Gadfly’s Tour de Rentz: from Hillside to First Terrace

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Remember, Gadfly urges you — wherever you live in the City — to email Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) as an act of solidarity and to get your name on the mailing list of Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development.

Gadfly had to see for himself. He had long heard tales of Southside woe from Olga Negron and Stephen Antalics. He recently heard resident fears of the spectre of “lower Hillside” spreading upward with devastating impact. There was even talk of “existential crisis.” How could this be?

Time for Gadfly to follow his own principle. Time to look at the primary sources.

Gadfly’s Tour de Rentz starts at the foot of Hillside Ave. (approx at 531 Hillside Ave.) alongside the Zoellner Arts Center Parking Garage. It proceeds up Hillside past Thomas and Selfridge, turning on Stoneman, and ending on First Terrace.

Join him. The videos linked below are only a few seconds each.

If you know this neighborhood at all, you probably know it speeding through in a car. Let’s slow down. The Tour de Rentz is on foot.

Tour map

1) Foot of Hillside Ave: looking up the hill, student housing as far as you can see. Just about every house “signed.” The few beautifully full trees left may be an indication that at one time this was a handsome tree-lined street.

2) North (east) side of Hillside: we begin moving up on “lower Hillside,” the heavily dense student-housing section that residents of “upper Hillside” fear is in their future.

3) South (west) side of Hillside: Gadfly is struck by the long string of interesting looking houses. One can easily imagine that they were once comfortable family homes.

4) Farther up on the south (west) side of Hillside: Gadfly admits to being something of a “romantic,” but he was taken by the look of these houses — big living room windows, nice porches, once tree-lined. And the porches up high. He talked with a guy perched far above the sidewalk as he passed — lord of all he surveyed. Gadfly had to crane his neck. A feeling of the first floor on the second floor. Interesting.

5) Turning right off Hillside, south on Thomas, uphill into the Lehigh campus: Gadfly quietly orgasmic at the beautiful double that meets him. What an interesting twin. A sense of size and sturdiness. Gadfly quietly admitting to himself that he expected not to be impressed by the original quality of the homes. Gadfly quietly feeling shame at what has happened here to what once were “homes.”.

6) Turning left off Hillside, north on Thomas: looks like an apartment house, was this relatively newly built? Looks out of place with surroundings. Looks clean and nice — but out of place. Doesn’t seem to blend.

7) Back up Hillside again: encountering a “pod” of rentals on the north (east) side, a whole block that collapsed from familytude. Gadfly imagines the male householder drifting down to the Sokols for a brew or two.

8) Turning right off Hillside, south (uphill) on Selfridge: 4 out of 5 houses on the block are rentals, the corner property owner looks to be holding on to a cute house. Gadfly imagines tension in that corner house.

9) Turning left off Hillside, north on Selfridge: look at the fence and stone work on the double next to the corner house. Interesting. Gadfly getting more of an appreciation for the art of building houses on hills. Steep hills.

10) We reach upper Hillside: now predominantly homeowners, but rentals have made a breach. A kind of border crossing here. Gadfly wishes his camera had lingered more on the northside homes along Hillside here.

11) Upper Hillside: (Lousy video.) Not dominated by rentals. Yet. Solitary rental property on the right with trash in front faces well kept, flowered home with a guy gardening on the left. Not a pretty composite picture. Like a spot on a lung of this stretch of neighborhood.

12) Turning right (south), uphill, off Hillside on Stoneman: houses owned by Lehigh Properties, of the recent case about a 40-student dorm on First Terrace before the Planning Commission.

13) Gadfly quizzed separately by an adult and two students about what he was up to. They are fidgety, guilty looking. Suspicious of me. And a bit snarky. Gadfly thought it best not to incite by filming the encounters. Gadfly life expectancies are short as it is.

14) Turning right off the top of Stoneman on to First Terrace: this the spot where Lehigh Properties wants to build a 40-student dorm, knocking down 4 homes to do so. Remember that residents made a determined argument against the proposal in front of the Planning Commission to no avail — but that the Mayor broke the norm and effectively shot down the proposal. But what alternative lurks?

15) Farther along on First Terrace past the 4 houses proposed for demolition to build a large dorm: privately owned homes, signs of care for the houses, signs of domesticity, flowers, gardens, neat lawns, this is a neighborhood. So clear that the proposed dormitory development was dead wrong. Did the developer have any regard at all?

16) Farther yet on First Terrace: view across the Valley, unfortunately not video’d, an exhilarating top of the mountain feel. More clear signs of home care, more clear signs that this is a neighborhood — clear signs of the domestic life endangered by the rental scourge creeping up from below.

Remember, Gadfly urges you — wherever you live in the City — to email Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) as an act of solidarity and to get your name on the mailing list of Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development.

Please forgive Gadfly the poopy camera skills. He could name one faithful follower who should have had the job.

Time for Bethlehem residents from all parts of the city to join the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development to help with this Southside crisis

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Kim Carrrell-Smith is a 31-year resident of Bethlehem’s historic Southside, where she taught public history at Lehigh University for almost two decades. She is also an aspiring gadfly, buzzing in on issues of historic preservation, public education, city government, and other social justice issues. She tips her wings to the master gadflies who have served our community for so long!

Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development: contact Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) to show solidarity and to get on the mailing list. (THIS IS SO EASY!)

Gadfly,

As you’ve heard, we’ve reached a truly critical time for the future of Southside neighborhoods within a quarter of a mile or so of Lehigh University. The very present and future danger to our neighborhoods generally come from newer investor/developers who haven’t done their homework and may not be aware that they are risking big investments in an already crowded student housing market in which the actual number of students is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future. But as a South Bethlehem resident, my questions don’t concern how to help those investors save their shirts; I am concerned about how we may maintain viable neighborhoods in the face of this rapidly changing investor landscape, and WHO can help with that. What’s at issue?

* What happens to residential neighborhoods when they are overrun by young college students who don’t have a long-term investment in neighborhood relationships, and property?
*  What happens when an investor pays well over the median cost of a home, in anticipation of student-level rents (at least $3500/month for a five bedroom), and then students bypass those houses for another developer’s newer, flashier development?
*  What happens to empty, deteriorating homes, left behind by students seeking the latest luxury living, in what were once neighborhoods buzzing with children, their parents chatting on front stoops or sweeping the sidewalk?
*  What happens to the security and safety of a neighborhood that was once filled with eyes on the street and people on the sidewalks, with homes well-tended and maintained?
*  What happens to the family who can afford less than a third of that student-level rent, yet needs a home?
*  What happens to the reputation of local colleges and universities when nearby neighborhoods deteriorate?
*  What happens to our city when our neighborhoods fail?
*  What would happen if all this occurred in YOUR neighborhood?

I hope City Council and Lehigh administrators (and DeSales, NCC, and Penn State –why not invite them to the table, since their students live in these “regulated rental” houses, too) are ready to commit publicly to some hard work, RIGHT NOW –not in six or twelve months– WITH (and not just for) local residents,  to assure that “what happens” is not destructive, irreversible, and harmful to families and viable neighborhoods, to the reputation of our local institutions of higher ed, and even to those very students who want places to live off their campuses. We all have a lot to lose.

