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Martin Tower and railroad freight warehouse dropped from historic resources list

Published On: Apr 02 2013 09:36:07 PM CDT
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

A list of 26 historic buildings and landmarks that would be protected by a proposed ordinance was trimmed by two by Bethlehem City Council Tuesday night.

There was little debate when council member Michael Recchiuti suggested dropping the former Lehigh and New England Railroad Freight Warehouse at 15th Avenue at Gary Street, because, he said, the seven-story storage building's only tie to the city's history is its connection to the railroad.

(An attorney for the owner of the structure on the north side of Route 378 had asked that it be removed from the list of "historic resources" at a public hearing on March 19.)

But Recchiuti's motion to drop Martin Tower, at 1170 Eighth Ave., generated more chatter because city officials still hope to see the 21-story former Bethlehem Steel office building become a major redevelopment project.

Recchiuti said keeping Martin Tower on the list "could be a barrier" to redevelopment of the site. "We should remove obstacles … not put a barrier on it," he said, adding that the 53-acre tract is one of the last big parcels of land available in that part of the city.

The historic resources list includes buildings and properties such as: the Bethlehem Silk Mill at 238 Goepp St.; the Fellows Building (aka the Farr Building) at 2 West Broad St.; Packer Memorial Church, 18 University Drive; Liberty High School's Commons Building at 1115 Linden St.; the Burnside Plantation at Schoenersville Road at Monocacy Creek, and the Elmwood Park Historic District.

Buildings and properties on the list would be reviewed the same as properties in the city's historic districts, but with a major difference: plans for those buildings and properties would only be subject to review if the owner wanted to demolish it.

Recchiuti said Martin Tower's owner says there are no plans to tear it down.

Council member Karen Dolan said Martin Tower "doesn't really pass the test" when it comes to historical preservation guidelines.

Dolan said exterior architectural features make Martin Tower somewhat worthy of preservation, but otherwise, "it's a skyscraper in the middle of a rolling field. … It's an impressive structure, but there's an issue of placement. It's not appropriate to the neighborhood."

After voting 7-0 to drop the freight warehouse and Martin Tower from the list, council approved the Landmarks and Historic resources ordinance on first reading. A final vote on the ordinance is set for April 16.

But the matter didn't end there.

During comments from the public near the end of the meeting, Stephen Antalics, 737 Ridge St., asked council which owner told city officials that Martin Tower would not be demolished.

Council president Eric Evans conferred briefly with solicitor Chris Spadoni and then told Antalics, "We don't have information in that regard at this time."

Antalics responded, "This information should be brought out at a public meeting so it can be scrutinized."

Bill Scheirer, of 1890 Eaton Ave., took a lighter tone, saying Martin Tower does have some history worth remembering -- "a history of mismanagement."

He then repeated a suggestion he made at the public hearings two weeks ago -- that council should use a structure's age to decide it can be demolished.

Mary Pongracz, of 321 West 4th St., said she was pleased that council is finally ready to act on the ordinance, noting that it's been worked on for a long time, "and if it takes much longer, I'll be old enough to be eligible for the [historic resources] list."

However, she was critical of council because the director of planning and zoning, Darlene Heller, was not on hand to give her opinion about cuts to the historic resources list. "There is obvious collusion among some members of council," she charged.

She added that it was an "insult" that Heller and the South Bethlehem Historical Conservation Commission were not consulted about council's cuts.

Evans noted that Heller was informed of the cuts.