.
Finally, one has to wonder how this situation would play out in the Bethlehem Historic District on the City’s north side. Is there less concern because it’s just the south side? Old attitudes towards the “other side of the tracks and river” may still be at play, and I firmly believe that it is time to draw a line in the sand when it comes to development anywhere in Bethlehem, and specifically on the south side.
Development in any city is organic to a city’s progress forward, but that development must respect the existing built environment, be appropriate, and not destroy the charm that gives a community its essence to begin with.
Gary Lader and were unanimously elected president and vice president respectively at the Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission’s first meeting of 2021 on Jan. 25. New member Mike Simonson replaced Phil Roeder, who retired in December 2020.
Lader and Evans presided over an agenda that included discussion of proposed demolition of a row of vintage buildings that comprise 319, 321, 323, 325, and 327 S. New St. to make way for a 12-story mixed use apartment building.
The team representing the ambitious project included developers Rafael Palomino and Jeffrey Quinn, architect Jordan G. Clark and Anthony Scarcia Jr. from Allied Building Corporation. They sought consent from the board to tear down all four buildings and replace them with a structure with a 6,500-square-foot ground floor. As the new building’s height increases, the structure would span the existing alley at E. Graham Place to increase the footprint of each story to approximately 8,000 square feet. The support columns and upper stories would include a strip of land at 317 S. New St. which abuts the South Bethlehem Greenway.
The single story wood frame building at 319 dates from circa 1900. The painted brick Italianate building at 321-323 is three stories, with residential over retail. It dates from 1885 and rear additions were built during the 20th century. Its neighbor is a heavily altered 3-story vacant stuccoed building also built around 1885. A single story retail building at 327 and its rear addition are circa 1900. According to historic officer Jeff Long, defining architectural details for this building and two others have been lost over the years. He recommended retaining the existing building at 321-323, as it contains original architectural details.
Long argued the proposed 12-story structure “is inappropriate for the immediate streetscape and more generally, for the overall historic conservation district.”
The applicants produced an engineering report that pointed out various code violations and structural deficiencies found in the row of buildings, in an effort to support demolition.
When asked, Quinn said they could look at saving the façade of the building at 321-323 S. New St., but emphasized that, “everything inside the building is a public safety hazard and finished its useful life.”
According to Quinn, the design and materials for the new construction would reflect the historic nature of the surrounding district.
“The building is attractive,” said Craig Evans. But its 12-story height was a problem for him.
“It’s way too high,” exclaimed Roger Hudak.
Seth Cornish noted the structures on the Southside were predominantly two to four stories high, “with some notable exceptions.” He said this rhythm was key to the district’s identity and he was not willing to approve anything over five stories.
With his restaurant business background, Palomino described his vision for a food court on the first floor of the project.
The applicants explained that post-COVID technology for occupants would be built into the project to make it safer. There was an affordable housing component, as well.
When Lader called for public comment, Downtown Manager Missy Hartney spoke in favor of adding the “beautiful looking building” to the “heart of the downtown.”
The board agreed to table the proposal, with the applicants to return with a revised design. Ken Loush recused himself from this one agenda item.
Dana Grubb is a candidate for mayor. This post on his Facebook page yesterday about a proposed new project at New St. and the Greenway drew a substantial number of comments. Right now virtually all of the comments are negative about the project, though Mark Iampietro suggests that 12 stories is an opening gambit and the developer fully expects to scale down.
DG’s original FB post:
Proposed for South New Street, a 12 story building where 1-2 story structures currently exist (Pat’s Newsstand).
Why any developer would propose something of this scale and mass in the South Bethlehem National Register Historic District is an insult to the people of this community. It demonstrates sheer contempt for Bethlehem’s history and its ordinances, and is completely defiant of the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines.
Furthermore, the City is currently undertaking a study of what residents want to see happening in this district!
Finally, gutting existing business districts a la our neighbor Allentown has done further erodes quality of life for all residents due to the gentrification it creates.