And I hope there are Bethlehem residents from all parts of the city who will want to join the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development to help with this crisis, even if it is not happening now in your neighborhood. This is bigger than just a few homes, and a few people.

So what’s up now that is so urgent about these big pocket student housing investors?  First, a clarification about one of Stephen Antalics’ comments: Fifth St Properties is, in fact, located in Bethlehem and has a pretty good reputation for keeping up with maintenance and responding to complaints. But Fifth St. Properties recently sold 44 buildings in their portfolio to an out of state real estate group located in NYC, Stonebridge Campus Living; the latter is new to Bethlehem. Their investment in the 44 buildings they acquired from Fifth Street Properties averages out to about $485,000 EACH (real estate investors buy in group lots, so that figure is an average based on the total Stonebridge paid for all 44 buildings). And as folks have heard, the developer who owns the Lehigh Properties GP, LLC is not located in Bethlehem, either. The latter is owned by a young Lehigh alum who wants to demo four of his properties to create a big luxury student housing complex on First Terrace; he paid an average of $240,000 for each of the four homes he wants to demolish (a rather extraordinary sum for Southside homes!), when he acquired the entire portfolio.

So housing prices are going nuts (compare the investor purchases to other recent home purchases by individuals around here!), as developers fail to study the market, and fail to understand Lehigh’s intention to keep the number of off-campus students steady, even as the university’s overall student numbers increase. As Anna Smith, the director of CADCB, noted in her last post, one result of that failure to study the market will probably lead to companies poaching student renters for their newer luxury student rental developments. That constant shift in student housing is a precarious situation for neighborhoods, as financially over-committed investors will want to find ways to maximize their profits. It seems highly unlikely that these investors would want to shift their attention to work on sensitive neighborhood development, or rehab older housing stock to rent it at reasonable prices to families, when they’ve sunk small fortunes into buying up portfolios of high-priced student rentals  . . .

On the Southside we increasingly see student rental signs going up on what were privately-owned homes, indicating ownership by large investment/management groups, which indicate that those rentals are no longer welcoming (or affordable) to families and individuals. But there are still more “regulated student rentals” (see Anna Smith’s recent Gadfly post), which are owned by local individual investors who may have as few as one, or as many as 15 properties. Investors buy in groups, so the latter groups of properties may currently be at particular risk of being swallowed up by those big players with so much money to spend in the local market.

Time to focus, city leaders and Lehigh (and maybe DeSales, Penn State and NCC) administrators! We are at a critical time for the future of the Southside. The Southside Vision Housing Committee is leading the way, and (along with the city’s DCED folks) has the data, but residents need participation and commitment from those other institutional leaders –at the highest levels– to head off a greater housing crisis, and the destruction of viable neighborhoods. And deep pocket investors and developers threaten to drive an even bigger wedge than already exists between Lehigh and its nearby neighbors, and between City of Bethlehem leaders and Southside residents.

We don’t have to let this happen. But we ALL need to work together on the problem now, through zoning, planning, heavily publicizing Lehigh’s actual intentions about student housing through public and private presentations to current and potential investors and landlords, and by recognizing current neighborhoods that are strong, and identifying those which may be faltering. We can support and build strong neighborhoods. We can bring back balance in local development. But we can’t do it if we can’t get folks to work together, and FAST, to demonstrate a genuine — and public — commitment to those goals.

Please contact Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) to join forces with BRRD. Please contact City Council members to say, “we all need you to support viable neighborhoods on the Southside, NOW.”

What would happen if all this were going on in YOUR neighborhood?

Kim

Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development: contact Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) to show solidarity and to get on the mailing list. (THIS IS SO EASY!)

Bethlehem should adopt a waste-minimization policy for events

Peter Crownfield is officially retired but spends most of his time working with students in his role as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley.

One sad thing about Musikfest is the amount of waste, largely from throwaway plates, cups, & utensils for serving all that food. And, of course, quite a bit of food waste. Musikfest should require vendors to transition to reusable food-service items.

Bethlehem should adopt a waste-minimization policy for events. And, of course, they should have recycling and composting receptacles in the downtown areas as was suggested over 10 years ago.

Peter

Anyone can join for a term or a year is not a “family”

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Gadfly:

As I would expect from Tony, this article makes some really good points. People in non-traditional families or communal living arrangements should not automatically be excluded. However, I think the idea of the article is to allow arrangements that are long-term in nature, not transient ‘anyone can join our group’ arrangements for a term or a year, which is the norm for student housing.

Peter Crownfield

It’s time to move forward with some zoning or code changes to address student housing

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Anna Smith is a life-long Southside resident and Director of the Community Action Development Corporation of Bethlehem, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life in south Bethlehem by fostering economic opportunity, promoting community development, and empowering residents to actively participate in the decision-making process regarding the future of our diverse community.

Gadfly:

On student housing –

Last year, following a rapid increase in the average sales price of single-family homes in south Bethlehem and an increase in speculative investment in student housing, the Southside Vision Housing Committee worked with a consultant from Philadelphia who is an expert in housing policy to study the student housing and development issue in south Bethlehem. Throughout several months, the committee worked with the consultant to explore best practices for maintaining mixed-income neighborhoods and examined potential changes to ordinances and policies that could effectively address the expansion of student housing in south Bethlehem. The committee included representatives from the City, Lehigh University, local residents, and even a student-housing provider. A final list of five prioritized strategies was provided at the end of the process, and zoning changes emerged as the first priority of many of the residents on the committee.

Since then, City officials have been examining the different codes and ordinances that regulate student housing and development in order to determine what changes will best address the changing nature of our neighborhoods. As many have stated, a single line in an ordinance can make a huge difference; whatever changes are made now need to be well thought out if we expect them to truly make the desired impact: preserve diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods.

Currently, student housing falls under the City’s regulated rental ordinance (see: https://www.bethlehem-pa.gov/ordinance/articles/ARTICLE1739.html#01). This is not part of the zoning code, but, rather, the ordinance establishes basic conditions for the occupancy of properties that house 3-5 unrelated individuals on a single lease. There is no limit to the number nor location of these properties; as long as a property owner complies with yearly inspections, registers the property with the City, and provides copies of the lease with all tenant information (among a few other basic requirements), then the property can function as a regulated rental.

Changes in zoning and ordinances could take a number of forms—here are two of the main changes that we explored on the committee:

  1. Alter the regulated rental ordinance to include fewer unrelated occupants. This approach has been used in Allentown near Muhlenberg’s campus, and the logic behind it is that you limit the financial incentive for property owners to rent to students. If you can only make rental income from 2 or 3 students, is it worth converting your property to student housing?

