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Your View: Bethlehem says it wants more affordable housing. The message I hear is ‘get out’

People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan presentation Jan. 24, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
People attend the Bethlehem comprehensive housing strategy plan presentation Jan. 24, at Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center in Bethlehem. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
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Imagine, if you will, a medium-sized city with a large tract of land mainly zoned for single-family, detached homes. One where more than 85% of the homes are occupied by their owners.

Those homeowners, on average, pay the highest city, county and school district taxes in the city. Where there is little crime. Where many homeowners have lived in their homes for 40 years or longer. Where many homeowners are teachers, nurses, professors, corporate sales representatives, retired blue collar workers, municipal employees and postal workers. Where the homes are well-kept. Where there are a few large, expensive homes, but most homes are between 1,600 and 2,400 square feet.

Imagine no longer.

I am describing Census Tract 102 in Bethlehem, where I live. This tract is (roughly) bounded by Dewberry Avenue on the south, Center Street on the west, Linden Street on the east and the city border on the north. It also includes some neighborhoods to the west of Center Street and east of Monocacy Creek.

You might think the mayor, City Council and the bureaucrats at City Hall would see this area as an asset to the community.

You would be wrong. In Bethlehem, our leaders see this area as a problem that must be radically changed.

Under the guise of an affordable housing initiative labeled Opening Doors, Bethlehem’s leaders would eliminate single-family, detached home neighborhoods, and build low-income, subsidized housing — funded primarily by taxpayer dollars — in those neighborhoods. This would be accomplished by tearing down single-family homes and replacing them with multiple low-income housing units or by building additional low-income housing adjacent to those single-family homes.

If you find this hard to believe, you can .

If you turn to Page 71, you will see that I have described the first housing strategy of Mayor J. William Reynolds’ administration: “Increase development opportunities in higher value neighborhoods” and “Create the necessary zoning regulations and policies that will allow homeowners to add apartments to their property. Provide technical assistance to homeowners and support nonprofit builders to ensure new units are affordable to low-and moderate-income households.”

Such a strategy could double, triple, even quadruple the number of housing units in Census Tract 102.

But Census Tract 102 has low-density housing for a variety of practical reasons.

First, this tract is devoid of any commercial zoning save the small area along Linden Street between Barnsdale Road and Johnston Drive. The closest full-service supermarket is about 2 miles away. Likewise, virtually all types of shopping are similarly distant — for many, the closest is in Bethlehem Township. There is no commercial zoning in this tract along Center Street.

Second, there are only two east-west roads in this tract north of Dewberry Avenue that connect Center Street with Linden Street: Johnston Drive and Macada Road. Johnston Drive has no dedicated bike lanes and large sections have no sidewalks. Macada Road is worse. By any measure, it is a substandard road. It is narrow with no sidewalks the entire length between Center and Linden streets, much less space for bike lanes. Likewise, neither Center Street nor Linden Street has sidewalks. Many secondary roads within the tract also lack sidewalks and bike lanes.

Third, Linden Street has become a frequent nightmare for those traveling from this tract to shopping in Bethlehem Township, and to access Route 22. It is single lane each direction all the way to the city limit at Oakland Road, and northbound traffic often backs up south of the Oakland Road traffic light.

Fourth, there is virtually no public space anywhere in Census Tract 102. There are no public basketball courts. No public baseball or soccer fields. Oh, there is one small park adjacent to Johnston Drive. Suitable for Wiffle Ball. In a flood plain. Since this tract is completely built out, it is unlikely any new public spaces would ever make their way here.

In short, all of this strongly suggests the automobile will remain the only means of transportation for practically everyone living her.

By any metric you wish to employ — noise, congestion, public safety, air pollution, flooding — if Reynolds gets his way, the quality of life for residents of Census Tract 102 will substantially deteriorate.

His message to Bethlehem residents who like living in single-family, detached home neighborhoods or those who would like to live in such neighborhoods couldn’t be clearer: “You people are a problem. Live somewhere else!”

Steve Thode is a resident of Census Tract 102 in Bethlehem, and was director of the Goodman Center for Real Estate Studies at Lehigh University for 30 years until his retirement in 2018.

This story has been updated at 5:23 p.m. to remove an error. LANTA has bus stops on both sides of Center Street at First Presbyterian Church. In addition, it makes clear that the author lives in Tract 102.

This story has been updated: The Bethlehem affordable housing initiative is called Opening Doors. Due to an editing error, its name was incorrect in an earlier version of this article. 

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