The recent official discussions about the Martin Tower project are in themselves of interest to many Gadfly followers, but probably at this moment the election 4 days away trumps that interest.
We can combine both interests here, though, by focusing on the three incumbent candidates’ participation in the discussion of the Martin Tower project at the May 4 City Council meeting.
Well, however, candidate Reynolds did not participate in this aspect of discussion at the meeting. Which is very unusual. When has Councilman Reynolds not spoken on an issue? Gadfly doesn’t know the reason why now mayoral candidate Reynolds remained silent, but it is hard not to speculate about its connection to an issue in the campaign. An issue in the campaign has been the possible effect Martin Tower developer Ronca’s large contribution may have had on the Reynolds vote at that controversial time of the major discussion on a vision for the site as well as necessary zoning changes six years ago.
Followers will find here classic Callahan: a pro-development tax-hawk.
Candidate Crampsie Smith questions the developer closely, differs dramatically with Callahan on the primacy of tax revenue in the Council decision, and it is her motion that triggers a month’s hiatus for further discussion before a vote.
So we can certainly learn something about the candidates here.
A brief recap: About to begin construction at the site, the Martin Tower developer asks for a zoning change in regard to parking, on the surface a minor issue. At a previous meeting, however, Council took a wider view of the project and, in Gadfly’s phrase, “seriously interrogated” it. President Waldron suggested that the developer and the City meet before the May 4 Council meeting and discuss and agree on some issues. No such meeting occurred, but the developer sent a long, itemized letter to Council addressing most or all of the issues Council raised and adding the positive impact the project will have on our tax revenue. At the May 4 Council meeting discussion of issues was not resolved and decision was postponed a month.
Councilwoman Van Wirt began the discussion May 4 in tiger mode: “I anticipated this letter with a lot of interest. I was hoping the City would hear the urgency in our tone at the last meeting about sitting down with the developer and kind of hammering out something solid that we could react to, but, unfortunately, that did not occur. I read this letter extremely carefully. . . . I find it incredulous to believe. . . . pushes the edges of my own credibility. . . . also strains my credibility. . . . pushes my credibility. . . . I was looking for something of substance in this letter. My overall impression of this letter was seriously disappointed.”
Don’t hide your feelings, Councilwoman!
In direct contrast, a calm Councilman Callahan defended the developer, taking a good bit of time carefully discussing points in the developer’s long, itemized letter one-by-one, hoping to take most or all of the issues “off the table.”
Here are those long Callahan audio clips if you are interested in hearing his defenses.
Perhaps of more significance is the argument Councilman Callahan wraps around his defense, which I summarize for you here, but which you can hear for yourself in the several clips below: The issue is “huge” for Callahan, and the hang-up, perplexingly, is over just 2 lanes of parking. It’s a “small ask,” and there’s a chance that the end users will walk away from the project if they do not get the designs they want. For it is end-user designs that are in the plan not the developer’s, and they have a contract right to opt out if they do not get the design they want. The developers are trying to help the City, a City that is not too receptive to development (unlike Easton, with whom we are competing) — we are simply making development harder and harder. This developer is willing to talk about affordable housing, and this project (like the proposals on the Southside coming to Council) gives us the opportunity to see and show how serious we are about something we call a crisis. It is because we are being negative and pushing back on developers that we have the crisis. Councilman Callahan wants to put $5m of the $33m Rescue money coming in to affordable housing, and he wants Council to join him on that — again putting money where our mouths are. “This vote that we take is going to have an impact on a lot of different entities. . . . we’re looking at a substantial amount of taxpayer money in tax increases if this doesn’t go through. The City needs to bring in an extra $2m a year to balance our budgets. And there’s no question that this is probably the largest development project in the City of Bethlehem.”
Contrary to Councilman Callahan’s approach, Councilwoman Crampsie Smith engages the developer in a way that evokes his frustration over the way Council is slow-walking what, in his view, should be an easy decision on a minor issue. It is in this interchange that the developer says, in exasperation, “I can’t believe this is as much of an issue as it is.”
For a rousing finish to this post today, you must hear Councilwoman Crampsie Smith push back vigorously against her colleague’s lectures on and foregrounding of tax revenue in the Council decision: “I think I can speak for all of us. . . . Nobody ever wants to raise taxes. . . . I grew up as a freebie-lunch student. I have been on my own, you know, for the last few years supporting my three kids. I know what it’s like to really struggle financially. That’s probably why I am such an advocate for those who are oppressed. . . . It doesn’t matter where any of us are at as far as our income goes. . . . Certainly we need to look at development to increase our tax base. But the way I see here, black and white, simply is we’re not going to approve of a development project simply because it’s going to bring taxes in. . . . We have to vote on changing the law. . .. We have to vote our conscience and as representatives of the people of this city. . . . So the bottom line is, we’re here to vote on changing of the law not to vote on changing the law just because we want to increase our tax base in the city.”
We give candidate Crampsie Smith the last word: “we’re here to vote on changing of the law not to vote on changing the law just because we want to increase our tax base in the city.”
So, again, we have a razor-sharp difference in approach by the Council candidates who are running against each other.
And we might even be able to learn something from the mayoral candidates’ silence.
“In serving and responding to others within the community my golden rule will continue to be: ‘It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people’.” Grace Crampsie Smith
So in this Forum I want you to think about basic city services. Residents will be telling you things, a lot good, we hope, but certainly some complaints about basic city services. It’s in the nature of your job to have your ear to the ground. Since you are now asking people for their vote, some no doubt are responding to you with a sort of “what will you do for me”? Or here’s what I want you to do. That is, here’s a problem we’d like you to do something about. Will you work on it if I vote for you?
If elected, you may not have a hand in the day-to-day managing of public services, but you will probably find it important to establish good rapport with the Mayor and department heads and so forth to be a channel for resident voices. If another level of persuasion is necessary, you have the power of the bully pulpit at Council meetings to call attention to a problem that you feel needs tending. And in the final analysis you might utilize the power of the budget to shape how City services are performed or delivered.
