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Zoners put highly touted South Bethlehem project in limbo

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Sep 26 2012 11:00:15 PM CDT
Updated On: Sep 27 2012 08:24:50 AM CDT
Bethlehem Zoning
BETHLEHEM. Pa. -

An $11 million project that would transform a former Catholic church property in South Bethlehem into artist lofts and a nearby vacant lot into affordable housing is in limbo, a week after Mayor John Callahan held a news conference trumpeting the plan.

The Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board voted 5-0 Wednesday night to deny a series of variances needed by the non-profit Mid-Atlantic Housing Development Corp. to build the South Side Lofts -- 28 apartments at the former St. Stanislaus Catholic Church at 5th and Hayes streets and another 18 apartments a block away at East Fifth and Atlantic streets.

HDC's attorney, William Kern, and project manager, Ian Rawhauser, appeared stunned by the decision. Neither could say if HDC will appeal the decision, or if plans for the project might be altered or shelved.
Bethlehem has pledged $700,000 in federal housing grants toward the project.

The zoners voted after a 20-minute executive session. They did not explain the basis for their decision.

Five people living near the proposed project spoke against it. They said they were concerned about an already tight parking situation; increasing the density of an already heavily populated area, and the kinds of people the project would attract.

HDC architect Bruce Weinsteiger explained that 48 parking spaces would be available for the 46 apartments -- two more than required -- but that two of the people living on the former church property would have to park at the apartment complex a block away.

Justina Keeler, of 728 East 5th St., one of the chief opponents of the project, was skeptical. "In reality, it should work, but it won't,"
she said, adding that people in the neighborhood regularly double park, rather than find a space and walk to their homes. "And you have houses with five, six, seven people [in them], and they all have two, three or four cars."

Weinsteiger said the 28 apartments in the former church property would be mostly one-bedroom units marketed to artists, and that the church would be a community room and art gallery.

An 18-unit apartment building would be erected on a parcel with a rusted Quonset hut that once was used by Banko Beverage and, later, a laundromat operation that closed in 2003, Weinsteiger said. One- and two-bedroom apartments would be available on the first floor, and three-bedroom apartments on the second and third floors, he added.

Keeler, like other objectors, doubted the neighborhood could absorb so many more people. She said she's owned her home for almost 35 years, and "cramping that many people into that area isn't going to improve my [neighborhood]. It's going to be a detriment."

Rawhauser said the apartments would be rented to people who earn 60 percent or less of the area's median income. "That means a single person could earn up to $33,000 a year, and a family could earn up to
$45,000 a year," he said.

Keeler said, "We already have low-income people in our neighborhood who have no respect for people who are there. They throw garbage and park in front of my garage and then yell obscenities at me."

Before the vote, Rawhauser said HDC planned on applying for $8 million in funding from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency on Nov. 2, and that the project could be built by late next year.

HDC had received the zoners approval to build 36 apartments at St.
Stanislaus last year, provided it could come up with one parking spot for each unit.

HDC announced its revised plans last Wednesday with great fanfare at a news conference at the former church that included Mayor Callahan.