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After marathon meeting, Bethlehem City Council approves taller, thinner replacement for Walnut Street parking garage with fewer spaces

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, 2024, in Bethlehem.( Amy Shortell/첥Ƶ)
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At a meeting that stretched into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Bethlehem City Council members voted to replace the Walnut Street parking garage with a taller, thinner parking structure that has fewer spaces than the original structure.

The vote was 5-2, with members Michael Colon, Hillary Kwiatek, Colleen Laird, Rachel Leon and Kiera Wilhelm voting in favor of the replacement, and Grace Crampsie Smith and Bryan 첥Ƶahan voting against. The majority vote overrode a recommendation from the city’s Historic Architecture Review Board against the replacement plans.

Supporters of the new garage, including the city’s mayor and administration, said that the replacement building will add vibrancy to downtown Bethlehem and “right-size” the existing garage, which takes up an entire city block and is usually less than half full. The replacement project saw vigorous opposition from several local business owners and residents, however, who said that the new building is too tall and will not have enough parking to accommodate future increased demand.

The former Walnut Street garage, constructed in the 1970s, provided 770 parking spots, and, according to Bethlehem Parking Authority Executive Director Steve Fernstrom, was “past its useful life” because of structural issues like broken welds and deteriorating steel framing.

The replacement garage will have about 527 parking spots and be taller than the existing garage but just over half as wide. The parking authority has issued a request for proposals asking developers to build a mixed use building that includes apartments on the other portion of the land.

The city’s Historic Architecture Review Board voted against the replacement plans last month, and asked the parking authority to rebuild the parking garage at the same size and scale as the former one. City officials have said rebuilding a garage of the same size would cost an additional $8 million — the smaller garage will take $27 million to build, compared to a projected $35 million to rebuild the existing garage, which would translate to a $21 million increase in debt payments.

Plans for the residential development next to the garage are not yet public, because the city and parking authority are still reviewing requests for proposals from developers. According to Community and Economic Development Director Laura Collins, four developers submitted proposals for a mixed-use apartment building on Walnut Street, ranging from 42 to 177 units with retail space on the ground floor. The city will select a developer in the coming months, Collins said.

Opponents of the garage, who have shown up in droves to council meetings, have argued that the replacement project is both too tall for the historic district and will not have enough parking spots to accommodate demand. The new garage will be around 4 feet taller on average — the building is on a slope which is why the parking authority provided average figures — but up to 17 feet taller on parts of the south wall that abut a residential neighborhood.

“The parking authority needs to get back to the drawing board, and the public, both the residents and the businesses, need to be listened to,” said Dana Grubb, a Bethlehem resident and former candidate for mayor.

Opponents also have criticized the undisclosed future residential development, which they have said shows a lack of transparency since the garage is being approved without the second half of the development being revealed.

“The white box or the uncompleted area or whatever you want to say, is devoid of significant details,” said Crampsie Smith, referring to the architectural renderings that depict the future development as a blank cube.

The replacement project did, however, have several public champions. Megan Lysowski, a Bethlehem resident, shared a during the public comment with 130 signatures in support of the smaller replacement garage. Supporters said the new garage would improve upon the former one.

“It seemed clear … the old garage was overbuilt, and the new would serve the features of the city better,” said Anthony Bronico, a Bethlehem resident.

City Council also voted 5-2 to approve a rezoning of part of the land and a street vacation, both of which were necessary for the project to move forward.

Demolition of the garage began in January, and parking authority officials have said that, barring any delays, construction of its replacement could be complete by late 2025. More information can be found on the

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

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