Bethlehem scuttles rezoning proposal after pleas from Garrison Street residents
After considering the impassioned pleas of neighbors, Bethlehem City Council on Tuesday narrowly defeated a rezoning proposal that would have allowed a five-story apartment and retail project to spill into what is now a close-knit neighborhood of modest homes lining a narrow street in Center City.
The proposed zoning for 11 and 15 W. Garrison St. matches the commercial district around the corner, but residents railed against the proposal as one that would ruin the character of their neighborhood that is within walking distance of historic Bethlehem.
City Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith said she worried about the parking issues it would create on the one-way Garrison Street and thought the city needs to strengthen its stock of single-family homes — not just build new apartments.
“I think that our city was built on the backbone of working men and women who wanted one thing, and that was a home and a safe neighborhood for their families,” Smith said. “I think we as a city really need to support and enhance that. I think that the reason why our great city feels more like a small town is because of our neighborhoods.”
Joining Smith in voting against the rezoning were council members Olga Negron, Paige Van Wirt and J. William Reynolds. Voting to approve the rezoning on first reading were council members Bryan Callahan, Michael Colon and Adam Waldron.
The change was requested by Bethlehem architect Dennis Connell, the owner of the two properties along with seven others on North New and West North streets, some of which adjoin the West Garrison Street land. Connell, who owns rental properties on the block, proposes demolishing buildings and then constructing a five-story, 72-unit apartment complex with retail space on street level.
The proposed apartment project aimed to bring more residents on the doorsteps of a business district that the city has been trying to grow. City Planning Bureau Director Darlene Heller had said Connell’s request is supported by the planning department.
Connell said his proposal would have returned the zoning of those two properties to what it had been from 1970 to 2005. He said he created environments that residents are touting and promised to support his tenants. He promised to carry through those principles to the apartment project. He said no one would be displaced by the project.
“I come down on the side that this could be a net positive to the neighborhood by bringing some fresh, new families — new potential friends and neighbors to your community,” Waldron said.
Lauren Miller, a tenant of Connell’s at 11 W. Garrison St., told council the block is one where she celebrated with her neighbors at block parties and they grieved with her following her sister’s heroin overdose death. She grows vegetables in her backyard while children make the sidewalk their playground. She lauded the early 20th-century architecture that may not be technically in the historic district but tells the story of the working class that pushed the city forward. She said the rezoning would chase away families who have lived their entire lives on that block.
It’s also the same block that the city’s Redevelopment Authority took over a rundown home at 18 W. Garrison St., turning it over to nonprofit Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley, which gave it to the Toledo family. They told council that the rezoning would hurt the neighborhood.
“This is my home,” Cindy Toledo said, her voice cracking.
The defeat of the ordinance on first reading means that it will not go to a second reading. The decision does not affect the properties Connell owns around the corner on New Street, which are already zoned for commercial.