While the creation of the original regulated rental ordinance has been cited by some as the source of the Southside’s student housing issues, I’m not sure that reducing the number of students allowed in each home would help us to achieve our goal. Lehigh has repeatedly confirmed, in public and private conversations, their intentions to maintain a stable off-campus housing population—the number of students needing off-campus housing will remain consistent throughout Lehigh’s expansion, so there is no need for additional student housing. Similarly, Lehigh does not intend to bring any additional students on to campus, so there will be no reduction in the number of students needing off-campus housing. What would happen if we changed our codes to say 2 or 3 students maximum per house? Well, we would need A LOT more student housing off-campus to accommodate those students. Given the Southside’s housing stock (single family homes with 3-5 bedrooms), this sounds to me like an incentive to build giant towers with student apartments close to campus. Is that more desirable? Some might argue yes, but I’m not so sure. We could grandfather in the existing properties, but not sure how that would stand up legally—we would providing a huge economic benefit to existing housing providers while effectively shutting out any new competition.

  1. Create a zoning ordinance that limits the number of regulated rental homes in a particular area. This could be done through minimum distance requirements between homes, or percentages by block or zone. Different zones could have different rules—closer to campus, you could allow up to 100% student housing, while neighborhoods further away could have more restrictions.

While I prefer this option, there are certainly some downsides to consider. How do we draw the lines? How many homeowners will we be giving up on if we allow a neighborhood to be targeted for up to 100% student housing? (I will point out that 100% student housing is currently permissible in any neighborhood, so this wouldn’t be a change from the status quo). However, can we ask the last 4-5 families on lower Montclair to sacrifice what remains of their neighborhood in order to protect upper Carlton? It’s a hard decision to make.

Other things to consider when we talk about changing codes and ordinances:

— What happens to homes that investors have spent $400k+ on if we significantly alter the housing market in south Bethlehem? These purchases were made anticipating revenue from 5 students paying a minimum of $700 per month each. If the investor can’t get the money, will they sell? Leave the property vacant? Rent to families? The future of many Southside neighborhoods could depend on how student-housing providers answer that question. Our fate as a community is wrapped up in the consequences—not just the housing provider’s bottom line.

— Many student-housing investors are purchasing and renovating homes in hopes of stealing students away from other student housing providers. Competition encourages student-housing providers to keep up their homes if they want to stay in the market and charge top dollar. If we remove or significantly reduce competition, will we remove incentives for upkeep?

I’m glad to see that the conversation on Southside neighborhoods is continuing, and thanks to the Gadfly for providing a forum to share these ideas! The more folks involved in researching, proposing, and analyzing policies, the better. It’s clear to me that it is time to move forward with some zoning or code changes to address student housing, and there’s a lot to think about as we design a new policy. I’d encourage anyone interested in getting more involved in the discussion to join us at the Southside Vision Housing Committee—send me an email at asmith@caclv.org and I’ll get you the details!

Anna

Anna always gives us a lot to chew on.

The latest on defining a “family”

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Big thanks to Tony Hanna!

Copied entire article instead of link because you might need a subscription.

Argues for widening definition of “family” but note the bolded section about  rejecting students as such. Interesting.

Gadfly does not see 5 college students as commited to each other in the way a family should be, nor does he see them as a “functional family.”

The housing plans released by the Democratic presidential candidates Cory Booker, Julián Castro and Elizabeth Warren rightly recognize that only bold federal intervention can fix a problem as entrenched as housing segregation. But by offering towns financial incentives to change their zoning codes — the most powerful force dictating where and how people live — and little else, the plans miss the mark.

In many communities, zoning codes prohibit apartments, require people to live on large lots or set minimum square footages for dwellings. These rules have the effect of excluding low-income people, regardless of the intent of the people who wrote the laws.

But wealthy towns with the most exclusive rules do not need the money. Mr. Castro has offered a second idea, suggesting a commission to establish national guidelines for zoning. Guidelines, though, are just advisory. They will not actually force a change.

Instead, their plans should target one of the most significant, insidious and legally vulnerable barriers to flexible and inclusive zoning codes: the definition of “family.”

Almost every zoning code across the country defines “family” in a traditional way: people who are legally related by blood, marriage or adoption. Sometimes, the definition allows a small number of unrelated people (say, two or three), who are functioning as a “housekeeping unit” to be considered a family.

Such definitions exclude people just as committed to each other as members of “traditional” families, but who don’t satisfy legal conditions. These “families of choice” consist of unrelated adults who decide to share finances, child-rearing responsibilities, home repairs, chores and meals. They include groups of single moms, households that have merged and older adults forging new lives together after the deaths of their spouses.

The definition of family matters because zoning codes typically have a “one family per housing unit” policy. These policies are most strictly enforced in the neighborhoods with single-unit detached homes — 64 percent of neighborhoods, according to the 2013 American Housing Survey. It’s in these communities where housing affordability tends to be low, and racial segregation high.

Some cities, like Minneapolis, have started making plans to reduce or eliminate the amount of land devoted to single-unit zoning. But other cities, like Plano, Tex. — where more than 4,000 residents have mobilized to overturn similar plans — have taken steps backward. The amount of land devoted to single-unit, detached dwellings is not likely to change greatly in the places that need it the most. Other aspects of zoning, like lot size controls and minimum square footages, would also be hard to override.

But definitions of family appear to be more ripe for change. Four state supreme courts — California, Michigan, New Jersey and New York — have already struck down zoning ordinances that failed to allow “functional families.” They found that such ordinances violate rights to due process, privacy or both. They also found that communities can still achieve a “residential character” without delving into the specifics of the relationships among residents. And they said that traditional family definitions flunk the “rational basis test” courts use to determine whether a law is constitutional.

These decisions make sense. The 1950s, when nearly 70 percent of children were raised in married-couple, male-breadwinner households, are long gone. (Today, only 22 percent of children have the same arrangement.) Similarly, nonmarital cohabitation and high housing prices have resulted in an unprecedented fluidity of family structure and living arrangements.

Moreover, there is no evidence that a traditional family and a true functional family differ in land-use effects. The fact that zoning codes allow an unlimited number of related people to live together (while limiting unrelated people) is not rational, either.

Justice Thurgood Marshall raised this point in his dissent in a 1974 case, Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, when he said that the definition of family being upheld by the court would allow a family of 12 in a small bungalow, but that “three elderly and retired persons could not occupy the large manor house next door.” In other words, the communal living arrangement in “The Golden Girls” would be a zoning violation. (Dorothy and Sophia were related, but Blanche and Rose were not.)

Four state courts are not 50 state courts, and federal courts have not definitively ruled on the matter. The Belle Terre case upheld a definition of family that excluded a group of six college students from living together, but that group of college students was not a functional family. A 1977 Supreme Court case, Moore v. City of East Cleveland, struck down a zoning code that prohibited a grandmother and her grandsons from living together in their home. But that decision applied only to “related” people in traditional relationships.

Presidential candidates should loosen these restrictive definitions. They could propose thoughtful federal statutes that articulate how local governments can regulate the family. There’s precedent for that: The Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act overrode local controls to improve access to wrongfully closed-off places. Candidates could also commit to appoint judges who understand this issue and take a broad view of family structure.

Championing this issue would promote progressive ideals. And it could unite both sides of the political aisle. Conservatives may come to realize that limited definitions of family erode property rights and freedom of association in the home.

As a zoning official, I’m usually the last person to advocate for federal intrusion into local decision-making. But the problems of housing inequality and segregation are too big for localities to tackle piecemeal. Every presidential candidate should incorporate into their housing plans a definition of family that better reflects how we choose to live today.

