Gadfly in a muddle over 548

(9th in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

So the Planning Commission response to the proposal for a new building at 548 N. New St. saddened a reflective Gadfly in a different manner for a different reason.

There was no one Planning Commission position on the 548 design, but here is what Gadfly pieced together a couple of posts back from separate comments on the design by the three commissioners.

This is what Gadfly “heard” as a general rationale for approving the design:

548 is not in the historical district, which means that it’s not tied to the past but can be a catalyst for elevating and exciting and even beneficially controversial change, an indication of our commitment to modern progress that will benefit the City economically by attracting urban dwellers who, in the developer’s language, want to “live free” and who will spend money in the downtown.

Gadfly is aware of the legitimate problems with what we might call the “Boyd Theater” block of Broad Street. And of optimism about plans for 120 new apartments there.

He shares that optimism.

For a personal and selfish motive, Gadfly — wrestling with the downsizing demon — would love to see apartments that he would like and can afford in that section of town.

The Planners base their approval of the design precisely on the basis that it will be a change agent in that area:

  • “[548 is] not in the historical district”
  • “This is a new development and hopefully the rest will follow
  • “The design is going to elevate the architecture in the surrounding 70s-designed buildings in the future”
  • “It’s going to improve our overall outlook and image in terms of where we’re going and moving toward

The Planners have Gadfly envisioning this section of the future City in the image and likeness of the 548 style of architecture.

So which is it? Does the modern design of 548 blend in with and complement the historical architecture, as the developers see it? Or is it something new, a consciously chosen break with historical architecture that signals a move in a new direction, as the Planners see it?

Not only which is it, but which do we want it to be?

It’s the dramatic inconsistency of the two messages that bothers Gadfly.

In contrast to the developers, The PC celebrates difference and change and assumes more of it.

It almost sounds as if there is an official plan or consensus evolving of the kind of downtown residents we seek and the kind of downtown development we want.

In approving such dramatic change in architectural design, are the Planners in ad hoc fashion making policy, or are they reflecting principles already agreed upon?

Gadfly has heard the kind of residents we seek (“the type of clientele that we’re trying to have within our City”) as young professionals with disposable income who want to live and spend money in a walkable downtown.

And he guesses the assumption is that such folk will only be attracted by such modern design. Is that a testable assumption?

For it sounds from the PC words like we are moving toward a city with a distinct historical section and a distinct modern section.

Gadfly agrees generally that history is Bethlehem’s brand. So will we have a competing brand? Can a city have two brands?

Carrell-Smith felt baffled. Gadfly feels muddled.

And thus for Gadfly the key question is, where and when does the conversation about Beauty in Bethlehem take place, and who is there when it does?

For by the time that Scheirer and Carrell-Smith get thoughtfully to the microphone, it is too late. That’s what made Gadfly sad. The conversation train had left the station.

Gadfly hopes that conversation is taking place somewhere before the train has gone too far.

For this specific kind of comment from a Planning Commissioner really makes Gadfly anxious: “if nothing else, people who visit Bethlehem will have something more to talk about.”

O, my.

That does not seem responsible planning.

to be continued . . . (Gadfly can really beat a topic to death, can’t he?)

The 548 developers give Gadfly a headache

(8th in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

Gadfly began this thread on 548 N. New on September 10 by saying he “found himself very reflective after the Planning Commission meeting of August 26. And — to tell the truth — sad.”

Now that we have a complete overview of the players and the process, let’s put a foundation under those feelings, starting with a closer analysis of the developer rationale for the design.

Gadfly doesn’t feel the developer was prepared for the Planning Commission member’s question about the design.

And his answer was totally inadequate and, Gadfly thinks, insulting and dishonest.

Scheirer and Carrell-Smith deserved better. “We” deserved better.