What are you hearing with your ear to the ground about those basic city services that have such a great impact on the day-to-day lives of the average resident?
Please share what you are hearing, what you are thinking about on this level.
For responses by other Council candidates to this prompt, click here.
I was fortunate to be born into a family where service to others was paramount. I literally saw on a daily basis my father, as a Police Chief, constantly respond to the calls and needs of others. Community members knew if there was a problem/issue, they could go to “Jack” and he would deal with it. He emulated to me the importance of treating others with compassion, respect, objectivity, and going to whatever lengths to resolve conflicts. He was known for his motto ”It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people,” and I try to live his legacy every day.
My mother was the epitome of compassion for others. As the eldest of 10, mother of 7, and a nurse, caring for others was her middle name. If someone was ill or had an unmet need, they knew they could reach out to my mom and she’d be there for them.
My 6 siblings were much older than me, so I also got to experience them as role models of service/response to others. Several went into public service, and my only sister became a Sister of Mercy, literally giving her life in service and mercy to others. I always joke that having been born in between 5 brothers she had enough of men and decided to be a nun.
It is no wonder that I choose a professional path of serving those with addictions, mental health diagnoses, and developmental disabilities, as well as counseling high school students for almost 40 years.
In my tenure as city councilperson, I frequently have constituents reach out to me re: concerns. Issues range from public works (streets), safety/police, health, etc. I have responded to every issue by first and foremost gathering the facts, then reaching out to the appropriate person(s) in city administration to address the issue. I always tell fellow community members that I am here to represent and serve them so they should not hesitate to reach out to me. I also advise them of our new Service App, which is so much easier to navigate than the past one. However, I know that not everyone can or cares to access this app.
Over time, I’ve had several concerns within the Moravian College area re: typical college student behaviors that are disruptive to the neighborhood- parties, loud noises, safety of nearby residents due to Covid. I reached out to the College President, College Police, and City Police Dept. to address these concerns. Given my belief it is best to meet issues head on with all involved, I initiated the Moravian Block Watch. This allowed neighbors to sit at the table with city police, Moravian Police, and Moravian Representatives to discuss and resolve presenting issues. I think we were progressing and had success in resolving some issues, but, unfortunately, we had to discontinue meetings due to Covid.
I truly believe the skills I have honed as a counselor, as well as in various areas within the human services field has been a definite advantage in serving as a councilperson. In my career, I have to mediate and resolve conflict amongst individuals and entities on a daily basis. I’ve learned the importance of treating all sides with respect, allowing all sides to express their concerns, and try to guide others to meeting in middle. It is also important for different sides of issues to have their consciousness raised as to the obstacles the other side may face
I never hesitate to reach out to city staff or the mayor and will continue to do so no matter who the new mayor is. I believe those within the city and the mayor know that I will always strongly advocate for those in need, from micro issues such as a potholes to macro issues such as securing inclusionary housing options for multiple income levels. Recently, when we had to implement the new stormwater fee, I noted there needed to be a tier system or appeal process, and the appeal process was added. Being a student of free/reduced lunch, I know first-hand the monetary challenges some households may face, and I will continue to advocate for those less fortunate.
In the end, in serving and responding to others within the community my golden rule will continue to be: “It doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people.”
It may be helpful for the taxpayers of the City if Council members — all of whom have shown or demonstrated little if any practical knowledge of business, economics, or development — at least try to learn more about “how it works.”
Council is made up of nice people who are teachers or social workers and have shown very little knowledge or interest in learning how development works.
They have superb insight into how to pander to those that scream the loudest and show very little interest in listening to those that may disagree with their “woke” perspective on so many issues.
This year I was stunned when my fellow City Council members voted 6-1 to raise your taxes 5% in the middle of a World Pandemic and to cut 4 Fire public safety positions. I was the one and only vote against it! Bryan Callahan
‘Tis said that the most important job of City Council is approving the budget. The Mayor proposes, Council disposes. Budgets demand setting priorities. Budgets require hard choices. Choices that often need to be explained to a questioning public. We’d like a window into your thinking about budgets by focusing on a specific complex issue [the pedestrian bridge] that came before Council last November, and thus in which some of you were involved, and which issue, frankly, gave me pause.
For responses by other Council candidates to this prompt, click here.
The most important thing that residents need to understand is that there are basically just two ways our City can generate additional revenue to pay our bills. The first is to
raise taxes and fees on all the existing properties and property owners in the City. The second way is through smart economic development, by taking an empty lot or rundown property that has a very low tax assessment and then building something on that lot that has a much higher tax assessment/higher taxes paid by the developer, when the project is completed.
The new projects on 3rd and New St (The Benner Building) and the 510 Flats building on 3rd St. are great examples of the latter. The 510 Flats building was an empty stone parking lot forever that paid a couple thousand dollars in taxes per year. The 3rd and New St (Benner Building) was an empty lot for over a decade and also paid a very small amount of taxes due to the fact both lots were empty with no buildings of any value on them. The two developers invested close to $30 Million each into both of those sites and are currently each paying close to $300,000 per year in taxes.
My point in bringing this up is, I’d much rather prefer to increase everyone’s property values in our City than raise taxes on existing property owners. Every time the City raise taxes on existing property owners, we make our City less affordable for lower and middle income residents.
This is even more true for renters. The bottom line is that the owners of rental units are in business to make money on a long-term investment. They are not investing their money into the rental units to lose money. Thus, whether you want to believe it or not, every time the City raises property taxes/fees, the owners of the rental units don’t absorb the additional taxes/costs. The owners of the rental properties are only passing those costs on to the renters. If you are renting in our City, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Bethlehem is becoming unaffordable to live in for many because we keep raising taxes instead of promoting more smart economic development.