That simple line is destroying our Southside!

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Olga Negron is a Bethlehem City Councilwoman.

I agree with your suggestion Gadfly. The line: “up to 5 unrelated individuals who maintain a common household with common cooking facilities and certain rooms in common” was added to allow student rentals, and it’s what both Gadfly Antalics and I have been talking about. That simple line is destroying our Southside! Yes, I agree we should “unmake” and delete that line, that might be the only way to save our community.

Olga

We need facts for fights

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

Kate McVey is a concerned citizen, 30-year resident of Bethlehem, professional organizer, dog owner, mother of two children, been around, kosher cook . . . explorer.

Gadfly:

As I sat recently at a City Council meeting [July 2] listening to the heartfelt pleas of the residents from Hillside and around, I couldn’t help but think: are we re-inventing the wheel?  Surely this has happened everywhere there is a university. So this is not new. So what has happened to those communities where developers want to take over the properties of thriving neighborhoods? There must be statistics. Look at Ann Arbor, look at Columbus, Pittsburgh, and Philly.

What I feel is that everyone loses their homes, but the universities win. More students, more revenue, someone at the top is making money. Unless we become like Aspen where city workers could not afford to live in Aspen and the town ended up building affordable housing units for their workers, which are awarded through lottery. Could this become Bethlehem?

There have to be statistics somewhere. The Council is not going to listen to heartfelt stories and cries from the residents. But they might listen to statistics and maybe facts. What has happened in those cities where the students/universities have taken over? Has it been good for the towns?

I think we need facts for fights.  That is all I’m saying.

Kate

Kate importantly reinforces Gadfly Antalics’ basic question — “How do other communities with student populations address the issue?” — as well as Councilwoman Van Wirt’s oft-repeated call for data.

What City Council has wrought, City Council can unwrought

(Latest posts on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

The point of Gadfly’s July 17 “More Night Sweats” post was that what City Council has wrought, City Council can unwrought.

The section of City ordinance 1302.43

Family. One or more individuals who are “related” to each other by blood, marriage or adoption (including persons receiving formal foster care) or up to 5 unrelated individuals who maintain a common household with common cooking facilities and certain rooms in common, and who live within one dwelling unit.

could read:

Family. One or more individuals who are “related” to each other by blood, marriage or adoption (including persons receiving formal foster care) and who live within one dwelling unit.

Too drastic?

Gadfly Antalics has shown that other college and university communities have managed with an ordinance containing a “3 unrelated individuals” provision.

That at least would be something.

Though the language purist in this Gadfly wonders why we have to muck up the definition of “family” with any trailing “or” provision that stretches its meaning and simply have a clean separate category for “student housing” or some such.

The “5 unrelated individuals” stretch as a definition of family (though a google search shows it is not unique with us) might have made sense at some point.

Gadfly would like to hear someone make the argument for it now.

Preferably in a locked room with Gadfly Antalics, Councilwoman Negron, and the Board of the South Bethlehem Historical Society.

But, again, the point is that what Council has made, Council can unmake.

“Our neighborhood now faces an existential threat”

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods
and Affordable Housing)

Contact for the Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development is Seth Moglen: moglen@lehigh.edu. This group is open to all, not just 1st Terrace area residents. The more membership, the greater the power. And the issue here is not limited to one neighborhood.

Continuing here the thread started with the May 22 letter from the South Bethlehem Historical Society and reinvigorated Saturday by Gadfly Antalics’ essay in the Morning Call.

“Our neighborhood now faces an existential threat.”

Gadfly quotes from Seth Moglen’s presentation at City Council July 16 in which he describes the situation in his Southside neighborhood, describes what he and his neighbors want from the Mayor and City Council, and announces the formation of Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development.***

Gadfly wants you to listen to Moglen. No pulling soundbites to make it easy for you this time. Always go to the primary source. Listen. Takes but six minutes.

Gadfly is depending on you to have listened.

He wants to focus on and play off one element.

The assertion of political power.

“What we are asking you for now is this. We want you  . . . to develop the tools that City government requires in order to stop this kind of predatory real estate speculation. . . . That’s what we are asking you to to do now, not years, months. There are dozens of us who have joined in an organization [Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development], we hope there will be hundreds of us soon. We will vote in the next election. . . . We are not going away.”

The nascent Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development has thrown down the gauntlet.

“We want . . . We will vote . . . We are not going away.”

Sounds like the BRRDers are telling the politicians that action on this Southside “existential threat” may determine the way they vote.

Gadfly urges you — wherever you live in the City — to email Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu) as an act of solidarity and to get your name on their mailing list.

Bodies on board count.

And have you emailed the Mayor and City Council? Sent a letter to the Morning Call?

*** Gadfly focuses on Moglen’s presentation here, but that City Council meeting featured a half-dozen moving resident comments. Please find complete audio here.

Time for some citizen action

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods
and Affordable Housing)

Why was nothing done in the 7 years since the original 2012 Antalics article?

The Mayor politely tamped down the South Bethlehem Historical Society letter of May 22.

There’s been no formal response from Council, though CMs Negron and Callahan did have a kind of “conversation” about it at the June 16 Council meeting.

Do you sense that anybody will step up now when we just have news of a newcomer developer making a big investment in the Southside?

I’ll bet not.

What to do?

Rattle City Hall and Council. Somebody has to step up. Email contact info for the Mayor and Council members can be found on the Gadfly sidebar. Your responses don’t have to be particularly involved. Go for it if you want to. But simply saying you agree with the point Stephen makes, and you’d like to know what’s going to be done would do it. Expressing a legitimate sense of urgency would help immensely.

And how about follow-up letters to the Morning Call? Let’s show this is an issue that has to be addressed. Unfortunately, Gadfly just had a letter published last week and will fall under the MC once-a-month rule.

So Gadfly needs you to step up.

Remember, this is a general “neighborhood” issue — it affects us all, not just residents of the Southside. We all need to pitch in.

A good Sunday afternoon assignment: https://www.mcall.com/opinion/readers-react/mc-letter-to-the-editor-ngux-htmlstory.html

The sections in italics below were edited out of Stephen’s recent letter that we published yesterday.

It appears that the 40% higher rental profit margin in student housing possible in Bethlehem is not missed by big business.  Seventy one student houses in Bethlehem are owned by Campus Hill Enterprises whose home office is located in Hong Kong.  Another non-resident company owning a large number of student houses as indicted by the number of signs reflecting its name is Fifth Street Properties.  It is also rumored that pressure is being placed upon single families still owning their property to sell their homes to accommodate more student housing conversions

Bethlehem has commissioned a number of studies, such as the Sasaki Report, to determine best city designs.   The consensus of most studies was that the single family was the key ingredient for stability.  Why was the Southside overlooked?

Might Bethlehem’s planning officer consider amending the family definition to reflect the wisdom of other college community planners?  Also, might this potential revision possibly help allay the suspicions of many citizens that the interests of non-resident landlords and developers are higher than those of the community?  An opinion often expressed by concerned citizens at council meetings.

