Dec. 12--The Bethlehem Planning Commission on Thursday approved a $500 million business park slated for the final 416-acre chunk of the old Bethlehem Steel plant and designated another Steel relic, the 21-story Martin Tower, blighted.
The owners of Martin Tower, the vacant landmark which was once Steel's world headquarters, needs the legal designation should they apply for public money to pay for the high-end condominium redevelopment proposal one day.
"If other communities are positioned to compete for funding and we don't act [on the blight designation], the ultimate downside will be that Martin Tower will continue to deteriorate over time," Planning Commissioner Lawrence Krauter said.
Planners also approved, 4-0, land development plans and a six-lot subdivision plan for a business park by billionaire Ed Roski. The first building, which doesn't have tenants yet, is to be a million-square-foot industrial/warehouse structure with a possible 434,124-square-foot expansion.
Jack Bailey of Commerce Construction Co. said ground will be broken on Majestic Bethlehem Center this spring.
"The economy is affecting projects across the company, but Ed Roski has invested a lot of time and money in this project, and he doesn't want it to slow down," Bailey said.
The two projects are part of an almost $2 billion redevelopment of the old plant, which stopped making steel in 1995. The city has since invested in infrastructure, grants and other programs to get the brownfields site redeveloped.
The Sands Bethlehem Casino Resort has gotten the most attention in recent years and is under construction just east of the Minsi Trail Bridge, but the former Steel land east of the casino has been under development for years as the Bethlehem Commerce Center.
The Lehigh Valley Industrial Park is redeveloping 1,000 acres there.
The last chunk of the Commerce Center is to be developed as Roski's Majestic Center. It's expected to bring up to 5,000 jobs.
Martin Tower has been slower to redevelop, with 600,000 square feet of office space that was designed for one company. Most city officials agree that the building near the Route 378 interchange will probably never house one company again. The developers also face expensive tasks of asbestos abatement and a new sprinkler system.
The Martin Tower owners have pitched it to become a $300 million residential project, the largest ever to be built in the Lehigh Valley.
Planning Commissioner Stephen Thode -- even though he was among the five commissioners who approved the blight status -- was cautious about granting the designation, questioning the good of aiding developers' pursuit of state money for high-end homes.
"What are the chances that public money will be used to bail out the developers of luxury town homes in the tower?" he asked.