When I ran for council 8 years ago for my first term, I promised to keep Bethlehem Safe and Affordable. I have fought hard on Council to try and make needed cuts in a bloated permits and zoning department and to hold the line on taxes by promoting smart economic development. In 7 years I voted 6 times against raising your taxes. Why? Because every time I’ve been asked to vote to raise your taxes, I think of the parents of my old Kaywin Avenue friends and neighbors who still live in the same middle class ranch homes on the West Side. They are all retired now and living on fixed incomes. They don’t live extravagantly, they love Bethlehem and what it has given them. They pay their bills but because of continued yearly tax increases, they struggle to be able to even afford a simple week vacation each year.
If Bethlehem is going to stay as the cultural center of the Lehigh Valley and Northeast Pennsylvania, we will have to continue to support smart economic development on vacant and condemned properties so we can hold the line on taxes for our current residents and let the developers generate the new tax revenue needed for increases in wages, retirement, and health care costs.
This year I was stunned when my fellow City Council members voted 6-1 to raise your taxes 5% in the middle of a World Pandemic and to cut 4 Fire public safety positions. I was the one and only vote against it!
I am concerned that the wishes of residents are often ignored at the expense of the interests of the largest developers, and that residents’ voices are being muted. I’m running for this office to serve those residents first. I ‘Believe in a Better Bethlehem,’ and feel that as mayor, I can give residents a voice in the governance of Bethlehem: I am not part of the political class that tends to shut them out.
Our city recovered from the closing of Bethlehem Steel because we had forward thinking leaders who placed an emphasis on a revitalization of our community through economic redevelopment. We need a mayor coming out of the pandemic that has a vision to create an economically vibrant and dynamic city. That vision must be based on increased economic investment, diversity and equity.
Our campaign has broad support from families, progressive organizations, small businesses, environmental advocacy groups, public education advocates, organized labor, and elected officials at the local, state and federal levels. That cross-section of support will be the same citywide coalition that the next mayor will need if Bethlehem is going to emerge from the pandemic an even stronger community.
Latest in a series of posts regarding the George Floyd anniversary
Gadfly is modestly proposing that City Council mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s death at a Public Safety meeting on May 25, 2021. A year gives us some distance on our efforts to act on the significance of his death and a perspective on the challenges it presented to the City. Gadfly continues here a quasi-history of the “Year of Floyd” as seen through his eyes and the pages of the blog. One man’s version. As always, Gadfly invites you to join in.
The Community Engagement Initiative is a wonderful idea.
Gadfly called it “audaciously ambitious.”
The CEI sponsored by Councilmembers Reynolds and Crampsie Smith generated the most powerful rhetoric of the past year or even of any year.
It was rhetoric that matched the dark profundity of the Floyd killing. It challenged us in a particularly American way to weld together, renew our dream of democratic community, and take positive action.
Listen to Councilman Reynolds here at the June 16 Council meeting, for instance, in one of the first articulations of the nature and goals of the CEI: the people need a consistent public space for our different community groups to discuss and take action on systemic racism, discrimination, social justice, allocation of resources within the police department, he said.
How about that very next Council meeting, July 7, when the resolution to form the CEI was up for a vote? The community was indeed engaged. Though we were in the pandemic, a handful of honest-to-god real activists were in Town Hall with Councilman Reynolds and President Waldron while the rest of us were in television land. And they were not happy. They were broiling for action, action of another sort. They called for defunding and dismantling the police. They saw the CEI as appeasement, as pacification, as a public relations ploy, as a band-aid, as a joke. They saw the proposed community discussions as belated — the conversation had been going on for years but no one (read elected officials) was listening. The CEI to them meant more cop-sponsored pizza parties. They complained of lack of representation by people of color.
The response from the ten or so callers on that July 7 to the idea of a CEI was not a helluva lot better than that of the activists. The reporter who covered the meeting, in fact, described the public response as “lukewarm at best.” The absolutely most memorable call, however, was Anna Smith’s, and her words that “we have an opportunity to do something truly momentous” became Gadfly’s anthem, perfectly capturing the spirit of radiant optimism that informed the conception of the CEI: “I’m here because I believe that we are at an important moment in our community’s history, and we have an opportunity to do something truly momentous. But unless we focus on doing it the right way—by relying on experts in our community to provide advice, supporting community members with deep neighborhood ties to lead the charge, and taking the time to build relationships not with other organizations or the usual suspects, but with the very folks that are marginalized—then we are doomed to another series of community meetings where the same folks talk, the same folks listen, and nothing changes.”
This was not to be a moment of the same old, same old. What Gadfly heard in the Reynolds words and the Smith words was the goal of change, productive change, radical change, transformative change.
So Councilman Reynolds, undaunted, sat in Town Hall July 7 face-to-face with the activists and gave an enthralling description of the CEI: he was looking to found an open public structure in which the energy of the demonstrations would continue. The CEI would be open-ended; “we” weren’t going to set the agenda. The goal was to create public pressure to bring about real change. The goal was to give people who have ideas about what we need to do access to power and a voice to wield it. CEI co-sponsor Councilwoman Crampsie Smith added a sincere, powerful pledge of complete commitment to the high goals of the CEI: “we can work together to try to make changes . . . in all areas. Even though I do have white privilege, I have, and I will continue to advocate for people of color, people living in poverty, people who have mental illness, addictions, you name it, I will continue to advocate till the day I die.” We who know the Councilwoman believe it.