Time to read that May 22 South Bethlehem Historical Society letter again

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods
and Affordable Housing)

This letter started a chain of Gadfly thinking that you have seen reflected in the blog, as well as a series of significant responses, the latest of which is Gadfly Antalics’ recent letter to the Morning Call.

This letter should not be forgotten, should not be dusted over. Gadfly is thinking about reposting it periodically.

Lest we forget.

“We ask you honorable Mayor and City Council members to consider that history is being destroyed in the name of progress.”

“The economic impact of such progress is making it difficult for some to find affordable housing.”

005

Sunday morning on the Monocacy

The Gadfly invites your “local color” photos and reflections of this sort

On his morning walk through the historic Industrial Quarter this morning, Gadfly was reminded of Emerson: “I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”

(Nerdy ol’ Gadfly — expecting everybody to have read Ralph Waldo Emerson, arguably the creator of the American mythology of self-reliance.)

Some of you will shudder no doubt. But Gadfly is not a Musikfest-goer. That’s almost a sin in some circles in this town.

I mean, he’s glad we have Musikfest. He’s glad lots of people enjoy it. It’s just not his “bag” as we used to say.

Gadfly’s a shy, quiet man, not a fan of crowds, spectacle.

He likes his beer and his music in more intimate settings.

For instance, Jazz nites at the Cafe with Patti, Pete Smyser, and Larry McKenna. Or Thursdays at the Hotel Bethlehem. Or Jazz Upstairs at Miller Symphony Hall.

Get the idea.

But he had a different feeling about Musikfest walking into the Industrial Quarter this early morning.

004

Like he had stumbled into a village without people.

A ghost town.

Post-apocalypse in the Twilight Zone.

017

All the signs of life without life.

But the new feeling he had this Sunday morning was of life about to burst forth, of the egg about ready to crack.

Of gigantic transformation about ready to transform.

Of dynamic energy poised to unleash.

And that’s exciting.

And he felt a new feeling of pride that his City was muscular enough to support this 10-11 day enterprise.

A feeling that if it set its mind to do this kind of thing many other kinds of thing are possible.

So like Emerson relishing the silent time before the service, Gadfly found himself relishing the silent time before the Fest.

The only relish the Fest will give him.

Gadfly’s not sure if he should say this. About what he also saw on his morning constitutional. A dog pooping into a plastic bag provided by its owner. There, on the banks of the Monocacy. He saw it. He really did.

“Lehigh’s major expansion plans” motivate major Southside development deal

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods)

Brian Pedersen, “Group of student housing properties sells for $21.3M.” LVB.com. July 25, 2019.

 

A New York City-based family office bought a group of student housing properties near Lehigh University in South Bethlehem for $21.3 million.

The portfolio includes 44 properties totaling 219 bedrooms.

Ken Wellar, managing partner at Rittenhouse Realty Advisors of Philadelphia, said the buyer, whom he declined to name, bought the properties from Fifth Street Properties.

The high-net-worth buyer from New York City is new to the student housing market, Wellar said. He and Luke DeLuca, senior associate at Rittenhouse Realty, represented both the buyer and the seller in the transaction.

“The attraction [for the buyer] is really the strength of the university and the rent growth and also the demand for student housing in these locations,” Wellar said.

The properties, under the portfolio name Fifth Street Properties at Lehigh University, have modern, updated finishes. They include properties on East Fifth Street, East Packer Avenue and Carlton Avenue.

Another attraction for the buyer is Lehigh’s major expansion plans for the next decade, which include increasing enrollment and opening a College of Health.

Over the next decade, the university plans to increase its undergraduate population by 1,000 students, or roughly 20 percent, while increasing its graduate student population by 500. The expansion will also bring 100 new faculty members to the campus.

Gadfly followers might remember that testimony during the 1st Terrace case made the point that Lehigh plans will not create the need for off-campus housing and that the City has to get that word out to developers. This unnamed buyer — “new to the student housing market” — didn’t get the memo. Or maybe we are not getting the straight scoop from Lehigh. Or maybe, again as we learned in 1st Terrace, these properties are also being marketed to students from other colleges.

Antalics in 2012: “a very real and very dangerous condition exists on the South Side”

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods)

Stephen Antalics is Gadfly #1.

Bethlehem should revisit its zoning ordinance
Morning Call, September 4, 2012

For a city to maintain an environment of stability, safety and a sense of well-being in the community, its zoning ordinance must require a high ratio of family-owned residences compared to rental properties owned by nonresident landlords. This helps reduce transiency, and the high percentage of family homes also adds to a collective civic pride — an essential community element.

The Bethlehem South Side master plan in 2001 recommended that the area would benefit from more family-owned properties and fewer rentals. That hasn’t happened. The city’s zoning ordinance, adopted May 7, allows up to five unrelated people living together in one unit. This zoning designation encourages property owners to rent to Lehigh University students and others. Families, however, bring stability to a neighborhood.

When a real estate speculator can purchase a vacated South Side single-family row home for approximately $65,000, convert it into a rental student property and charge a monthly total rent to five students for $3,000, that is good business. For one New York City real estate company that owns 72 student rental buildings on the South Side, that becomes big business.

An inventory of South Side rental properties shows more than 75 “student-only” signs, which gives an ominous message to a single family wishing to live there. But a very real and very dangerous condition exists on the South Side. Reasonably affluent students who are on the streets late at night have become victims of juvenile predators, some of whom, according to city police, are gang members. Some of these juveniles live in nonresident, landlord-owned rentals, according to property records. Remember, according to the zoning ordinance, the city is required to view them as a legal family.

Radnor Township, a suburban Philadelphia community with a population of approximately 30,000, is the home of Villanova University, which has a student population of approximately 10,500. Its zoning ordinance reflects a family definition restricting it to only the traditional family. It also has a definition for student housing, and it defines students as transients and limits a student rental property to two students.

The City of Easton, the home of Lafayette College, defines a family as the traditional family but also allows three unrelated individuals to share a rental property. The City of Allentown, the home of Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest colleges, defines family in a similar manner but allows four unrelated people to live in a rental property. Allentown has a student housing definition along with a clause that includes a Student Residence Overlay District subject to stricter regulation.

Why does the Bethlehem administration not change its recent zoning revisions to be in line with other communities? Could not the South Side have a limited student overlay district immediately adjacent to the campus allowing five students, while rental properties outside that district are restricted to two unrelated persons? This would make rentals available to traditional families and possibly put rentals financially out of reach of gang members?

It is incumbent for Bethlehem City Council members, who had the final responsibility of approving or rejecting this zoning ordinance, to listen carefully to the public whose welfare they are elected to protect; comments of the public should guide council members in their actions.

The great public outcry at a number of council meetings concerning this zoning ordinance revision, an outcry supported by intelligent and researched reports, was a clear message — a message that council ignored. We citizens know what is best for us. Therefore it is imperative that council listen to us and not submit to political pressures.

Stephen

An oldie but goodie from Gadfly #1. Let’s examine our consciences — have “we” done enough to back Gadfly #1 and put the pressure on the City and Council?

Disincentivize student-housing conversions on the Southside: change the definition of “family”

(The latest in a series of posts on the Southside and Neighborhoods)

Stephen Antalics is Gadfly #1.

