‘Parking lot policing': Should an updated parking deck in North Bethlehem be paired with apartments or a new police station?
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — City and parking officials are confident that the best use of the land on which the Walnut Street Garage now sits is proposed apartments alongside a smaller parking deck.
But not all people in Bethlehem agree, and one resident recently made a case for a new police headquarters, rather than a residential development, to sit next to the garage.
The Walnut Street Garage is approaching 50 years of service to the city, while the police headquarters, located in the lower part of Bethlehem Civic Center, has surpassed the half-century mark.
And they’re both in need of upgrades, parking authority and police officials have said.
The 770-space parking deck at 33 W. Walnut St., sitting just a short walk from Main Street on the city’s North Side, was approved for demolition in October to make room for what’s planned to be a new structure with 591 spaces and ground-level retail offerings.
Demolition would begin in January, and the new deck is planned to be completed by the end of 2025, pending the weather and multiple other steps along the way.
The project's supposed to go before the Historical Architectural Review Board in December.
According to drawings from THA Consulting, the new garage would be more than 70 feet tall at its west end and nearly 73 feet at its eastern end. The old deck is 45 feet and 71 feet tall, respectively, accounting for the land's downward western slope.
Plans for the new Walnut Street Garage, set forth by the Bethlehem Parking Authority, also call for a residential building with an undisclosed amount of units on the parcel’s west end.
'Alternate Garage Proposal'
Jim Follweiler, a Bethlehem resident who was a city council candidate in the Nov. 7 election, presented his “Alternate Garage Proposal” at an Oct. 17 council meeting.
It featured basic modeling, his plan’s upsides compared with the project proposed by BPA and even ideas as to where the residential development could go instead of the city’s North Side Historic District.
“With no real choices or alternatives to the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s myopic plan, the city’s plan shows no real vision toward truly supporting Bethlehem’s downtown business and historic districts,” Follweiler said.
“The relocation of the Bethlehem Police Station to a new, centralized location serves many positive aspects for Bethlehem’s future.”
“With no real choices or alternatives to the Bethlehem Parking Authority’s myopic plan, the city’s plan shows no real vision toward truly supporting Bethlehem’s downtown business and historic districts. … The relocation of the Bethlehem Police Station to a new, centralized location serves many positive aspects for Bethlehem’s future.”Bethlehem resident and city council candidate Jim Follweiler
The apartment building would be better suited along the Broad Street corridor, where it wouldn’t face the same dimensional requirements as it would being located in the Historic District, he said.
Follweiler also proposed building the parking deck and police center within the existing garage’s footprint, while also locating the main pedestrian entrance near the western end of the facility closest to Main Street.
He said putting up a new police building just to the east of the updated garage not only would offer a “publicly visible and welcoming facility,” it would free up public-use parking spaces around City Hall by moving vehicles now in reserved spots into the building’s garage.
In turn, an all-new police headquarters could offer opportunities for new training areas, meeting rooms, exercise facilities and more for city first responders, all located right near Main Street, Follweiler said.
Chief Kott's comments
Bethlehem Police Chief Michelle Kott said she didn’t believe the West Walnut Street site would be ideal for current or future police services.
She said that even though the police headquarters was built in 1967, there’s been a number of improvements to the building to benefit both on-site operations and delivery of services to the public.
“We are committed to continuing to upgrade and improve our facility. Furthermore, I believe that there is value for the city, police department, and residents in having police services integrated with other city services in this facility.”Bethlehem Police Chief Michelle Kott
“We are committed to continuing to upgrade and improve our facility,” Kott wrote in an email. “Furthermore, I believe that there is value for the city, police department, and residents in having police services integrated with other city services in this facility.”
Kott said building a whole new police headquarters is a “complex, time-consuming undertaking,” a process requiring lots of attention and time to get right.
Furthering community policing
Robert Nichelson, president of Bethlehem Fraternal Order of Police Star Lodge No. 20, said a new facility’s been long awaited by some members of the force.
And he said Follweiler’s plan caused quite a chatter among officers.
“My phone started blowing up about it,” Nichelson said. “Not that it was the perfect plan, but people were excited that there was a plan and it was being brought up.”