The developers:

“We understand that [the 548 design] is modern, but when modern design is actually done right we feel it not only enhances it, not only complements it, but also enhances the historic architecture. So I mean, we feel that, we understand that people may not like this in the historic downtown, but this is invigorating type design . . . people want to live downtown, be downtown, live free, and spend money downtown. We feel this is, this is the way things are headed. We love design, we love Bethlehem, and we want to invest in Bethlehem . . . continue enhancing the downtown.”

  • We understand that it is modern, but when modern design is actually done right we feel it not only enhances it, not only complements it, but also enhances the historic architecture. To Gadfly, who has no architectural savvy, this is an astounding claim made totally without example or evidence or data, so it’s meaningless.
  • We understand that people may not like this in the historic downtown, but this is invigorating type design. Gadfly does not understand the relation between the first part of the sentence and the second. This is a type of non sequitur. Precisely what will be the nature of the invigoration, and how will it enhance the surrounding historic architecture? If the second part of the sentence is meant to mollify the antipathy of the people in the first part of the sentence, it is not clear how.
  • People want to live downtown, be downtown, live free, and spend money downtown. What does “live free” mean? Is the assumption here that a differently designed building would not attract such people? If so, no basis is provided for believing so. And Kim Carrell-Smith offered to provide data that historical architecture is an economic driver.
  • We feel this is, this is the way things are headed. To what does this refer? To directions in City planning? Or to trends in urban architecture? Or to what? Not clear. This statement is meaningless.
  • We love design, we love Bethlehem, and we want to invest in Bethlehem. Ends with a love feast. Kumbaya, my Planning Commission, kumbaya. Smoke screen hiding empty argument.
  • We try to be sensitive to the surrounding area [quote by the developer the night of the meeting]. Please. Pu-leeze.

For Gadfly, the developer response to the design question is non-sense.

Yet the Planning Commission did not blink.

The irony is that the developers could have made a good case on each point. Gadfly could write it for them. But there was no effort to do so. Their answer is manifestly skimpy.

And thus we find a rightfully “baffled” Kim Carrell-Smith, “baffled by the developer’s characterization that this modern building fits into the historic downtown and complements it.”

Gadfly feels justified in feeling the developers were insulting in treating “us” as empty heads.

But why does he feel they were dishonest as well?

Because, Gadfly feels, they must have known they should have been making the exact opposite case for their modern design but didn’t feel it would fly.

That modern design is so obviously different from the surrounding area that, if they were honest, they should have been “selling” its difference as a needed and necessary positive change agent in a section of the City that needed a boost.

For, after all, that’s what the Planning Commission did!

Yes, oh yes, my good followers, the Planning Commission made a case for the design 180-degrees from the creators of the design.

O, my aching head, says Gadfly.

to be continued . . .

The key voices in the 548 narrative

(7th in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

What good is an English major? What skill do English majors have? One thing Prof Gadfly used to say is that English majors are excellent close readers. They read closely; they listen closely. Gadfly has tried to listen closely and carefully to the case for and agin’ 548 N. New. He’s structured the key voices in the case in a flowing narrative here. Can you discern the plot?

It would be worth the while if in each town there were a committee appointed,
to see that the beauty of the town received no detriment.

Henry David Thoreau c. 1862

Who’s in charge of beauty in Bethlehem?
Gadfly

Was there any thought given to the architectural design?
To fit in to the rest of the neighborhood?
Planning Commission member

We try to be sensitive to the surrounding area.
the developer

When modern design is actually done right we feel it not only
enhances it, not only complements it, but also enhances
the historic architecture.
the developer

This is invigorating type design.
the developer

We feel this is . . . the way things are headed.
the developer

We love design, we love Bethlehem, and we want to invest in Bethlehem.
the developer

Everything we have asked them to do and contribute for
they have agreed to.

City Planning Department staffer

Your project will change the streetscape in that block
that has existed for 100 years.

Bill Scheirer

Other than market demand, and other than you want to build it, how
do you justify changing the streetscape there, the historic
streetscape so dramatically?

Bill Scheirer

I’m kind of baffled by the developer’s characterization that this
modern building fits into the historic downtown
and complements it.

