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Some Bethlehem residents still oppose new Walnut Street garage replacement, as demolition has begun

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

  • Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29,...

    Workers demolish the Walnut Street parking garage Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)

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Bethlehem residents, city officials, council members and the city parking authority agree on one thing: The Walnut Street parking garage is obsolete, unsafe and an eyesore. It should be demolished and replaced.

But that is the extent of any common ground on the subject, as many residents oppose a replacement plan proposed by the parking authority and supported by the city administration that would make the building 4-13 feet taller on average than the existing building, and replace about a quarter of the space with a residential development.

A Monday City Council committee meeting on the replacement plan lasted five hours ahead of a final vote next week, as City Council discussed the proposal and accepted public comment.

In early January, the city’s Historical Architecture Review Board rejected two proposals from the parking authority: One would replace the building with a garage about half the width but around 13 feet taller on average. A similar, alternate proposal would reduce the height of the building’s south wall, which borders a residential area, to 50 feet, 4 feet taller than the 46-foot wall that stands there currently.

To achieve the reduced height, the second proposal had 62 fewer parking spots on the upper deck. All other elements of the original replacement proposal remained the same, including the use of several different colored bricks to mimic the look of surrounding buildings in the city’s commercial area and two 1,500-square-foot storefronts on the ground level to accommodate retail businesses.

The Walnut Street garage had space for around 770 cars, and, according to parking authority Executive Director Steve Fernstrom, is “past its useful life” because of structural issues like broken welds and deteriorating steel framing. The replacement proposals have about 590 and 527 spots, respectively, which Fernstrom said are appropriate because the garage is about 40% full on average.

The proposed replacement garage would be about half as wide as the existing one, which takes up an entire city block. The rest of the space would be a residential apartment building, city officials said, but exact plans are not public.

On Monday, Mayor J. William Reynolds argued that reducing the parking garage’s size and adding an apartment building would help maintain the vibrancy of downtown Bethlehem. He argued that building too much parking hinders the liveliness and attractiveness of the area, and that even with a smaller garage, the city would still have ample spaces for visitors and residents alike.

“It’s not that we’re trying to cut parking,” Reynolds said. “We’re trying to be smarter about parking.”

The Historical Architecture Review Board had suggested the parking authority instead rebuild the Walnut Street garage at the same size and scale as the existing one. But Reynolds said doing so would cost an additional $21 million and would only be feasible if the city guaranteed the parking authority’s debt repayment, which would hurt the city financially.

“That is a very, very bad idea,” he said.

But Bethlehem residents continued to oppose the replacement plans during public comment, with several arguing that plans for the apartment building should be made public before the vote, and that the replacement is too tall for the historic district area and could compromise the availability of parking downtown.

“Retention is really hard when I tell folks they have to park a quarter mile away, that’s not an option,” said Craig Adamson, president of Buxmont Academy school, which has a location on Main Street.

Even though no replacement plan has been approved, demolition of the garage began Jan. 3. Visitors to the city can park on street spots or other parking lots including the Broad Street lot and North Street lot. More information about the Walnut Street garage replacement can be found on .

Bethlehem City Council will hold a final vote on the replacement plans 7 p.m. Feb. 6 in City Hall.

This story has been updated with corrected information about the number of parking spots in each garage replacement proposal.

Reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at Liweber@mcall.com.

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