In a marathon, four-hour, session on August 19, Bethlehem planners considered a new grocery store, the expansion of what was once a roadside stand, and increasing the size of the Zoning Hearing Board. But the project having the biggest impact on the City and entire Lehigh Valley is the long-awaited "21st Century Town Square," a venue for as many as sixty free, family-oriented, concerts every year. Located along East First Street with the now silent blast finances as a backdrop, the centerpiece of this development is the Levitt Pavilion and amphitheater lawn, with room for 2,500 music lovers.
Meet the South Side Town Square
Bethlehem consultant Gregg Feinberg told planners this Town Square not only provides for the "redevelopment and reinvigoration" of that site, but will transform "the neighborhood, City and region into an area for public performances." Unlike most plans, which are replete with buildings, this one provides for plenty of open space on the City's south side. In addition to the sprawling lawn for concerts, there are plazas, outdoor stages, tree-covered picnic groves, a playground for children, a 370-car parking lot, and a relocation of E. 1st Street. Festival Plaza will feature a farmers' market and antiques.
Even East First Street is transformed, with dark bituminous paving and a tapered, 28 feet width, to slow down traffic. Feinberg and David Ostrich, who is with WRT Architects, indicated that the street will be blocked during larger concerts.
Planners, who unanimously approved the project, quickly granted six waivers needed for items as diverse as road width to the number of trees required along the borders. Ironically, the number of trees on a former brownfield was the only bone of contention in this city-sponsored project.
Planner James Fiorentino noted that other developers who fail to show a sufficient number of trees are required plant trees elsewhere that are acceptable to the City Bureau of Forestry. "We do this to everybody else," he reminded everyone. But Solicitor Joe Kelly satisfied Fiorentino's concerns when he mentioned that the City, unlike other developers, already plants numerous trees every year.
Although this plan was unanimously approved, Bethlehem School Board has imposed a roadblock on its completion. Bethlehem plans to fund this with a TIF agreement under which a portion of casino real estate taxes will finance public infrastructure on the former brownfield. The school board maintains this plan goes beyond the TIF agreement that they, along with Northampton County and the City, signed over ten years ago.
New Grocery Store Being Planned on Stefko Boulevard
In other business, plans for a 18,279 square foot grocery store, located at the northeast corner of Stefko Boulevard and East North Street, were introduced. Located at the site of Pharmachem Specialties, the Plan will need to go to the Zoning Hearing Board for a use variance. But planners had numerous suggestions, from a widening of East North Street to traffic signalization to moving the site of the grocery store closer to Stefko Boulevard, in keeping with what Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter calls "the urban model."
Eric Gibson of DHD Partners, who made the presentation, told The Bethlehem Press that the identity of the actual grocery store is still confidential. It will be located north of the WaWa located at Broad and Stefko.
Elias Farmers Market Gives Planners 60 Day Extension
The final matter considered by planners was the expansion of Elias Farmers Market, located at 3131 Linden Street. Although a zoning appeal is still in the hands of Judge Edward Smith, nonaction on the Plan would result in a deemed approval unless partners Gus Elias and George Azar were willing to agree to an extension. "We'd like to move forward," said engineer Steve Pany, at the beginning of the hearing.
Underneath all the legal jargon, Judge Smith is weighing a busy produce market's desire to operate more efficiently and safely against Bethlehem homeowners concerned about the impact of a business in their backyard. Dring oral arguments, Judge Smith made one observation. "It seems neighbors and owners have different views of what is going on," remarked Judge Smith. He encouraged both sides to talk to each other.
That hasn't happened.
So at a planning hearing, where zoning issues are irrelevant, those issues inevitably rose to the surface again.
Johnston Drive neighbor Al Bernotas was one of six people who spoke against the plan. "They're building a factory in a residential area," he complained. Sue Fang, whose property abuts the market, stated the flat rooftop would host more lod compressors. She noted that the three-bay loading dock is just a stone's throw from her bedroom. She questioned why the plan fails to show her own home, even though it is right next to the market. Fang pointed out that a warehouse will bring more traffic. She questioned whether this could endanger children, who walk to a nearby schoo, and she and others like Bernotas wondered why there hadbeen no traffic study.
Is the expansion really a new distribution center? Are loud tractor trailers coming in and out of the loading dock at all hours of day and night? Is garbage and other debris blowing into neighbors' yards? Does the smell of rotting produce interfere with neighbors who just want to be able to enjoy their own homes? Planners heard from neighbors and from Gus Elias, who said their claims were "absolutely wrong" and that the expansion would mean less, instead of more, deliveries.
"From day one, I've said this a thousand times, we're willing to sit down with everybody," said Elias partner George Azar. But under questioning from Planning Chair Lawrence Krauter, Azar conceded that development of the site was never coordinated with neighbors, and no meetings had ever been held. Krauter urged Azar and Elias to do that and expressed his appreciation at "the civility with which everyone expressed themselves."
Although engineer Pany had indicated at the onset that he was unwilling to agree to a 60-day extension, he relented after several planners hinted things might not go Elias' way. "There's a lot to be absorbed here and I'd be extremely uncomfortable making a decision," hinted planner Stephen Thode.
Planners Recommend ZHB Expansion
In their final item on a long night, planners agreed to recommend expanding Bethlehem's Zoning hearing Board from three to five members. But lingering questions about the length of terms were left to the lawyers.
"We're done," announced a secretary, and everyone bolted for a bathroom.
Outside City Hall, Gus Elias could be seen talking to his neighbors and nobody was throwing any tomatoes.