It’s completely true that historic preservation rescued the best parts of downtown Bethlehem from one of the worst design fads ever to rock the nation back in the 70′s and 80′s, but I think some of Bethlehem’s policymakers have over-learned this lesson.
It’s not modern architecture that’s the problem but ugly architecture. People understandably feel lucky that more of the downtown didn’t get bulldozed to build ugly stuff, but the lesson isn’t to prevent any demolitions or new construction in the CBD. After all, plenty of ugly buildings did get built during that period – the Brutalist monster on Broad between New St and Guetter, the apartments on Guetter between the parking garage and Broad Street, the parking garage itself, the whole west side of Main St north of Broad. All this stuff ranges from hideous to merely crappy, and it all takes up way too much land in the CBD relative to the amount of actual housing and commercial space it’s packing. The Southside is even worse on this front. There are quite a few buildings that are old but not historically or aesthetically interesting that the city has made it way too hard to demolish with the Southside Conservation District. And even if you can replace buildings, the design regulations for what you’re allowed to replace them with are way too prescriptive.
The task that lies ahead for people who want to make Bethlehem look prettier is not to preserve, but to destroy. The political program going forward is knocking down all that stuff and some of the uglier Northside buildings and replacing them with mixed use retail and apartments. And not ugly fake Colonial stuff, but nice modern buildings. The other lesson from that period is that cities don’t have to settle for the first draft from developers. Community input can make for better-designed projects (it can also make for worse-designed projects..) and people who care about this stuff shouldn’t feel bad demanding more imagination from developers. You have to be realistic about the costs, but my point is just that there are plenty of examples of modern mixed-use buildings that look very nice, and you don’t have to settle for cheap boxy garbage just because it’s the first thing a developer puts on the table.
The point is that you want good aesthetically-pleasing design. It can be old or new. To give a local example, I think Easton has pointed the way forward with the Sigal Museum. It’s a very modern building that’s been nominated for some architecture awards, and it’s situated between some very old buildings. The juxtaposition of very old and very new styles is what makes that block interesting. It’s not the modernity you need to fear, it’s the ugliness.