The resolution to establish the CEI passed 7-0 at that July 7 City Council meeting. We expected things to start percolating immediately. But the oxygen was seemingly taken out of the CEI thrust by the announcement of a Public Safety meeting for August 11. Discussion of public safety and of the creation of a CEI were married from the beginning in the June 9 letter from Councilmembers Reynolds and Crampsie Smith to the mayor and police chief, but they are really two different tracks. Discussion of the police went first at the marathon August 11 Public Safety meeting, but time was given to the CEI at the end. It was at this August 11 Public Safety Committee meeting that Councilman Reynolds gave his fullest and most vigorous explanation of the CEI. You must listen. Here’s Gadfly’s response to the Councilman’s words: “Councilman Reynolds is at his rousing best here. Worth listening and catching his energy and enthusiasm. ‘That was beautiful,’ said Councilwoman Negron of his words, ‘you get it!’ Community engagement is, of course, synonymous with Gadfly’s mission. The Reynolds/Crampsie Smith Community Engagement Initiative is audaciously ambitious. Catch the wave!” It is in this speech that Councilman Reynolds said that Black and Brown lives matter, that systemic racism is real, it’s the speech where he envisioned two types of regular CEI meetings, meetings that would be advertised on the City web site, meetings organized by the City and meetings organized by community groups and organizations, a speech in which he said (good god! did he really say this! Is Gadfly the only one who heard it?), “I think we do have an opportunity in the coming weeks and months to make tangible progress on ending systemic racism and creating more equitable systems.”
Oh, only tangible progress on ending systemic racism and creating more equitable systems.
A cultural moment in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Christmas City when in Smith-speech we have an opportunity to do something truly momentous.
A goal to make your temples throb, your palms sweat, and your loins leap.
Gadfly began to think not only of a new brand for Bethlehem but a new reality.
George Floyd’s death, Gadfly wrote, “put a fire in Councilman Reynolds’ belly.”
Gadfly became a Reynolds groupie.
Gadfly waited for the wave.
But that was August 11.
Later in the year Gadfly titled a post “looking for the wave.”
As far as Gadfly can see (what is he missing?), the CEI has disappeared from our radar screens and our vocabulary.
Gadfly is just not sure what happened to it; Gadfly is just not sure where that energy, idealism, and rhetorical force went.
Systemic racism is still here.
Was it the pandemic? The DiLuzio fiasco? The noise generated by the Lehigh Valley Good Neighbors Alliance? What?
What was it?
Gadfly can’t remember hearing the phrase “Community Engagement Initiative” anymore.
He misses it.
He’s afraid the momentum, the wave has passed.
If we have that meeting on May 25 to mark the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, maybe we could assess what happened, recalibrate, and resume the journey to the Equitable City once more.
We are, of course, in election time, and it turns out that 4 people running participated in the important Community Development Committee meeting last night.
So it would be especially interesting to focus on their reactions to the report and their contributions to the discussion.
Gadfly always asks you to make up your own minds, but Gadfly was disappointed in the participation by incumbents Reynolds and Crampsie Smith.
They seemed distant from the specific resident concerns about height — the elephant in the room — and general dissatisfaction with developers that you have seen Gadfly chronicle over several posts.
Perhaps understandable for Councilman Reynolds who may not have been aware of past discussions, but all the more surprising about Councilwoman Crampsie Smith who was at the meeting 3-4 weeks ago when residents turned out in significant numbers to argue against the proposed heights in the proposal draft.
Reynolds and Crampsie Smith did not seem to be sharing the same urgent vibe that brought the callers to the meeting.
Not so Mayoral candidate Grubb and Council candidate Leon, who, of course, is a Southside resident.
Unfortunately, I missed Leon’s comment. I think she spoke after me, and I must have forgotten to turn on my recorder.
But Grubb and Leon melded with the significant number of other callers who expressed dissatisfaction with the report.
Councilwoman Crampsie Smith:
glad you are addressing affordable housing
should we put lower levels of building height in the zoning ordinance so that we have more leverage adding affordable housing — negotiate room with developer
developers have said that anything like this would be helpful in getting them to agree to an affordable housing element
developers have said it is a challenge to work with HCC, stringent
not as much collaboration with HCC as they would like
anything we can do to collaborate with developers in a better way would be helpful
what can we do about demolition by neglect?
how do other cities deal with blight?
perception that our conversations are mainly about new buildings, big buildings is a problem
perception that “we” are driving these projects and that’s all we are interested in talking about
part of the frustration of people is that these projects take up so much of the time and energy
asks for fill in on decision of who to talk with and etc. — details of process
how many responses did we get to survey?
how many key interviews and who?
what are we looking at in terms of process?
implementation will be an ongoing public process
big document, lots of different ways to look at things
don’t want to create as many problems as solve
has as many questions after reading the report as he did before
Councilwoman Van Wirt nailed it
ignorant developers — shame on them
surprised that South Bethlehem Historical Society was not included — unconscionable
need better communication about meetings
City and consultant are ignoring survey results
and not listening to citizen commentary — tone deaf
some people see the Southside as ripe for plunder
inclusionary not being used, assess developers a fee to go into a fund for affordable housing
go block by block and measure height of buildings and then use that as your limit in that block
bothersome that public official who advocated for the creation of the district now support out of scale development
ignoring community vision for the district for the developer vision
blatant disrespect for public engagement
almost no conversation about environmental aspects
I have a $20 bet that “John Price” is your real name and not a nom de plume, a pseudonym, a mask, a masquerade, a pen name. I’ll split the winnings with you. Easiest ten bucks you ever made. Call me. If a woman answers, hang up.
The meaningful relationships I have developed with small business owners in Bethlehem through my work at Fig have brought this community, and the issues they
face, close to my heart. I have always admired, deeply, the extraordinary hard work and dedication it takes to launch a small business. But this past year, I have been in awe. Forced closures, capacity reductions, layoffs, complex and time-consuming grant applications, learning how to keep customers and staff safe in a pandemic—the list of unimaginable challenges goes on.
With over $33 million of funding coming to Bethlehem through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, the City will have the opportunity to provide desperately needed support to small business owners: to help them keep and hire back employees, provide debt relief, cover the cost of upgrades and strategies required to keep customers safe, and more. It’s crucial that we provide swift, equitable, and easily accessible funding to help our small businesses stay in business. And not only the funding itself, but the guidance and information to help small business owners navigate the process of applying for and utilizing it. This involves direct communication with small business owners themselves and working closely with those already serving the important role of supporting our small business community—including our existing economic development team, organizations like CADCB, and individuals like Missy Hartney with the SouthSide Arts District and Tammy Wendling with the Downtown Bethlehem Association (both of whom have worked tirelessly to guide our small business owners through the ever-shifting landscape of the past year).
