Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Elm street program in Bethlehem takes shape

Just around the corner from Bethlehem's historic Main Street yawn blocks of quaint row homes, drugstores, shops, offices and other businesses with apartments overhead.

Sure, the brickwork needs to be redone on some of those buildings along W. Broad Street. The paint on the wooden details of other 80-year-old buildings is cracking, too. And, as a straight shot to Allentown, the street sometimes carries motorists driving 50 mph through blocks devoid of much landscaping, neighbors say.

But Bethlehem officials say all that stretch needs is a little bit more curb appeal: leafy trees, decorative street lights, crosswalks and other amenities. If the city finds the money, that so-called streetscape could one day stretch all the way to the Queen City.

''The plans are very big and grand, but they are broken into small, achievable parts,'' Mayor John Callahan said. ''We've done this with the business district on the north and south sides, and they continue to thrive. Now, we're looking to revitalize neighborhoods.''

The project is part of the Elm Street program, an initiative that is aimed at sprucing up neighborhoods near the downtown. The thinking behind the program is strong neighborhoods make strong downtowns.

Bethlehem's target area is the neighborhoods north and west of Main Street. A task force has been working on the plan for 1 1/2 years. City Council is expected today to approve a resolution for $250,000 — a Transportation Enhancement grant — to start executing parts of the plan.

The start date has not been scheduled yet.

Darlene Heller, city planning director, said the task force, now called North by Northwest, will create a priority list of amenities and each section of the street will be improved as the city secures the money to do it.

She pointed to the improvements in recent years to the South Side Business District as evidence of how well decorative accents can spruce up a neighborhood.

Seven years ago, the city unveiled a plan to improve the lighting, upgrade sidewalks and crosswalks, plant trees and create a greenway along the Norfolk Southern rail lines that run through the heart of the South Side. The city still hasn't settled on the land for a major chunk of the plan — the greenway. But the city has already added some acorn-shaped street lights and trees along E. Third and Fourth streets. The city adds more lighting each year as it obtains the money.

A.G. Pitsilos, co-chairman of the city's task force for the Elm Street program, envisions a similar execution on W. Broad Street. While the first phase only goes out to Third Avenue, Pitsilos said he hopes the city extends the features all the way to Club Avenue, near the city's border with Allentown, once the money is secured.

Pitsilos, who has lived on the 600 block of W. Broad for 20 years, said the look of trees could pump some life into the neighborhood.

''We get the full sun. Shade would be nice for pedestrians walking down the street,'' he said. ''The rustling of leaves and the display of light through the trees, I think, will also help slow drivers down. It will make a very walkable community.''

With slower traffic, motorists might take time to look at the beauty of the neighborhood and perhaps return there.

Councilwoman Magdalena Szabo said a little sprucing up could inject more life into the neighborhood.

''But, I think it would be good to look at every area of the city at some point and pay a little extra attention to it,'' she said.

The improvements to W. Broad Street are just one part of the Elm Street plan. Other parts of the plan target Fairview and Friendship parks— now large, unattractive macadam lots. Other additions could include police substations, a farmers market on the north side, tourist maps and ''Welcome to Bethlehem'' signs. Other ideas include establishing a loan pool or grant program for property owners.

The district's boundaries are Fairview and Spruce streets on the north; Prospect Avenue and Broad and Raspberry streets on the south; Pulaski Street on the east; and Sixth Avenue on the west.

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