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The Comenian

The student news site of Moravian University

The Comenian

The student news site of Moravian University

The Comenian

Moravian Students Displaced Due To Walnut St. Garage Demolition

Photo courtesy of Lola Offenback.

Last Semester, South Campus residents were notified that Moravian students would no longer be permitted to park on Spring St. This announcement came only a few months after Moravian campus Police implemented a new parking plan for students called South Guaranteed Parking, which allowed students to park in both lot U on South Campus and on Spring St. lot.

Moravian, along with the Bethlehem Parking Authority and the Historic Bethlehem Institute, agreed to relocate the 100 parking spots that were leased for Moravian’s use in the Spring St. lot to the Lehigh St. lot, which is slightly farther away. Students who had parking passes for the Spring St. lot have been issued refunds for the cost of the pass and are currently being allowed to park in the Lehigh St. lot for free. Starting in the fall semester, passes for this lot have been reduced from $125 to $100.

The reason for this sudden displacement is that the Walnut St. garage will be demolished following Bethlehem City Council adopting a recommendation from the Historical Architectural Review Board in October, with the lot permanently closing on Jan 3. Parking spaces in Spring St. will be used for those who were displaced during the reconstruction of the Walnut St. garage. Since then, the decision has been met with significant backlash and controversy, with many residents seeing this decision as rushed because plans for what would be done to the area had not been approved. 

Bethlehem City Council officials voted 5-2 after their lengthy five-hour-long meeting on Feb. 6 to approve the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s proposal to replace the current Walnut Street Garage (WSG). Michael Colon, Hillary Kwiatek, Colleen Laird, Rachel Leon, and Kiera Wilhelm voted in favor; Grace Crampsie Smith and Bryan Callahan voted against. The garage will now be replaced with a new, narrower, and taller structure, against the earlier recommendations of HARB, Bethlehem’s Historic Architectural Review Board. 

Additionally, the Council approved shutting down Walnut St. to traffic while demolition of the existing garage takes place.

The original garage was built in 1976 and had 770 spots. HARB released a certificate of appropriateness supporting the demolition of the 47-year-old garage in August 2023, citing it as a Non-Contributing Structure in the Historic District. 

Parts of the garage have already been closed off due to safety concerns, and it would have cost more for the city to repair the structure than rebuild it. According to city officials, rebuilding the garage with the same dimensions as the old one would cost the city an additional $8 million on the already $27 million plan to replace the garage. This would equal a nearly $21 million increase in debt payments.

Bethlehem Parking Authority Director Steve Fernstrom stated, “The current Walnut Street Garage is an unsightly eyesore and an embarrassment to our city.” 

The newly approved plan will cut the length of the garage nearly in half and eliminate some 250 of the original  523 parking spots. The plan will leave the extra area for local retail. Plans for this area, however, have not been finalized. Additionally, sidewalks and roads will also be reconfigured.

The sidewalk will be expanded from 10 feet to 13 feet to allow for outdoor dining, more street lighting and trees, and improved walkability. The street will also be narrowed from 36 feet to 26 feet. City officials said that there would still be street parking and two traffic lanes once construction has finished.

Residents raised concerns about traffic flow and safety on Walnut St. because of the narrowing of the road. Specifically, residents are worried that traffic will be backed up by people trying to go into the parking garage with no room for passing.

“Something, somewhere, doesn’t make sense,” said resident Micheal Bianco. “The math doesn’t add up. There’s no extra room for parking. We can’t have the parking if that’s what they are saying. We can’t have more than two lanes in 25 feet. Maybe you can, but then it’s really narrow.”

The first public hearing of the night accepted public comment on the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s proposal to change the zoning of the WSG. Currently, the WSG is partly in the Central Business District (CB) and the High Density Residential District (RT). The Bethlehem Parking Authority wants the entirety of the WSG to be part of the CB District because it currently serves the purposes of that district.

With the approval of this proposal, the new WSG can be built taller than the existing structure due to different height limits within each zone. The WSG facing the RT zone can, at maximum be 75 feet tall, or three and a half stories tall. Within the CB zone, a building can be built up to 150 feet tall. 

Regarding the current height requirements of the RT zone, resident Megan Laisowski said, “The sky is not the limit; the limit is 75 feet.” 

The second public hearing connected to the first and sought to vacate the part of Walnut Street in front of the WSG so that reconstruction could begin and changes could be made to the abutting sidewalk. 

George Hrab has lived next to and parked in the Walnut Street Garage for nearly decades and supports the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s proposal. “It’s easy to forget in the hindsight of history that many, many people hated the Twin Towers,” he said. “Change is hard, but change is necessary… Watching the beginnings of the demolitions of Walnut Street [provides] a sense of possibility.” 

The demolition and reconstruction will last until 2025, according to Fernstrom.

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