We must look beyond the pandemic, as well. What do our small business owners need to succeed and feel supported by the City in the long term, and how can we better provide that support? What can we do to create an even more vibrant small business community? Can we improve practices with regard to inviting entrepreneurship and encouraging new small business owners to choose Bethlehem? How can we, as a City, more actively promote our local businesses? What mistakes have we made in the past, and how can we correct them? How can we make it as easy as possible for great small businesses to open, expand, and thrive—not just post-pandemic, but well into the future?
Small businesses are often referred to as the lifeblood of the US economy, for good reason. Spending that we do at local businesses helps our local economy. Small businesses create jobs, drive innovation, and enable us to purchase products made locally. And small business owners are members of our community, too. They are neighbors and friends; they know our favorite item on the menu, how we take our coffee. They, and the work they do, provide character and individuality to Bethlehem. They are invested, deeply, in what happens here. And the past year has challenged them like no other. Celebrating and supporting small business is more important than ever, and taking a greater role in helping our hard-working community of small business owners thrive—now and into the future—will be a great privilege and responsibility of my role on Bethlehem City Council.
Continuing coverage of last night’s important Community Development Committee meeting on Southside Historic District regulation. Anna Smith is no stranger to Gadfly followers. Here are her comments at the meeting. More details to come.
Good evening, this is Anna Smith, homeowner at 631 Ridge St, born and raised on the Southside.
This work was born from the important recognition among members of the administration that inconsistencies between the zoning code and the historic conservation guidelines in the Southside Historic Conservation District create inefficiencies in the project development process and unclear instructions to prospective developers. Throughout this study process, building height has emerged as the primary issue to be addressed.
I’d like to address building height from a community planning perspective, and share why I think that regulating building height is such an important piece of our community’s future viability—and I do agree that it is in all of our best interest to lower the overall heights in the zoning code, although I have some concerns about the process of this study.
When we talk about allowable building heights, we’re really talking about what kind of density we want to see in our downtown. The higher we build, the more people we can house on a single parcel (since residential is now the exclusive new building terrain in a post-COVID world). I love the Southside because it is densely populated, making it a vibrant, walkable community where there are always folks out on the street. However, population density is a tricky thing, and most people would agree that it’s something that we need to balance—particularly in a community which is so car-dependent (87% of Southside residents work outside of Southside Bethlehem). There’s an ideal density that can be supported by a community’s infrastructure before density begins to cause problems—traffic, parking, pollution, social alienation/loss of “small town” feel. The Southside is the most densely populated area of the City, with a population-density in our residential and commercial neighborhoods (excluding the Lehigh campus and industrial redevelopment areas) of 13,175 people per square mile, comparable to the population density of Boston. If this were considered a city of its own, we would be the 52nd most densely-populated city in the US.
But the development pressure on our community is greater than ever, and the projects that would increase density in our downtown keep coming. Since 2014, 12 different developers have proposed 15 projects to add 652 new apartments to the Southside in our downtown areas. Of those, 464 units are not yet occupied (but many will soon be, as they are under construction). Assuming that those apartments (a majority of which will be 2 bedroom) house just an additional 750 people, our downtown and residential neighborhood population density will increase to 13,856 people per square mile—passing Boston, Elmwood Park in Chicago and Daly City in San Francisco. If we use the city’s current, accepted ratio of cars to apartments (1.1 vehicles per unit), we are looking at 510 more cars parking in our downtowns, daily. All of this is development that is either approved or is on its way to approval and would not be impacted by these changes. If we remove checks on building height at the HCC level, how many more high-rise projects will we see on the Southside? When will our community be “dense” enough? Traffic is already so bad on the Southside that I’ve changed my shopping destinations on weekdays, and now rarely shop for groceries or head to a pharmacy in the city, since it takes me so long to get across town. Once we pass Boston—which we surely will with the construction already planned for our neighborhood—we only have 2 major cities left that are denser: San Francisco and New York City. Is that where we are headed?
As I’m sure you agree, the HCC is not the commission that should be responsible for developing or enforcing a sustainable development plan for the Southside, but at the moment, they are the ONLY group that Southsiders can go to to express concerns about out of control development that threatens the qualities that make the Southside a desirable place to live. The HCC is the only place where we have a chance to be heard by individuals who live or own businesses in our neighborhoods, and who actually get it when we talk about the impact of a project on our day-to-day lives. If you remove the one check that we have on out of control development without a plan in place to promote sustainable development, then you risk making the Southside an unlivable, overbuilt, economic development engine for the rest of the city. Once again, this would suggest that quality-of-life concerns are only important if they happen on the Northside—not in the Southside’s “neighborhoods of no consequence,” as a developer recently referred to them in a Planning Commission meeting as he pitched his student housing tower.
I’m urging you to take a step back, and examine the actual data on development in South Bethlehem. This study asserts a need for new construction in south Bethlehem’s commercial core without providing any data other than opinions to support where and how it can be added to grow our community responsibly. We need a comprehensive planning effort that considers quality of life—not just tax revenue. We need to end the current extractive relationship between the two sides of town, where gentrification and displacement of Southside residents and businesses are justified through additional tax revenue to provide services that benefit the residents whose lives are untouched on the Northside.
I’m going to put on my economist hat for a moment (since I happen to have a degree in economics) and ask that you please remember one of the basic regulatory function of government in a market economy: to ensure that public goods–which are often underprovided in the free market–can be provided at the optimal level to everyone. In this case, quality of life in our neighborhoods without traffic congestion, parking problems, and pollution, and with walkable downtowns with ample green space, are public goods. There’s no incentive for developers to worry about these things. If we give them free reign to develop, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s your job to figure out how to regulate development to ensure an optimal outcome for our residents. So please listen to us tonight, and let’s take some time to examine the data and develop a sustainable solution that reflects an understanding of the complex role of building height in community planning. This is not just about old buildings vs. new, this is about the future livability of our neighborhoods—and it deserves a much deeper analysis.