YOUR VIEW: Student housing conversions harming Bethlehem’s South Side
Morning Call, July 27, 2019.

In the late 1980s, Bethlehem revised its zoning code to allow up to five unrelated individuals to be recognized as a family and live in one housing unit. According to Jeffrey R. Zettlemoyer, who at that time was the fair housing and labor compliance officer for the city, the increase was an incentive for more student housing conversions.

Most recently, a developer expressed a desire to replace four single-family homes on Bethlehem’s 1st Terrace with student housing consisting of two four-unit houses with five bedrooms in each unit. Similar conversions over the years have had a profoundly negative impact on the South Side.

If one were to time-travel back to the mid-1980s prior to the zoning revision, and drive the streets of the core residential section of the South Side, streets such as Carlton, Montclair, Birkel, Vine, Webster, Polk, Morton, Summit, Fillmore, Thomas, Taylor, Adams, Hillside and Pierce, you would see predominantly well-kept pristine single-family homes resplendent with grass green yards of flower and vegetable gardens and well-appointed porches.

Taking that trip today would reveal houses with large placards stating “Student Housing,” backyards with macadam surfaces to allow for overflow parking, alleys such as Boyce and Boyer streets appearing to be massive parking lots and two or three industrial-sized refuse containers on sidewalks before most houses.

Sidewalks are littered with cups and food containers after loud weekend parties. Bed sheets with messages are strung from second-story windows rallying athletic teams to victory over rivals, creating a college campus atmosphere on the city streets. A rather depressing annual sight is to see groups of people scavenging through piles of discards left by students who have departed for summer vacation. The absence of students and the absence of cars parked on the street gives some streets the appearance of a deserted city.

How do other communities in our state that are homes to institutes of higher learning address the student housing issue? Easton, with Lafayette College, State College, home of Penn State and Radnor Township, home to Villanova University and two other colleges are located, are examples where the number of unrelated individuals in their family zoning code definition is limited to three.

Calls to change this discrepancy of a family have been presented on a number of occasions before Bethlehem City Council. In an article published in the opinion section of this newspaper on September 4, 2012, I called for Bethlehem to revisit its zoning ordinance. The city has ignored all requests.

Bethlehem has commissioned a number of studies, such as the Sasaki Report, to determine best city designs. The consensus of most studies was that the single family home was the key ingredient for stability. Bethlehem’s planning officer should consider amending the family definition to reflect the wisdom of other college community planners.

Stephen

Gadfly #1 hits another home run.

Perhaps the Parking Authority could show some good will

(The latest in a series of posts on City government)

Kim Carrrell-Smith is a 31-year resident of Bethlehem’s historic Southside, where she taught public history at Lehigh University for almost two decades. She is also an aspiring gadfly, buzzing in on issues of historic preservation, public education, city government, and other social justice issues. She tips her wings to the master gadflies who have served our community for so long!

Gadfly, since the BPA has historically not connected with the general populace (they seem to like their cozy life of isolation), how can they know that a meeting or topic will be hot? Generally they only know there is public interest or concern (if they do hear of it?) once a meeting has been held, and some folks speak out — and then it is often too late to have a more inclusive discussion of issues!

Agreed: a majority of folks would seem to be working at 4pm, and since we have a “people’s house” dedicated for such purposes, it would seem logical and considerate of the BPA to move its meeting time and location . . . just to show good will if nothing else. We could use more good will here and everywhere these days.

Kim

The Bethlehem Parking Authority discusses the meeting-time issue

(The latest in a series of posts on City government)

Primarily as a result of Councilwoman Van Wirt and resident Diane Szabo Backus turning on some heat several months back about the inability of or inconvenience for many residents to make a City Planning Commission meeting on Martin Tower at the 4 o’clock hour, the Mayor has tried to make some changes in the spirit of enabling greater citizen participation.

Dear to Gadfly’s heart and mission.

Gadfly’s been following the Mayor’s request to the City ABC’s (Authorities, Boards, and Commissions) that meet before 6PM to move to later in the day to give citizens more access — figuring that the majority of people who work cannot make the afternoon times — and to have their meetings live-streamed and archived.

Which means that a group like the Bethlehem Parking Authority that meets at 4PM — and that has a headquarters in the North Street Garage — would need to change locations as well as time, moving to Town Hall.

Gadfly attended the BPA monthly Board meeting yesterday at which the Mayor’s request was discussed and made the following pitch for acceding to the Mayor’s request and moving to Town Hall, what he called “the People’s House.”

Followers might remember that Gadfly has reported on such discussions at BRIA, the Planning Commission, and the Redevelopment Authority.

So far only the Redevelopment Authority has acceded to the Mayor’s request. The RA moved its time to 5PM in Town Hall, as well as moving from third Thursday to fourth.

BRIA agreed to move previously recognized “hot” meetings to a later time.

The PC wants to wait till a meeting with full membership to discuss more before deciding.

In his public comment at the beginning of yesterday’s BPA meeting that you can hear at the link above, Gadfly rehearsed the objections voiced at the other ABC meetings, asking the Board to look favorably on the Mayor’s request.

Gadfly likes the opportunity to enable you to hear/see the ABC’s that are making decisions that affect us, so you can hear the BPA Board discussing the Mayor’s request here.

The main reluctance to move to a later time was that long experience showed that most of the time it was “just us” at a meeting and that it would be “foolish” to change — and that there could/would be negative feeling if we moved to 6 or 7 and there was “nobody here.”

There was recognition, though, that there were hot topics for which the meeting, properly advertised, could/should be moved to 6PM.

And there was recognition that audio recordings of the meeting already routinely done could/will be posted on line with the minutes.

And there seemed to be acquiescence that if the Mayor was adamant, a move to a later time would be agreeable.

So, bottom-line, the regular BPA board meeting time will stay at 4 in BPA headquarters, hot topic meetings will be moved to 6, and meeting audio will be posted online.

And that the August meeting — where plans for the Polk Street Garage will be finalized — will be moved to 6PM.

Gadfly feels that the default position for meeting times should be when most of the general public can attend regardless of historical body counts. That’s where discussion of the meeting time should start — at a time most convenient for the public.

Gadfly also likes the move to Town Hall if only for the symbolism of moving out of the BPA bunker into the “People’s House.”

Looking at BPA numbers (5)

(99th in a series of posts on parking)

A Gadfly tip o’ the hat to Dana and several others for answering questions and filling in gaps of Gadfly ignorance on previous posts in this “BPA numbers” series!” Much ignorance! Much appreciated!

Mrs. Gadfly is happy that we’re having internet trouble.

She says this series of posts on BPA numbers is killing her.

She fears Gadfly followers are catatonic.

She’s probably right.

But bear with Gadfly for one more post as he tries to read closely the BPA financial documents.

He’s trying to figure out if he trusts the BPA on the Polk Street Garage or not.

Always remember that this is a $16.8m project with another like price tag for the Walnut Street Garage tagging along right behind. It behooves us to look at the numbers. And think about them.

One thing Gadfly doesn’t see in the numbers.

