After seven years of broken promises and false starts by several developers, a group of New York City investors on Tuesday bought 120 acres of former Bethlehem Steel land targeted for development as Bethlehem Works, a retail, entertainment and residential district.
The group, known as BethWorks Now, did not disclose how much it paid International Steel Group for the land, but did say it would follow much of Bethlehem Steel's original plan for a shopping and recreation complex that includes a museum of industrial history.
Larry Printz/The Morning Call
''This is an incredible step forward,'' said Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, who sees Bethlehem Works as key in revitalizing the South Side. ''As much work as has been put in, now the real work begins. We will roll up our sleeves and work with the developers to develop a plan.''
BethWorks Now partner Richard Fischbein, a politically connected New York City attorney, said the group plans to follow significant parts of Bethlehem Steel's blueprint for $450 million worth of stores, shops, restaurants, arcades and movie theaters, including preservation of the iconic blast furnaces.
Before that happens, Fischbein said, a master plan will be created for the land that once was part of the flagship plant of the nation's No. 2 steelmaker.
''We're bringing in some heavy hitters, people who have done some major projects around the world,'' Fischbein said. ''If the planning process takes a little longer, the final result will be better.''
Another component of the Bethlehem Works project appears to be coming together. An announcement on the sale of the Discovery Center of Science and Technology building, which is adjacent to Bethlehem Works, is expected Thursday.
Northampton Community College in Bethlehem Township has been negotiating to buy the building for a new campus that would bring 2,000 students to the South Side.
Stephen Donches, chief executive officer of the National Museum of Industrial History slated for a former Steel electrical shop, said the news that developers have bought the Bethlehem Works land will help his fund raising for the $16 million Exposition Hall.
''This removes the uncertainty of ownership,'' Donches said. ''This will give the museum the ability to step up the pace on fund raising.BethWorks Now officials spent nearly 10 hours huddled around a conference table on the 14th floor of the former Bethlehem Steel headquarters in Martin Tower completing the purchase from ISG. The steelmaker, headquartered in Cleveland, acquired the land when it bought Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s assets in bankruptcy court last year.
Fischbein declined to give a sales price, saying the deal was so complicated he wasn't sure of the amount. ''There will be a final number I can figure out in about six months,'' he said.
State Rep. T.J. Rooney, whose district includes Bethlehem Works and who is a friend of BethWorks Now partner Michael Perrucci of Phillipsburg, said the next step will be to draft a clear development vision for the land.
''You'll see the developers wheel out some of their thoughts in the weeks and months ahead,'' Rooney said.
Rooney and City Council President Michael Schweder, were so pleased at the prospect of idled Bethlehem Steel land finally getting into the hands of a well-financed development group that they called a news conference hours before the settlement had concluded.
Both Rooney and Schweder said they have been assured by BethWorks Now that preservation of many of the historic buildings and furnaces would be a top priority. Among the buildings is the massive No. 2 Machine Shop, once the largest enclosed industrial space in the world.
Some community groups have expressed fears that a developer would not respect the historic significance of the site and instead build malls and big-box development.
Besides Fischbein and Perrucci, the BethWorks Now partners are Jeff Gural, Barry Gosin and James Kuhn, principals of Newmark & Co. Real Estate of New York City. Newmark, one of the largest independent real estate companies in the nation, has more than 9 million square feet of property in New York City.
BethWorks Now will have wide latitude moving forward because City Council in 1996 changed the zoning of the Bethlehem Works portion of the property to industrial redevelopment, allowing almost any use of the land with a few exceptions such as trash incinerators, prisons, cement factories or oil refineries.
Tony Iannelli, president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, hailed the sale as significant not only for Bethlehem but for Allentown and Easton, as well.
''I can think of no single parcel that will have a bigger impact on the Lehigh Valley and the urban core than this parcel,'' Iannelli said. ''This will set the tone as the model for development of all three urban cores in the Lehigh Valley.''
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