Bethlehem board denies Atiyeh’s apartment plan
Bethlehem zoning officials rejected a proposal Wednesday night for a luxury apartment building in Bethlehem, the latest denial in a series of setbacks for Lehigh Valley developer Abe Atiyeh as he seeks to develop land he bought more than a decade ago.
Atiyeh, on behalf of Pennsylvania Venture Capital Inc., sought a use variance to build 125 multifamily units in four apartment buildings at 1838 Center St. during a zoning board hearing at City Hall. The property is in the city’s institutional zoning district, where construction of apartment buildings is prohibited.
Residents, concerned about the neighborhood aesthetic, brought legal counsel.
“Everybody’s fighting with me. I don’t understand this,” Atiyeh said, addressing the board and roughly a dozen attendees. “I’m looking at compatibility with the neighborhood, I’m trying to be reasonable, and the neighbors are still fighting.”
When presented with the plans at its meeting last week, the city Planning Commission decided not to recommend the project and advised the Zoning Hearing Board to follow suit.
Atiyeh bought the 5-acre site — a short distance from Bethlehem Catholic High School — for $1.4 million in 2007 to construct an assisted living facility. That proposal was approved by the zoning board, but Atiyeh ultimately decided not to pursue the project, citing an oversaturated market and national competitors in the industry. Instead, Atiyeh submitted plans for upscale apartments, and when that was rejected, a 50-bed psychiatric hospital, which the zoning board rejected in 2009 but is the subject of litigation in Northampton County Court following an appeal from Atiyeh.
Atiyeh said he was approached by an apartment operator who expressed interest in building luxury apartments on the site. Atiyeh declined to name the interested party.
Local attorney Chad DiFelice, representing the residents, said they are concerned because the project doesn’t reflect the character of the neighborhood.
“I think [residents] would be OK with residential apartments,” DiFelice said. “It’s the volume and the number of units you want to squeeze in there that is the issue.”
Atiyeh initially proposed a 125-unit building but told the board he would be willing to scale down to 96 units.
Vicki Evert, who lives on Bridle Path Place, brought up concerns about the extra traffic the project would bring to the area. “The parking and the traffic is already extremely difficult during school hours,” Evert said, mentioning specifically the nearby intersection of Illick’s Mill Road and Center Street.
The board voted unanimously to deny the apartment proposal, though Atiyeh said he plans to appeal the board’s decision while also pursuing other options for the site.
His lawsuit challenging the denial of his psychiatric hospital plan remains in litigation.
“If the pending litigation ruled in my favor, I would pursue that,” Atiyeh said in a phone interview Thursday morning.
Peter Blanchard is a freelance writer for The Morning Call.
This rendering is the type of apartment building that developer Abe Atiyeh is proposing at 1838 Center St. in Bethlehem.