Irrelevant information

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Bill Scheirer is an economist who grew up in Bethlehem, spent 40 years in DC, and retired here in 2003. He is a life member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and was on the Mayor’s Task Force for the City of Bethlehem Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map.


Donald Rumsfeld was known for saying that there are things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. I would like to suggest that the things we know we know can be meaningfully broken down into two groups: things we know that are relevant, and things we know that are not. Two examples come to mind.

The first concerns 2 West Market Street. We heard that it was impossible to obtain a mortgage to buy the property because it had both a residence and three little commercial buildings. We were told the buyer of the property mortgaged other properties to buy the property. Why was this a problem? Did the buyer want to consolidate mortgages? Did the buyer want to make it easier to sell some day? If one or both of these were a problem, why wasn’t the lot subdivided to end the mixed use? I have been told subsequently that this would have required variances. But isn’t that a milder remedy than amending the zoning ordinance? Shouldn’t milder remedies be pursued as a matter of policy in preference to more drastic remedies like amending an ordinance? But this, of course, would not have satisfied the objective of the wealth management firm, which was to enter a historic district and convert a residence into an office building. In other words, the mortgage problem was an irrelevant excuse to enable a rezoning.

A second example of irrelevant knowledge was in the discussion about raising parking meter rates. We heard that other cities, including Reading and Harrisburg as I recall, had raised their rates from $1.00 to $1.50 per hour. Now it is possible that these cities knew something we didn’t on this matter, which isn’t very likely. And we certainly don’t compete with them. And we don’t compete that much with downtown Allentown or Easton. Out real competitors are the malls. And their parking rates are zero. So we ended up by putting our downtown merchants at a further disadvantage vis-a-vis the malls. Why did we do this? The only real answer was that it was done to raise money for new and/or renovated garages. This, of course, should benefit our downtown businesses. This is kind of like “no pain, no gain”. But in this case the pain is permanent.

Clear thinking requires all of us, myself included, to more carefully weigh all information, and decide which is relevant and which is not.


(See under topics on the Gadfly sidebar for the long threads on 2 W. Market and parking. City Council approved 2 W. Market for business purposes, and the Mayor approved the Bethlehem Parking Authority request to increase the parking meter rate.)

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