The July 2nd Bethlehem City Council Meeting covered many issues, but the two main topics were the construction of a parking garage on Polk and Third Street and the proposed replacement of Memorial Pool. There were a variety of different opinions on each of the complex issues. The meeting started off with an opportunity for local residents to voice their concerns. After, the Council engaged in a Q&A session with Mr. Livingston, a representative of the Bethlehem Parking Authority (BPA), and a few other consultants for the Polk Street Garage. Following their Q&A with the BPA representatives, the Council voted on some ordinances and resolutions.
At the beginning of the meeting, local resident Bruce Haynes expressed his dissatisfaction with the construction of the Polk Street garage, stating that it is predicted to create a loss of about $700,000 per year. He also voiced his displeasure towards the parking garage being built outside of the central business district. Additionally, he discussed his opposition to one of the proposed plans for the Walnut Street garage, which involves tearing it down. He claimed that tearing a building down after fifty years is too soon, adding that he was also against the destruction of Martin Tower, which was built around the same time as the garage.
Shortly following Haynes’ remarks, Mr. Livingston responded with the logistics of the Polk Street parking garage construction. The garage is aimed to fit 470 spaces, but may house more if the costs are less than expected. The goal is to have the building completed by December 2020.
After this brief overview, the Council engaged in a discussion with Livingston and the other consultants. The group held mixed opinions. Council member Dr. Paige Van Wirt was vehemently opposed to many of the BPA’s recent choices. For starters, she urged the BPA to increase the transparency and accessibility of their decisions. More specifically, she criticized them for cancelling some of their monthly meetings, making it more difficult for citizens to appeal their cases. She also expressed concern at the proposed rate for parking spots in the new garage. At $65 a month, the Polk Street garage’s rates will be significantly lower than the going rate in similar cities. Moreover, she rebuked the BPA for raising meter prices to offset the lower cost of the parking garage, stating, “Why are we subsidizing these larger institutions on the backs of the taxpayer?” Additionally, Dr. Van Wirt reproached the BPA for charging the same rate on the North and South sides, even though, on average, the Northside residents have a greater willingness to pay. She ended with the statement, “I think this is risky.” Mr. Livingston responded to the criticism by saying that the BPA plans to gradually raise rates in the garage by $5 every few years, and that they’re conducting studies on whether or not having variable rates for meters based on Northside versus Southside locations may be a beneficial implementation.
Some Council members praised the BPA for creating a parking garage with the potential to benefit Bethlehem. Others expressed similar concerns to Dr. Van Wirt. One Council member said, “I feel there is too much risk. We need to wait until demand pushes a garage.” Another point mentioned was the absurdity that a ticket for a parking fee costs less than paying the meter for an eight-hour day.
Following the open dialogue about the Polk Street parking garage, the Council voted on two ordinances. The first, Ordinance 8-A, dealt with amending an article of Bethlehem’s StormWater Management Regulations. It passed 7 to 0. The other, Ordinance 8-B, involved amending the 2019 Capital Budget for Non-Utilities as it pertains to funding for the Memorial Pool replacement. Dr. Van Wirt and Olga Negron both voted against the amendment, but the ordinance was still passed since the other five members voted in favor of it. Dr. Van Wirt’s main reason for rejecting the proposal was that she wants to see a more comprehensive plan for supporting existing pools and a more complete financial picture for the costs and budget of the Memorial Pool replacement. Likewise, Olga Negron claimed that the money used to replace Memorial Pool could have been used to improve Bethlehem’s other pools, which she noted are in poor condition. Other Council members supported the replacement decision, claiming that the renovations will make Memorial Pool appear more modern. Another point discussed was that the Council should be cautious about any decisions regarding the closing of pools, since doing so may reduce housing prices and lower overall community well-being.
After the ordinances, voting moved to a number of resolutions. All were passed, despite Olga Negron and Dr. Van Wirt voting against those pertaining to Memorial Pool.
Finally, the closing remarks included a couple additional topics. The Council was informed that, so far this year, 19 of the 28 cases heard by the zoning board were filed by private homeowners, and only a small percentage were by public businesses. Moreover, President Huge proposed the idea that they turn the rusty train trestle that crosses 412 into a sign that says, “Welcome to the Christmas City.” Also, the Council briefly mentioned how excited they were for the official ribbon cutting and Friendship Park.
Bethlehem residents who would like to attend City Council meetings may check the schedule here or view them online here.
Feature Photo Credit: Jeffrey Kirshenbaum