Latest in a series of posts on candidates for election
I am grateful for the number of former city co-workers and officials who have endorsed my candidacy. These people know my experience, work capacity, and moral compass as well as anybody.
Here is what some of them have to say:
Richard ‘Bucky’ Szulborski – former Bethlehem City Councilman: “Dana is a man of honesty and integrity.”
Tom Mohr – former Bethlehem City Councilman: “He was admired by his peers and subordinates.”
Dianne Bachmann – former Public Works Department Business Manager: “Dana always had a great work ethic.”
Anna Marie Eckert – former administrative assistant for the Parks & Recreation Department: “Dana is city smart, he has a deep commitment to the city and will lead with honesty and integrity.”
Jeffrey Fritz – former City of Bethlehem Utility Superintendent: “Dana Grubb is a man that I trust.”
Tom Marshall – former Director of Recycling: “He is a fair and honest man.”
Steve Melnick – former Director of Development in BEDCO: “Dana’s integrity, honesty and dedication will make him a true Mayor for all citizens in our community.”
Larry Mika – former Public Works Section Engineer: “He was always a very pleasant person to work with and was a fantastic supervisor, fair to all.”
Mary Jo Reed – former Purchasing Director: “I know that Dana is dependable and his word is his honor.”
Dennis Reichard – former City of Bethlehem Business Administrator: “He will be a Mayor who is caring and will work hard for the residents.”
David Saltzer – former City of Bethlehem Firefighter and President Emeritus Bethlehem Firefighters I.A.F.F. Local 735: “This is a true leader who employees will follow and who will restore the morale of the city’s workforce.”
Joan Schrei – former Administrative Assistant to Mayor Gordon Mowrer and Public Works Department Business Manager: “I always found him to be honest, fair, committed and focused on making Bethlehem a better place to live.”
Gordon Smith – former Director of Emergency Medical Services: “He was always honest and fair.”
Jim Smith – former Public Works Streets Superintendent: “I can assure all citizens that your best interest is Dana’s main goal.”
Greg Solderitch – former Bethlehem Police Captain: “His work ethic is beyond reproach, as is his honesty and integrity.”
Christopher Spadoni, Esquire – former City Council Solicitor: “I think he is very knowledgeable about Bethlehem city government.”
Ann Szmania – former Supervisor of Accounts Payable: “I have found him to be above all else a man of integrity, honesty and compassion.”
Mark Wood – Bethlehem Waste Water Treatment Plant Superintendent: “I have never met a person with more integrity or more trustworthiness in my entire life.”
Jean Zweifel, former Director of Human Resources: “His moral compass, honesty, integrity and love of the City of Bethlehem and her residents is continually displayed by his actions each and every day.”
“In the last five years, we’ve seen the development demand just skyrocket [on the Southside].”
City Planning Director Heller
“I don’t see any consolidated comments from the members of the Historic Conservation Commission themselves. I also don’t see any mention of the South
Bethlehem Historical Society.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“My viewpoint is that the HCC has been doing a great job.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“The tension isn’t between this big plot here and that big plot there, it’s capitalism. That’s what the tension is here. It’s capitalism.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“As a City Council person representing the public, I am not comfortable with the recommendations to raise the height.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“There’s not a whole lot of public comment at all supporting raising building’s heights.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“Some of my greatest concerns . . . have to do with shadows and the corridors which these heights would create.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“Sometimes in our push for development, we ruin the treasure that we have.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“I do not feel that inclusionary zoning produces the number that is needed to actually offset our shortage [of affordable housing]. It’s barely a drop in the bucket. and they are really not even affordable.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“I have grave concerns over the infringement of the pressure of capitalism.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
“I understand the benefits for our tax base, but I really think that following these guidelines of height are really going to end up destroying the thing
that we love the most.”
Councilwoman Van Wirt
The new reports (linked above) coming out of the City’s planning study of the South Bethlehem Historic District discussed last night at Council’s Community Development Committee are long, detailed, and admirable.
But what has been referred to many times in various discussions of Southside development lately as the “elephant in the room” — the building height proposals — was virtually the sole focus of last night’s meeting.
Gadfly followers have seen the height of recently proposed Southside projects dominate attention. A major purpose of the City study is to eliminate the tension between the City zoning ordinance and the much narrower Historic District guidelines administered by the volunteer Historic Conservation Commission (HCC).
Dedicated Southsiders have with one voice decried the various tall buildings proposed in violation of the Historic District guidelines.
The study proposes to drop the 150ft. height (approx 13-14 stories) now allowed by our zoning ordinance in the core of the Historic District to 90ft (approx 7-8 stories). The Zest/Benner building at 306 S. New, for instance, is 85ft., and thus, to take one example, buildings even slightly higher would be permitted all along the S. New St. corridor.
Many of those Southsiders showed up again last night to argue for reduction of the 90ft proposal, but this time they found a powerful ally in CDC chair Paige Van Wirt.
Gadfly will return to provide other details of the meeting, but to Gadfly the night belonged to Van Wirt, and it is she on whom he will focus here.
Councilwoman Van Wirt’s section of the discussion was about 25 mins. long. You can listen to the whole thing by going to the video link above and beginning at about min. 1:13:50.
But Gadfly has broken that section down into smaller chunks here for your listening convenience, with snippets of her words to whet your interest.
It’s always better to hear the person, Gadfly suggests, rather than skimming the text.
Gadfly, for one, found the Councilwoman’s questioning and straight talk enormously refreshing and reassuring.
No vote was planned or taken, and Gadfly is not sure exactly what the next step on consideration of the study will be.
