The first phase of Tower Place, the development proposed for the former Martin Tower site in Bethlehem, went through Lehigh Valley Planning Commission review Thursday.
Staff recommendations for the 1170 Eighth Ave. site will be forwarded to the City of Bethlehem. The LVPC is an advisory body. The city makes final decisions.
Meanwhile, a board member complained about media coverage of a meeting on Tuesday, while LVPC Vice Chairman Chris Amato said the commissioner’s comments have become stronger because of a feeling of being “powerless” in the face of unwelcome development. Past comments have included terms such as “ridiculous” and “disaster” when discussing projects on private land that are permitted by zoning.
Amato did not mention warehouses, although at past meetings he has criticized the development of big-box buildings on open space.
“We have become more vociferous out of frustration,” he said of the commissioners, adding, “Sometimes developers and even municipalities will not incorporate any of our ideas.”
Amato has spoken before of the region approaching a tipping point beyond which the character of Lehigh and Northampton counties will change forever.
“Our infrastructure is deficient, our air is polluted and our quality of life is diminishing,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. “We don’t need more of these types of development” even if the buildings are considered “green,” he said.
Stephen Melnick objected to reporting on Tuesday’s meeting of the Comprehensive Planning Committee that said commissioners were “reined in” when they discussed building-code issues at Tower Place. That, he said, “was totally inappropriate and uncalled for.” Melnick said the LVPC has broad authority to make recommendations.
When commissioners raised issues about suggesting environmentally friendly construction at Tower Place at Tuesday’s meeting, Executive Director Becky Bradley said LVPC staff and appointed commissioners have to stay within limits.
“There are times when the commission has skirted that line,” she said. Comments beyond the LVPC’s purview could put the commission or Bethlehem in a bad position, she said.
Melnick said an addition to the staff review satisfied his environmental concerns. That addendum said: “The LVPC supports the City of Bethlehem’s goal of a sustainable and climate resilient community. This City goal is consistent with FutureLV: The Regional Plan. The LVPC further supports the City as it works with the developer of the Tower Place site to include green infrastructure and building technologies.”
The board was advised earlier this year to respect municipal decisions.
At a meeting in March, a commissioner described the River Pointe Logistics project in Upper Mount Bethel Township as “a ridiculous endeavor.”
“You’re not allowed to make that judgment” as a commissioner, Bradley said.
Also at that meeting, attorney Gary Asteak told the board, “Our review ought to be a professional one. We are looking for constructive comments, objective comments and within the context of respecting the local municipality for making the choices they made,” he said. . “This is a project that was zoned industrial by the municipality.”
Developer Lou Pektor owns the land, and his plan meets Upper Mount Bethel zoning requirements.
At an August 2021 meeting, Trammell Crow’s plan to convert the former Dutch Springs aqua park into two warehouses was deemed “a disaster” by a commissioner, who conceded the LVPC had no authority to stop it.
Commissioners have also criticized townships for not doing more to block development. Dutch Springs was zoned for warehouse use. The park’s address was in Lower Nazareth Township, with some land extending into Bethlehem Township.
A financial battle would have been difficult. CBRE Group Inc., parent company of the developer, reported revenue of $23.8 billion in 2020, while Lower Nazareth Township’s annual budget was $4.6 million. CBRE’s revenue in two hours more than exceeded the township’s annual budget.
The Tower Place review approved Thursday is for part of the 53-acre site, perhaps the last big chance for redevelopment in Bethlehem. The commissioner discussed the first phase, which includes two medical offices. The next phase will include apartments, a hotel, convenience store/gas station and additional retail space, a grocery store and offices.
Martin Tower was demolished in 2019, 18 years after Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy and 16 years after the company was dissolved.
The next Lehigh Valley Planning Commission meeting will be Oct. 27 at 7 pm Details and a link to the virtual meeting will be available on the commission’s website.