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BETHLEHEM COUNCIL Residents propose zoning change

In a public hearing before the Bethlehem City Council Feb. 2 via YouTube, the public proposed an addition to the Bethlehem Zoning Map. The ordinance, if adopted, will codify and set limits on student housing in neighborhoods around Lehigh University’s campus.

A “student housing and student home overlay” will be added to the zoning map. The proposal assumes that “a student population brings vitality and economic stability to both downtowns.”

The new zoning overlay will address what the administration seeks to control: the location of student housing and address problems associated with student housing, “noise, litter and other nuisances, overcrowding, and parking problems.”

The overlay will “stabilize and protect neighborhoods … by providing for student housing, while maintaining the supply of housing that affordable to families,” according to the administration’s supporting comments.

The zoning map overlay will, according to the proposed amendment, encourage colleges and universities to develop their own student housing close to their campuses within the city’s Institutional Zoning District.

The overlay will minimize parking space shortages and congestion by encouraging student housing to be built near the colleges and universities and near public transit routes.

The zoning change also defines a “regulated Rental Unit” as “a dwelling unit occupied by three or more, but more that five unrelated persons under one rental agreement.”

The proposed change also redefines the meaning of “family” as related to student housing. Where previously “up to 5 unrelated individuals …” was consider a family when occupying a home, the new definition reads “up to four persons age 18 or older who are not related to each other.”

The planned student housing overlay, according the plan, “… reduces market competition for lower cost rental housing,” and “promotes the intent of the regional plan to promote mixed income neighborhoods.”

Darlene Heller, Bethlehem’s director of planning and zoning, said the city has been working on the student housing zoning amendment for a “couple of years.”

She said she has been working with “neighborhood stakeholders, regulated rental owners and managers.”

Heller said the amendment also clarifies the definition of “half-story” from being “clunky” to being “more clear.”

She said new provisions of the ordinance will only apply to new student homes.

“One of the issues that we wanted to look at is parking,” said Heller. She said new student housing units will need to have two parking spaces.

Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt said, “I’m in full support of this.”

“I’m totally in favor,” said Councilman Bryan Callahan. “I think it is going to increase the property value of everybody’s property down there. With Lehigh [University] growing by a thousand students, those students are going to want move off campus.”

Callahan used the opportunity to ask Heller if she has heard anything about a 10 to 14 story construction on New St. near the Greenway.

“There was a proposal reviewed at the Historic Conservation Commission. The concept that they showed the Commission was for 11 to 12 stories,” said Heller.

Councilwoman Olga Negròn thought the change to the zoning amendment was overdue. “I’ve been begging [for the change] for the last three or four years.” Negròn expressed appreciation for Heller’s community engagement with the residents and stakeholders on the change to the zoning ordinance. “Of course, I’ll be supporting this.”

Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith said she supports the project and commended Heller for a “good job.”

Councilman William Reynolds cautioned that success of the overlay would depend on getting good information from the universities about what students were living off campus and good information from landlords. “It is very difficult once people are living in a property to do something about it even if it’s a violation of the zoning code.”

A landlord with three houses called in to the City Council asking if two of his houses outside the of the overlay zone could be grandfathered.

An attorney representing Asset Living, a property management company operating in about 300 cities in the United States, called to ask that the city give “consideration on how this ordinance will affect existing landlords.” She said the company operates 70 properties on the South Side with 350 units mostly occupied by students.

Another landlord with six properties called in and made a comment about parties and noise. “I want to make it very clear that most students are very good. They’re not making noise, not smoking weed in the neighborhood.”

The caller also pointed out that not all tenants are students, but there are “young working adults who can’t afford an apartment so they have to share [a house] with their friends.”

Another resident who claimed to own 20 houses mostly rented to students felt that the proposed overlay was too restrictive. He suggested that the student housing zoning overlay should be expanded.

He also wanted the per house allocated street parking be included in the minimum number of parking spaces per house required by the ordinance.

This resident and property owner considered the ordinance discriminatory in that it required rooms in designated student housing be rented only to students.

Southside resident Ann Evans called in to oppose the idea of expanding the student housing overlay saying that the unwanted effect to expansion would to increase the number homes with students residing in them.

Lehigh University professor Seth Moglen called supporting Evan’s opposition to expanding the student housing overlay. “You have already received letters from over 150 homeowners and residents that live in Southside supporting this ordinance. The arguments from landlords that you have heard tonight are exactly the reasons you should leave the ordinance as they are currently set.”

Moglen described the increase in student housing as “an onslaught of student housing which is undermining these neighborhoods as viable long-term mixed income, racially diverse neighborhoods.”

John whose last name was unintelligible called to remind the commissioners that, while he has nothing against students, he thinks the “parties, the public drunkenness, the public urination destroys the neighborhoods.”

The zoning amendment vote will be at a later regular meeting.

Press photos by Douglas Graves Lehigh University professor Seth Moglen called supporting Evan's opposition to expanding the student housing overlay. “You have already received letters from over 150 homeowners and residents that live in Southside supporting this ordinance.
Student housing overlays on the proposed zoning map for Bethlehem.
Student housing overlays on the proposed zoning map for Bethlehem.
Student housing overlays on the proposed zoning map for Bethlehem.