He thinks the City was a bit taken aback at how the meeting unfolded.
“I don’t see any consolidated comments from the members of the Historic Conservation Commission themselves. . . . I am extremely interested in what they have to say. I also don’t see any mention of the South Bethlehem Historical Society. . . . I think that these two entities have a reason for being, and they have a voice in this discussion. . . . That itself gave me a huge feeling of unease. . . . I think it’s really important that the people who have been volunteering and protecting South Bethlehem’s voice be heard.”
“How much did this [the study] cost? . . . I called up the representative from the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission. He told me that any changes in our requirements for these commissions had to be run through them. . . . Will we get a chance to see what their feedback is? . . . We are talking about an overlay district. . . . An overlay district trumps the local zoning. . . . The whole purpose is to give a different set of regulations. . . . That is a set of design guidelines that has been intentionally done . . . with the intent of trumping the existing zoning code. . . . Where does this leave the HCC? . . . The experts are the HCC. . . . Where is HCC’s role? . . . What we’ve done is essentially handicap the HCC. . . . We’re not building 150ft buildings for one reason: the HCC is there to stop it. . . . My viewpoint is that the HCC has been doing a great job. . . . The tension isn’t between this big plot here and big plot there, it’s capitalism. That’s what the tension is here. It’s capitalism. . . . Right now, they’ve been doing this job all along. . . . The friction is coming from the developers . . . . I do not see the data on this [raising building height]. . . . The premise of this whole study for me is troubling. . . . Me, as a City Council person representing the public, I am not comfortable with the recommendations to raise the height.
Only 30% of the respondents [to the survey] live in South Bethlehem. We need to do a much better job. . . . I read every single word of the survey, probably twice. Most of the comments were about too tall, too big, too new buildings downtown. There’s not a whole lot of public comment at all supporting raising building’s heights. . . . I’m concerned about that. . . . For the task force that you had, I was a little concerned that I couldn’t see who was on it. Is it a big secret?
Some of my greatest concerns about the increased density and height have to do with shadows and the corridors which these heights would create. I was really kind of confounded by the lines drawn for the 90ft area, particularly the area at the end of the Greenway right where it hits New St where there is a contentious building project. . . . It would cast permanent shadow on the Greenway, . . . I’m not saying I don’t want development. . . . Sometimes in our push for development, we ruin the treasure that we have. . . . We’re doing a really good job now protecting what we have to protect, and I have grave concerns over the infringement of the pressure of capitalism into this project. I understand always that development brings new taxes, but so does good smart development And I don’t think it’s if you don’t do these tall buildings, you don’t get, development, not at all, I think you get really good small builders, small storefronts, not ones that are empty for years on end. . . . You get what the community needs when you let the community in under the current recommendations.
The Planning Director and the head of the Department of Community and Economic Development took some time to explain that the purpose of this study and to make clear that the study and the recommendations are not to be understood as evidence that the HCC has not been doing a good job.
I think that’s a bone of contention that really needs to be clarified. . . . To the argument that [developers] do all this work and then come in and find out it’s a historic district, you know, buyer beware. That’s on them. If they have consistency . . . they are gong to follow the guidelines. . . . Refer those [developers] to [the Historic District guidelines]. This is a great document.
One of the other things that I wanted to be very clear about is there is a huge need for affordable housing. . . . I think that the most powerful thing you can do within the context of what we’re talking about is exactly what you have proposed in streamlining the process. . . . But I am not convinced and I am not comfortable with the idea that we would modify any zoning ordinances to allow greater density at the height that is being proposed in order to have inclusionary zoning. . . . I do not feel that inclusionary zoning produces the number that is needed to actually offset our shortage. It’s barely a drop in the bucket. and they are really not even affordable. They’re for moderate income people. I’m really uncomfortable with the idea that we may be considering even allowing greater height and density in order to encourage these developers to throw in some affordable units. The data is just not there. . . . We’ve had this embedded in our zoning codes since 2012, and when I asked you how many people had used it, the answer was zero. . . . We can’t build our way out of this affordable housing crisis. . . . The developers are the ones who want these changes happening, and I understand the benefits for our tax base, but I really think that following these guidelines of height are really going to end up destroying the thing that we love the most.”
John Price is a forty-something resident of the forgotten far northeast Bethlehem. He is a computer nerd by day and political wonk and local government follower in the shadows of the night. A socially liberal, fiscal conservative in a world gone mad, he wonders if he is in danger of extinction.
A little online investigation suggests that John Price is not a real person. He has what looks like a fake profile set up on Facebook, which clearly has the sole purpose of smearing Dana Grubb. He has no friends, no pictures, and no information suggesting anything about who he is. In case he exists, I would offer a small reward to anyone who can prove it. I really can’t wait to meet him in person. In all of my ten years of attending City Council meetings, I’ve never heard him speak or be referred to by anyone. By letting him post on your blog under a false name, you give his comments the appearance of objectivity. John Price, for all we know, could be Willie Reynolds’ campaign manager. That would explain his on-going efforts to try to justify a wholly inappropriate campaign mailer, and the silly comments in this post about the manner and content of Mr. Grubb’s criticism of current governance in Bethlehem. Anything Mr. Grubb said at a meeting is on the record, and in the minutes, so people can look his comments up themselves if they seriously think that there is something wrong with his much appreciated efforts to challenge bad decisions and demand integrity from elected officials. As someone who has seen Mr. Reynolds mock residents who dare disagree with him, call them “ridiculous” and then rant about how angry he is about their complaints, I find it rather amusing that Mr. Price would liken Mr. Grubb, rather than Mr. Reynolds, to the former president. Mr. Price is only fooling people who don’t pay attention to Bethlehem politics. The only reason for anonymity on your blog is if someone is facing some kind of threat or harm as a consequence of revealing their true identity. I am fully confident that Dana would not affiliate himself with anyone who would do such a thing and, therefore, that Mr. Price is both deceptive and cowardly in hiding behind a false name.
