BETHLEHEM Council approves vacating street
The vacation of Filbert Street and part of Second Avenue was approved March 20 by Bethlehem City Council in a 6-1 vote. Councilman Bryan Callahan abstained because his brother, former Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, works for the developer who asked for the change in street usage.
The action facilitates the development objectives for the owners of the historic Floyd Simons Armory who plan to redevelop the armory and adjacent lots into 70 upscale apartments and a business located at Prospect and Second avenues.
Currently, Second Avenue is a wide street with a grassy median separating the traffic lanes; it will be converted to a normal width street with added parking spaces.
In spite of extensive community testimony opposing the action, council members supported the resolution to modify the named streets to accommodate parking. Council President Adam Waldron, who lives near the site, said he is not concerned that there will be a shortage of parking, which was a recurring argument of opponents of the development. He said he had visited Second Avenue at about 5:30 a.m. one work day and “saw 25 open parking spaces.”
Before the final vote on the measure, resident Al Worth of Sixth Avenue told the council he considered the entire development project a “million-dollar giveaway.” He said the project has “morphed from a historic preservation project” into an “oversize housing project that exceeds existing zoning.”
Resident Bill Scheirer also addressed the council, focusing on what he considered the change in its essential character of the neighborhood if the armory developers gets the desired parking space made possible by approval of the resolution vacating the streets. “I urge you to delete Second Avenue from this ordinance, primarily because this will force the developer to reduce the size of the project, making the neighborhood very happy.”
Resident Mary Toulouse said she considers the vacation of Second Avenue for development reasons a “land grab.” She also criticized the council for having “had faith in [former mayor] John Callahan to do the right thing.” She called the redevelopment process “flawed from the beginning.” Toulouse said she hoped the city would “supervise more closely in the future.”
Ed Gallagher, a critic of the development, said having former Mayor John Callahan involved in the project was a problem. “The optics are not good,” he said.
Councilman Callahan, who had recused himself from voting on the ordinance, took a moment to defend the ethics of his brother. “My brother has taken some shots,” said Councilman Callahan. “This guy is totally about preservation.”
Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt said in general she supports development in Bethlehem. However, she said she also believes in the adage “trust, then verify.” She reminded listeners that the armory property, which has been designated a historic property, comes with a “historic covenant” that ensures that the historic nature of a building be maintained regardless of subsequent ownership. Under that proviso, the local government can retain oversight of the historically significant armory.
On other matters, Jeff Riedy, executive director of Lehigh Valley NORML – the local branch of a national organization dedicated to reforming marijuana laws – offered to provide education to the Bethlehem Area Police Department in an effort to bridge misunderstandings involving legal versus illegal use of marijuana in Pennsylvania.
Mayor Robert Donchez announced that all city department heads will be attending an ethics training seminar; City Council members also plan to attend the April 18 session.