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Bethlehem's sale of land used for community garden sows seeds of discontent

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:59:29 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 20 2013 10:16:55 AM CST
Bethlehem community garden

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BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

The sale of a small lot that has been used as a community garden for 17 years reaped a whirlwind of disapproval for Bethlehem City Council Monday night.

Council members signed off on the deal after listening to more than two hours of comments from three dozen people at the beginning of the meeting, with about two-thirds of the speakers opposed to it.

Council members also sat through another hour of withering criticism for their vote on the .176-acre parcel at 6-12 West Third Street near the end of the meeting.

All but two of the 18 people who spoke derided the decision, using terms such as "shocking failure" and "perplexing" and accusing council of selling out to big business and Mayor John Callahan of "spreading misinformation."

Throughout the evening, speakers quoted former Bethlehem Mayor Gordon Mowrer, President Abraham Lincoln, philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Santayana, and "Invisible Man" author Ralph Ellison to buttress their positions.

Generally, the proposed sale of the land to developer Dennis Benner's Greenway Park company for $70,000 turned into a town and gown conflict.

Students and professors at Lehigh University in the crowd that filled council chambers opposed the sale of the Southside property, while business owners in the area of Third and New streets as well Bethlehem business groups favored it.

The Lehigh students and professors, as well as a handful of community activists, objected to the sale because it would mean the destruction of the Maze Garden.

Lehigh students have worked extensively with members of the Boys & Girls Club at 115 East 4th St. on the community garden, and several Lehigh students read letters from the youngsters asking that the garden be saved.

Many of the students were upset that the city was going to sell the parcel without adequate input from the people directly affected.

They pointed out that the garden has not only supplied fresh vegetables to families who don't have easy access to them, but has help bring together people across racial and class lines.

Many opponents of the deal pleaded with council to delay the sale and get a promise in writing from the developer to pay for the relocation of the community garden.

The business owners and group leaders pressed council members to make the sale, and urged them to find another spot for the garden.

They said Benner's plans for the property is a long-awaited opportunity to revitalize a struggling commercial district and transform South Bethlehem with new jobs and businesses.

Bethlehem acquired the property from Northampton County almost two decades ago with the understanding it would be used for economic development, city officials pointed out.

Benner has indicated his plans for the land and an adjacent lot he owns include a seven-story office and retail building and a 12-story student apartment building with retail space. A five-story parking garage nearby is also reportedly in the works.

Council approved the agreement of sale by a 6-1 vote. Karen Dolan voted no after an amendment she wanted attached to the agreement died when none of her colleagues would second it.

Dolan sought to require a written agreement between the city and the developer promising to work with members of the community on the relocation of the community garden.

Dolan said while she agreed the lot should be developed, "the solution [of what to do with the Maze Garden] hasn't been presented in writing."

She also questioned whether her fellow council members were really listening to the concerns brought before them.

Council member David DiGiacinto said, "There are a lot of other factors beside a garden and a piece of land to consider. ...

"Everyone has to look at the big picture," he added, noting Benner's project is part of Bethlehem's application for the state's coveted CRIZ designation, which would allow certain state and local taxes to be used in helping finance new development on up to 130 acres.

Before the vote, Mayor John Callahan told council the city is working with Lehigh on a plan to relocate the community garden on the greenway between Webster and Adams streets, behind the Boys & Girls Club.

However, after the vote, Seth Moglen, co-director of the Lehigh's South Side Initiative, refuted Callahan's claim that such a plan exists.

He said he checked by phone with Dale Kochard, Lehigh University’s assistant vice president of community and regional affairs, and was told that while there have been discussions with the city, there was "no commitment of funding [for the garden relocation] from Lehigh University. Nothing of the kind exists."

Council member J. Williams Reynolds later asked the Callahan administration "to put in writing what Lehigh University has committed to."