John Price, crafter of the charming and intriguing Gadfly post byline above, and who recently defended the Reynolds’ mailer that Reynolds’ endorser Lehigh Valley for All termed negative campaigning, suggesting an apology to his opponent Dana Grubb, has been a mystery man to Gadfly followers. His September 2019 post on a Bethlehem Parking Authority controversy stood out so much that followers wanted to find out who he was. From the looks of it, he must be a person close to the controversy. But a John Price was nowhere to be found. Leading to the suspicion that someone was posting under a false identity. As you can see, the suspicion persists. Gadfly doesn’t at all like the idea that he is doing what Breena suggests, so he has reached out to John, twice offering his phone number. So far, John has not responded. If you know John, ask him to text or call the Gadfly, willya?
“I was born and raised in South Bethlehem. . . . I felt this divide growing up. . . . What I hear most often is that we need a strong voice for the Southside. . . . The implication, to me, is that [the residents] do not feel heard.” Rachel Leon
Another week, another Gadfly prompt from hell for our candidates!
I joked in the prompt audio that they’re wishing I’d ask about something easy, like fixing potholes.
But Gadfly is up in the stratosphere. Literally. Gadfly asked everybody to look at Bethlehem from a high up perspective.
Inspired by Mark Iampietro’s “Lookout yoga,” Gadfly asked the candidates to take the proverbial 30,000ft. view of our town.
And what did they see? one city, one city with two complementary parts, one city with two different parts, one city with two contrary parts, one city with equal parts, two (or more) cities ?
If you want to listen to my full prompt. click here. For responses by other Council candidates to this prompt, click here.
Thank you, Gadfly, for another thought-provoking prompt.
Are we a city of two cities?
I was born and raised in South Bethlehem, so I can only speak from my experience.
Cities all over our country are broken into downtown areas, arts districts, and historic districts. What makes this so pronounced in Bethlehem is the presence of our river. A 10-minute walk across the Fahy can feel like leaving one city and entering another, but we are all Bethlehem.
The labeling of Bethlehem as a city of two cities can feel a bit antiquated, especially when viewing the divide within the historic context of the joining of the three boroughs. However, I felt this divide growing up in South Bethlehem. Whatever reason led to Bethlehem feeling like a city divided, those sentiments have lingered. I hear this sentiment echoed as I continue speaking to people about how I can help if I am elected. What I hear most often is that we need a strong voice for the Southside. The implication, to me, is that they do not feel heard. I know for a fact that South Bethlehem has had amazing community leadership speaking loudly in defense of our communities. Maybe the issue isn’t the speaking but the ability to hear their voices. If they aren’t being heard, maybe they are being spoken over.
Bethlehem is a beautiful city with a unique history. A history that is important to preserve, even while we move toward increased development. I am passionate in my belief that development needs to be intentional and considerate of the communities we are asking to bear the brunt of continued development. South Bethlehem is often spoken about in terms of student housing and lower income families. Affluence and struggle. This just isn’t true. Communities are not monoliths; they are made up of people of diverse backgrounds, be that ethnic or financial. If we miss this important fact, we miss what makes South Bethlehem so special.
So, as a resident of South Bethlehem, I can best answer the question of if we are divided by continuing to raise the voices of people in South Bethlehem who believe we are. They aren’t digging back 100 years to validate their ideas. They are pointing to decisions that have been made in recent years. Decisions that they have shown up to stand against. Decisions that they have fought against. Decisions, that in the end, they were unable to stop from being made. I hope that, as Bethlehem continues to move forward, we listen to all our communities and how they want to see their city grow and develop. I hope that elected officials ensure that the southside doesn’t become the default location for unwanted land uses or over-development. I hope that we value all areas of our city for their own unique history even as we continue to work together toward a stronger, more united Bethlehem.
DUE TO THE COVID-19 EMERGENCY, TOWN HALL ACCESS IS CURRENTLY RESTRICTED. IF YOU WANT TO MAKE PUBLIC COMMENT, PLEASE FOLLOW THE PHONE COMMENT INSTRUCTIONS BELOW.
PUBLIC COMMENT PHONE INSTRUCTIONS
REMOTE PUBLIC COMMENT PHONE INSTRUCTIONS. If you would like to speak during the City Council Community Development Committee Meeting on May 11, 2021, please sign up per the instructions below or call into the meeting when the Committee Chair announces she will take public comment calls. If you would like to sign up to speak, email the following information to the Bethlehem City Clerk’s office (firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than 2:00 PM on May 11, 2021 (a) name; (b) address; (c) phone number; and (d) topic of comments. If you are signed up to speak, the Committee Chair will call you from (610) 997-7963. After all signed-up speakers talk, the Committee Chair will ask whether anyone else would like to make public comments. If you want to speak at that time, call the Bethlehem City Council public comment phone line at (610) 997-7963. NOTES. Calls to the public comment phone number will only be accepted during the designated public comment period with a 5 minute time limit. If you call and the line is busy, please call back when the current speaker is finished. As soon as your call begins, please turn off all speakers, computer speakers, televisions, or radios. At the start of your call, please state your name and address. A five minute time limit will apply to any public comments.
You can watch the City Council Meeting on the following YouTube channel:
“To imagine that Bethlehem is somehow different than every other place in this country where we’ve seen these things happen is, I believe, naive. . . . I think we can be an actively anti-racist city. . . . We need to do the work to understand and recognize white privilege . . . so that all of our residents, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, can feel a true sense of belonging in Bethlehem and walk without fear in our community.” Hillary Kwiatek
Gadfly’s basic prompt question was should there be a George Floyd anniversary response at the City Council meeting of May 19 or June 2? [Gadfly has since been suggesting May 25, the anniversary date.] See here and here for full prompt and responses by others. Candidate Kwiatek’s response was done just after the Chauvin verdict.