The Desman Parking Study (page 54) suggested setting up a $200,000 capital repair and replacement line item:

Historically, the BPA has paid for new equipment and repairs to its parking garages and surface lots from operating revenues. However, DESMAN typically recommends that parking owners set aside funds annually to be used for future capital repair and replacement projects, as opposed to financing these projects with debt. If the BPA chooses to follow this practice, that would mean setting aside more than $200,000 annually to pay for these future costs.

Gadfly may have missed this in the budget details, but he doesn’t think the BPA has acted on this good suggestion.

And Gadfly wondered about the Mayor justifying need for the PSG on the basis of unnamed future projects in the eastern corridor of 3rd Street. Gadfly wondered if indeed there were actually more projects in the pipeline.

DESMAN (pages 54-61) says it “consulted with the City’s Community and Economic Development and Planning and Zoning departments in order to establish a realistic picture of development” and found there was significant anticipated development, although, of course, still unnamed in the report.

Desman speaks of plans for a 600 space PSG. The current working plan is 475 spaces (which would be significantly filled by current commitments), though a larger building was discussed at the last BPA Board meeting and seems still possible.

Contract parking rates have been a vexed point in discussions Gadfly has witnessed. Are institutional users getting a deal on the backs of the average “Joe and Josephine” who feed the meters? Are, for instance, Lehigh University and St. Luke’s getting a “deal” at the New St. Garage?

The contract rates are $65/month, and $5 increases are planned in 2020 and 2024, and that rate is standard across all contract users in all the garages in the system. In the DESMAN study (page 52), we find “Monthly parking rates in public garages in these municipalities [the comparison cities] range from $65-$275, with an average of $117, compared to $65 in Bethlehem.” At the July 2 meeting we learned that Allentown is $75 and Scranton is $95.

Our $65 compared to an average of $117? (Well, to be fair, there are some outliers in the comparison group, so that average number is no doubt inflated.)

Our $65 compared to $75 in Allentown?

How’s that feel to you?

Increases are planned, but we will still be at the bottom of the scale. There does not seem to be an attempt to make us comparable in this specific area.

At the July 2 meeting the BPA Board chair said the low rate was a good thing. But without substantiation. Gadfly would like to hear the argument for that.

Our low rate ranking was part of the argument for raising the meter rates from $1/hr. to $1.50/hr.: “parking rates charged in Bethlehem are too low and an argument can be made for increasing parking rates to more closely align with the rates charged in comparable cities” (page 52).

The meters went up 50%.

Would not the same logic apply to the garage rates?

Lastly.

The significance of the so-called “Ruins lots” adjoining SteelStacks is a persistent thread in the DESMAN report. Those lots now provide free parking for approximately 300 cars. If the lots are not available, the study indicates significant parking problems on eastern Southside. DESMAN recommends either a PSG or an agreement with the owners, now Wind Creek, about the Ruins lots (pages 69-70).

As noted previously, the combination of new development and an unreliable source of existing parking on the east side of the southside downtown has the potential to create a significant parking shortage within the next few years. The nearly 300 vehicles parking in the Ruins East and Ruins West lots during the weekday peak period could be displaced, if and when restrictions are imposed on parking in these facilities. In addition, development which is expected to be completed by 2019 is anticipated to generate demand for approximately 180 more parking spaces than are being constructed as part of the projects. Finally, additional future development on this side of the southside downtown has the potential to generate the demand for hundreds, if not thousands, of additional parking spaces.

For these reasons, it is recommended that a plan be developed to manage the impending parking shortfall on the east side of the southside downtown. This plan could include a new parking structure, which has been discussed in the past for the corner of E. 3rd Street and Polk Street, or a formalized agreement with the Sands Corporation [now Wind Creek] to ensure that the SteelStacks parking lots will remain available for public parking in the long-term.

Councilwoman Van Wirt is suggesting, Gadfly believes, that no decision on the PSG be made before clarity about the Ruins lots. Which is reasonable. As far as Gadfly can see, no “official” statement about the continued availability of the Ruins lots has been made. The statement of their unavailability by Councilman Callahan at the July 16 meeting would be considered hearsay by Judge Judy. Can we do better than that? What can we know “for sure”?

Can the City seek clarification from Wind Creek about their plans for the Ruins lots?

Can the City negotiate a plan with Wind Creek providing enough lead time for the construction of a garage if Wind Creek decides to revoke public parking there?

Perhaps naive questions by the Gadfly but worth asking he thinks.

As always, Gadfly invites your comments on what you see in the BPA documents or on his ramblings in the past several posts.

Looking at BPA numbers (4)

(98th in a series of posts on parking)

My father had a saying, “Never send a boy on a man’s business.”

Updated might mean “Never depend on an English prof to understand a complex budget statement.

But here we are. It is what it is.

The working draft for the Polk Street Garage from the Bethlehem Parking Authority presented at the July 2 City Council meeting.

https://thebethlehemgadfly.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/bpa-presentation-7-2-19-city-council-draft.pdf

Gadfly soldiers on, seeing what he can see, inviting your eyes on the page too.  Remember, the PSG is — one way or another — $16.8m of our money.

FIRST: this morning, Gadfly noticed something he hadn’t noticed or heard of before.

Yes, the $16.8m is reduced by a $2,000,000 RACP Grant. Gadfly is not sure what RACP is, but he guesses that is our money too from another pocket.

But here’s the morning surprise: $500,000 from Northampton Community College. That would be over and above paying for 300 parking spaces annually.  Well, Gadfly guesses you can say NCC money is our money too, but he wonders why the other two entities contracting spaces are not kicking in something as well.

Maybe more importantly, that leads Gadfly to ask whether, say, Five10 Flats will benefit from PSG. Their web site says “On-site premium parking with additional parking available.” Where is the additional parking?

And more broadly, if NCC is kicking in, what about other entities coming on-line in the Mayor’s proposed additional commercial development of the eastern corridor of 3rd St.?

SECOND: There is always the question of whether a parking garage should pay for itself or be subsidized by the overall parking system. Gadfly is not sure what the answer to that is among parking professionals, but he has repeatedly heard critics of the PSG (and other garages) expect that it pays for itself.

What does the BPA working draft show?

On page 5, we see debt service in 2021 for two 2019 loans, which Gadfly takes to be for the PSG: $615,290 + $327,953 = $943,243 in total debt service for PSG for 2021.

And on page 4, we see estimated income in 2021 for PSG is $396,260.

If Gadfly is calculating properly (!?), PSG does not pay for itself by a long shot.

THIRD: Now there is always the question of how much debt is too much debt. Gadfly thinks that’s the basic question Councilwoman Van Wirt was getting at in part of her comments on the BPA working draft at the July 2 meeting.

There are no definite plans for the repair or rebuild of the Walnut Street Garage yet. But figures for it are included in the BPA draft for demonstration purposes.

On page 5 we see that in 2024, the projected debt service (including the WSG) is approx $3.5m, just shy of 50% of the entire system expenses.

Is there an accepted ratio of debt service to other expenses? Of debt service to revenue? For instance, isn’t the affordable housing rule of thumb that your monthly mortgage payments be not more than 30% of your monthly income? Or something like that.

A question for the green-eyeshade people.

Gadfly believes the BPA financial advising firm also handles the City business. He has seen the managing director making reports about the City finances.

