Historic Bethlehem, PA has character – but what about McMansions and big box stores?

The neighborhood of Historic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania was recently recognized for preserving the community’s more historic buildings. And the mayor drew a contrast between this historic preservation and the (negative) construction of McMansions and big box stores:

Recently chosen by This Old House magazine as a Best Old-House Neighborhood, Bethlehem is one of only 64 communities to receive the honor.

“So much rests on the quality of our neighborhoods,” [Mayor] Callahan said. “We’re incredibly honored to have received this designation.”…

“It’s our character that has been recognized by This Old House magazine which named Historic Bethlehem to its annual list of Best Old House neighborhoods,” he said. “Here in Bethlehem, you’ll find no grids of cookie-cutter McMansions or big box store strip malls. Here…we have character.”

The mayor also took the opportunity to announce that the city’s proposed historic preservation plan has been completed.

The contrast could not be more stark: the community is recognized for preserving homes rather than giving in to sprawl. This Old House quotes a local realtor saying, “You can traverse centuries in eight blocks.” This sounds like a traditional American community where neighborhood character has won out.

But I was intrigued by this particular statement that Bethlehem has no big box stores. Could this really be possible in a decent-sized city (2009 Census estimate population of 73,088)? Bethlehem’s page on Wikipedia (I know, a source fraught with difficulties) suggests this is not the case:

Adjacent to W. Broad Street is the Bethlehem Plaza Mall, a 90,000 square feet (8,400 m2) enclosed shopping mall.

Outside of Downtown there are several other shopping centers.

  • Westgate Mall is an enclosed mall with anchors The Bon-Ton and Weis Markets.
  • Lehigh Center Shopping Center has Marshalls/HomeGoods, Staples, Giant, and Big Lots.
  • Martin Court Shopping Center has Lowe’s and PriceRite.
  • Stefko Boulevard Shopping Center has Valley Farm Market, Dollar Tree, and Radio Shack.

In Bethlehem Township

  • Bethlehem Square is a shopping center with Giant, TJMaxx, Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, and Sears Essentials.

The city’s own website emphasizes the local downtown (and nearby) shops. A quick search of Google Maps (“shopping near bethlehem, pa”) quickly turns up some of the nearby shopping malls and big box stores. The most emblematic big box store, Walmart of Bethlehem, is part of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce (with a link to the Chamber from the Bethlehem website).

Reading the mayor’s statement, I think he is referring to Historic Bethlehem when talking about the lack of McMansions and big box stores. Many communities are interested in preserving older neighborhoods, both commercial and residential, while facing the threat of sprawl. The mayor was likely not referring to Bethlehem, the full city of over 70,000, when saying the community has no big box stores: like many other American communities, Bethlehem has these. And perhaps like other communities, these big box stores are both disliked for their appearance and impact on local businesses and historic neighborhoods while also prized for helping to provide revenue for the city through sales and property taxes.

(Disclaimer: I have never been to Bethlehem. My primary interest here was to think about whether a sizable community could have no big box stores or McMansions. As for McMansions, I suppose one would have to search real estate sites or spend some time with Google Streetview to assess this claim.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s