While the architectural design has some appeal, this 12 story building overwhelms the streetscape and insults the efforts of prior city administrations and councils to preserve the single most marketable asset Bethlehem has, its history.
Two of DG’s replies to posters enhance his view of the Southside project:
don’t try to paint me as anti-development. I’m for respectful, appropriate scaled development. I also helped write the historic district ordinance that applies to that area working with then Council President Mike Schweder, PHMC’s Michele LeFevre, and City Historic Officer Christine Ussler to craft something that would allow for future development at a scale that respects the historic resources and architecture in that area. I understand growth very well, but Bethlehem does not need to become Allentown east where you completely gut a downtown ala 1950s-1970s urban renewal and remove its character.
the South Bethlehem Historic District was created about twenty years ago. Properties like the Rooney Building, Litzenberger House and Flatiron Building are therefore grandfathered into that district because they were built prior to its creation. Their existence is not justification to do the same thing.The parking garage and Zest building were built larger than should have been permitted under the city ordinance and Secretary of the Interior’s Standards that apply. There was a lot of politics at work during that process and when several Members of Council (Reynolds, Callahan to name two) and Mayors accept very large campaign contributions from developers, well developers expect results. It’s why I won’t be accepting those kinds of contribution to my mayoral campaign fund. I’m running to represent the residents of Bethlehem, who far too often have been kicked to the curb. As you drive across the Fahy Bridge notice how the Zest and city garage completely obliterated the stepped up streetscape to the point where you can’t even see a hint of the West 4th Street building skyline.
Since the pandemic, he has had to give up his rounds of attending the City ABC’s, like the historic commissions, in person.
And, old technology-challenged dawg that he is, he hasn’t come up to speed on attending these meetings via Zoom.
So Gadfly was surprised at City Council Tuesday night to hear Councilman Callahan-Planning Director Heller exchange a few words about a 12-story building at New St. and the Greenway.
See the part of the January 25 HCC agenda on 317-327 S. New.
Picture it: that’s from the Subway down to the jewelry store at the Greenway.
If you good followers will click on the link above and choose the 317-327 S. New supporting documents and then choose file “06 . . . New St. Renderings,” you will find several more delightful pictures like the one above.
And if you browse files “01” and “03,” you will find info about a 12-story building, with 82 apartments, first-floor commercial, Palomino Food Court, and parking at the New St. garage.
The building will interact with the existing surrounding buildings and Greenway. The new building will be designed to compliment the historical charm of the area as well as nearby new developments. The building will be situated as such that it appears to be multiple buildings from the facade as to not create an overstatement within the neighborhood.
Clark+Quinn Development completed a comprehensive marketing/Demographics study of the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Housing Market Area (Allentown HMA) and specifically, the downtown Bethlehem area. We believe there is a strong need for market rate apartment housing for workforce individuals, healthcare providers, young professionals, life science and university communities, and graduate students. Amenities such as a gymnasium, a food court, and a roof top patio are being proposed to accommodate the inhabitants of the project. We believe our development will encourage other area residents to visit new and existing downtown retail venues, growing the downtown and growing the tax base.
As the population of the Bethlehem area continues to grow and evolve, so must the structures that house its community and residents. The proposed development will do just that. Our hope is that by providing a housing development to serve the growing population, it will further activate the existing retail and restaurants in the Southside as well as engage the existing Greenway to further stimulate community life.
The Southside has been receiving much attention.
The plan to perk up the New St. corridor from the bridge to Lehigh goes back several years.
At Council on Tuesday Planner Heller said that the developers got some ideas to think about from HCC and will return to HCC at a later date. No action taken. The video of that January 25 meeting is not available yet. Gadfly will be on the lookout for it and report on the meeting. He is very curious what the conversation was like.
A 12-story building?
The survey mentioned above had a specific question about the issue of height in the Southside historical district.
We know height has been a hot button.
Gadfly wonders if it was an issue for the HCC at the meeting.