Nichelson also spoke at the Oct. 3 council meeting about police staffing issues surrounding retention, something he said can sometimes be attributed to current working conditions.
“My phone started blowing up about it. Not that it was the perfect plan, but people were excited that there was a plan and it was being brought up.”Robert Nichelson, president of Bethlehem Fraternal Order of Police Star Lodge #20
Nichelson said he frequently receives complaints surrounding problems at the current police headquarters, reportedly including security issues, flooding, poor community aesthetics, inconsistent water temperatures for showering, sinks not working, as well as a lack of training areas and workspace in the evidence room.
Even some of the department training had to be moved to another police facility in the basement of the Wells Fargo building at Guetter and Broad streets.
And that space really doesn’t offer enough room for officers to refine defensive tactics and their physical training, Nichelson said.
He said the struggling facilities, as a whole, aren’t anyone’s fault in particular, but the “can’s been kicked down the line” for too long.
“We are a department that has a strong focus on community policing,” Nichelson said. “And we should not be tucked away into a basement that’s inaccessible.
“We’re not talking about the best in the world, but we just need an adequate headquarters to do our job.”
One positive aspect of the current headquarters is its location in Center City, so there’s quick access to the nearby bridges for traveling between the North and South sides of town, Nichelson said.
“We are a department that has a strong focus on community policing. And we should not be tucked away into a basement that’s inaccessible. … We’re not talking about the best in the world, but we just need an adequate department to do our job.”Robert Nichelson, president of Bethlehem Fraternal Order of Police Star Lodge #20
The proposed station for West Walnut Street would be only a third of a mile from the department’s current main location at 10 E. Church St.
According to the city police website, the department also has three substations in the city: BHA Marvine-Pembroke Substation at 1121 Marvine St., Center City Substation at 60 W. Broad St. and Lehigh University & Bethlehem Police Substation at 324 S. New St.
Nichelson said the department once was offered an opportunity to move operations to what’s currently the state police barracks at Airport Road.
He said that was decided to be too far away to serve the city properly, as it’s more than five miles from the current headquarters.
At one point, Bethlehem police were offered a spot at a former National Guard armory on the city’s West Side, but that was ultimately “deemed inappropriate,” Nichelson said. That site’s now home to apartments.
'A signal of safety'
Bruce Haines, managing partner for Hotel Bethlehem and supporter of Follweiler’s proposal, has been a vocal opponent of the proposed plans for Walnut Street Garage.
He said he liked that a major part of Follweiler’s plan is the construction of a new police headquarters in a prime location.
“It sends a signal of safety, and then the police now have a facility that they can be proud of,” Haines said.
Laura Collins, the city’s community and economic development director, said making the site into a mixed-use commercial and residential offering, along with featuring an “appropriately-sized” parking deck, would benefit the street-level experience of both pedestrians and business owners.
“The deteriorating structure is a relic from a different era of urban planning that we all would like to forget,” Collins wrote in an email.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to bring vibrancy, energy, and more people to the area while also improving the historical nature of the area.
“We have heard for years from our merchants about their desire to bring more people to our doorstep.”
“It sends a signal of safety, and then the police now have a facility that they can be proud of."Bruce Haines, Hotel Bethlehem managing partner
Officials have said fewer spaces in the new garage are required to meet the projected demands of the planned residential space to come, adding the whole project could promote walkability, liveliness and more around the downtown area.
'Past its useful life'
Bethlehem Parking Authority Executive Director Steven Fernstrom didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.
Fernstrom has said previously that Walnut Street Garage is showing its age, according to results from quarterly assessments and broad maintenance efforts.
“Not only is this building past its useful life, it’s ugly, it totally sucks the energy out of our downtown, and in my opinion, [it’s] not historically appropriate."Bethlehem Parking Authority Executive Director Steven Fernstrom, speaking on the Walnut Street Garage back in August
“Not only is this building past its useful life, it’s ugly, it totally sucks the energy out of our downtown, and in my opinion, [it’s] not historically appropriate,” he said back in August.
It’d also cost BPA about the same amount of money to extend the life of the existing garage as it would to just tear it down and build a new one that could last 60-80 years, Fernstrom has said.
Any inquiries regarding the garage proposal can be forwarded to email@example.com.