Do we trust their judgment that BPA can handle the debt and that the City is not at risk?

Looking at BPA numbers (3)

(97th in a series of posts on parking)

Gadfly back in headquarters. Yard all tidy.

You and I are just walking through some of the relevant BPA documents seeing what we can see.

Salaries — are the BPAers fat cats?

Salaries are not broken down on the budget sheets (page 4). To be expected. And Gadfly would not be able to get them through a “Right-to-Know” request either. Confidential.

The Exec Director has been in the saddle five years. His starting salary was published in the newspaper when he was hired. It’s a good salary. But it seemed to Gadfly commensurate with the nature and scope of the job and probably roughly on par with City department heads. It doesn’t look like an easy job.

Last year while engaged in controversy with BPA, Gadfly wanted to know who pays the Exec’s salary — who signs the pay check — and if there were performance reviews. Gadfly was trying to identify the “chain of command” for purposes of accountability. The BPA is considered “independent.” But what does that mean? Who does the Exec report to? So Gadly asked (Right to Know) for a copy of the original contract (salary redacted) and evidence of performance reviews (though, of course, not a review itself). He wasn’t told he couldn’t have this information; he was told there were no contracts or performance reviews. Gadfly was stunned. Really?

Language in newspaper articles makes it sound as if the BPA Board hires the Exec. Is then the Exec. responsible to the Board not the Mayor? Gadfly wishes he knew more about accountability in the BPA. Much more.

The BPA has a solicitor. Gadfly has no personal basis for knowing, but he has been told that the solicitor is a politically powerful person in the City. There is a line in the BPA budget for “professional fees – legal,” which was $41,847 for 2018. Gadfly is not sure if that category applies only to the solicitor. The City Council solicitor earns about $25,000.

Does the BPA board get paid? Gadfly is not sure. He believes, for instance, that some of the resident members of some of the ABCs in the City do get a small, token remuneration. The present Chair of the Board has held that position since 2008. There are long-time members of various ABCs (Authorities, Boards, Commissions), so his tenure is long but might not be all that unusual. But it would be interesting to know for sure whether there is any remuneration.

If your antennae are up, you will have heard Gadfly wonder here and there if BPA Board members play active roles in BPA decisions. Gadfly took notice this description in the 2018 Desman report (page 41):

Meetings of the BPA Board are held regularly, typically on a monthly basis. During Board Meetings, the Executive Director of the Parking Authority reports to the Board on the financial performance of the Authority’s assets, informs the Board of new initiatives impacting the parking system and, periodically, seeks changes to off-street parking rates.

Look at the wording. The resident Board is reported to by the Exec and is informed by the Exec. Interestingly, there is nothing here about the Board taking an active, initiatory, agenda-setting, or critical role. Maybe we shouldn’t make too much of this. But this description surely squares with my observation of a passive Board. Which is not good.

Peter perspectives (96)

(96th in a series of posts on parking)

Peter Crownfield is officially retired but spends most of his time working with students in his role as internship coordinator for the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley.

Gadfly:

You say “Gadfly has sensed no hue and cry among the parking populace about the 50% rise in meter rates January 1.” . . . I’ve heard many people mocking Bethlehem’s high meter rates. Is a “hue and cry” required?

Point for Peter!

“Who cares whether there’s a Polk Street Garage or not?” I have a more basic question: is it even legal to use its public status & revenues to build a garage wherever they want? — Suppose it is primarily to benefit developers (who would otherwise have to provide their own parking)?

I think we should lock somebody in a closet until we get an answer to that one — but who?

Peter

Gadfly reprints these previous comments in case WordPress’s design caused you to overlook them.

A pause for reflection (95)

(95th in a series of posts on parking)

This kind of number stuff is not Gadfly’s cup o’ tea.

(More cliches from the English prof.)

Gonna take a break and do some yard work.

Gotta assess damage from the storm.

Think of this as a pause to reflect.

Are some of you saying “who cares whether there’s a Polk Street Garage or not?”

“Who cares what the parking costs in the downtowns?”

“It doesn’t affect me or my neighborhood.”

Gadfly gets it. He’s old. Amazon and PeaPod are members of the family. His backyard is all he needs. He doesn’t go “downtown” all that much. The increased parking meter rate startled him into rooting around in the car for more change, but it didn’t raise his blood pressure. So Gadfly gets it. A parking garage on 3rd Street can feel like a distant concern.

But you know I’ve been reading urban walking guru Jeff Speck, not only Walkable City (2012) and Walkable City Rules (2018) but also the report he did for Bethlehem: The City Livable Modest Proposals for a More Walkable Downtown (2009).

In the Bethlehem report he says an important and relevant thing:

Other neighborhoods may be in greater need of assistance. But it is important to remember that a city’s downtown is its one neighborhood that really belongs to every resident, wherever they may live.

In addition, the condition of a city’s downtown plays a disproportionate role in the city’s reputation and thus its future success.

Make a residential neighborhood better, and its residents benefit. Make the downtown better, and the entire city benefits.

Gadfly will see you again on the other side of some yard work.

Be thinking.

Looking at BPA numbers (2)

(94th in a series of posts on parking)

Gadfly jumped ahead of himself last time and headed right in to the meter v. fine situation that will probably need to be decided in the next meeting or two.

Hold on, Big Fella!

Sit back for a moment and look at bigger picture.

He’s always wondered what the BPA budget looks like.

How  about you?

Ever wondered what all those coins going in to meters add up to.

It’s rather astounding when you see it on the cold statistical sheet.

Look at “meters” at line 30 under Revenues: https://thebethlehemgadfly.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/bpa-presentation-7-2-19-city-council-draft.pdf

In 2018 our coin and credit cards produced $1,976,547 at curbside.

And $2,268,925 is projected for 2019.

Crazy to think about that much as you plunk your quarters in, no?

And that’s $292,378 more annually from the increase in meter rates that went into effect January 1.

And have you ever wondered if the BPA is lining its pockets with our coins?

Look at the revenue/expense bottom line.

In 2019 a projected $6,688,263 in revenue minus $4,948,279/1,589,000 in outgo renders a bottom line of only $150,984 in the petty cash jar (lines 34, 38, 39, 45, 46).

(Now, of course, one would have to look more closely at the minus items to make sure they are legit to make sure the BPA truly wasn’t lining its pockets!)

The 2019 budget 2019 BPA Budget FINAL (page 7) has slightly different numbers, and the bottom line there is a residue of $122,981.

But either way — $150,984 or $122,981 — the cold statements would seem to show that BPA is playing it fairly close to the vest (ugh, English profs are supposed to avoid cliches) in a budget in which revenues are edging toward $7m/yr. .

Now, one other thing Gadfly was looking for was how much Desman and those kinds of consultants get paid.

Whew! Bit of a choker!

$255,219 in 2018.

$198,459 projected in 2019.

(BPA Presentation – 7-2-19 – City Council – DRAFT Page 4: why are those numbers in blue?)

The 2019 BPA Budget FINAL page 9 has different numbers for 2018, same for 2019.

Interesting, no?

What are you seeing?

What are you thinking?