Kim Carrell-Smith

Historical architecture and historical streetscapes are economic drivers.
Kim Carrell-Smith

What I would like to see the developers answer specifically is how
does your architect, how do you see this building blending in
with this neighborhood?
Gadfly

And moving and growing and moving forward, I think the fact that
it’s not in the historical district something like that would increase
foot traffic in our downtown, would draw in the type of
clientele that we’re trying to have within our City.
Planning Commission member

It’s going to improve our overall outlook and image in terms of
where we’re going and moving toward.
Planning Commission member

I think the design is going to elevate the architecture in the
surrounding 70s-designed buildings in the future.

Planning Commission member

Moving forward I think this will infuse a lot of excitement into the area.
Planning Commission member

Architecture is very subjective, and, if nothing else, people who visit
Bethlehem
will have something more to talk about.
Planning Commission member

I don’t do context.
Frank Gehry
World-class “starchitect” (star architect) — quoted by Jeff Speck

One of the things we’ve learned as new urbanists is that the prime ingredient
of urbanism is really public space and the public realm. So the urban plan comes
first and the building second. It becomes an issue of whether the building is a
monument or a piece of fabric. Then does this building dominate what’s in
place or does this building add to it or transform it?

New Urbanism architect Stefanos Polyzoides

Maybe the question should be, where and when does the
conversation about Beauty in Bethlehem take place, and
who is there when it does.

Gadfly

to be continued . . .

The Planners speak up about the design of the 548

(6th in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

Who’s in charge of beauty in Bethlehem?
Gadfly

“How do you justify changing the streetscape there,
the historic streetscape, so dramatically?”
Bill Scheier

“I just ask, does this building fit into the character
of that neighborhood?”

Kim Carrell-Smith

In their final comments, the three Planning Commission members did address the issue of the design for the 548 raised by residents Scheirer, Carrell-Smith, and the Gadfly.

Which responses we will consider in the next post in this series (probably) as Gadfly begins to reflect on this entire process.

548 n. New st 2

But, first, give a listen to the Planning Commission viewpoints:

PC member 1:

  • “Mr. Gallagher used the words ‘moving’ and ‘growing’ and ‘moving forward’.”
  • “And, yes, even though the rendering does not show what’s currently there, and, yes, I would concur that I would like to see that as well, but moving and growing 10, 15, 20 years from now, I’m not sure if that picture was there of what is currently there, I can’t predict those buildings will still be there 10, 20 years from now.”
  • “And moving and growing and moving forward, I think the fact that it’s not in the historical district something like that would increase foot traffic in our downtown, would draw in the type of clientele that we’re trying to have within our City.”
  • “It’s going to improve our overall outlook and image in terms of where we’re going and moving toward, so, even though it’s not in the historical district . . . I would like to make a motion.”

PC member 2:

  • “The architectural design doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that this is a new development and hopefully the rest will follow, and I agree with [PC member 1] with what he’s trying to confer there . . . my biggest concern about the project right now is [one lane of traffic].”

PC member 3:

  • “I actually applaud the architectural design.”
  • “I think the design is going to elevate the architecture in the surrounding 70s-designed buildings in the future.”
  • “Moving forward I think this will infuse a lot of excitement into the area.”
  • “Architecture is very subjective, and, if nothing else, people who visit Bethlehem will have something more to talk about.”

Now we can see the elements of the Planning Commission affirmative position: 548 is not in the historical district, which means that it’s not tied to the past but can be a catalyst for elevating and exciting and even beneficially controversial change, an indication of our commitment to modern progress that will benefit the City economically by attracting urban dwellers who, in the developer’s language, want to “live free” and who will spend money in the downtown.

Does that seem a fair reading of the PC position? It’s risky to try to meld other people’s ideas together.

Chew on this.

to be continued . . .

Gadfly floats a solution

(5th in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

Who’s in charge of beauty in Bethlehem?
Gadfly

“How do you justify changing the streetscape there,
the historic streetscape, so dramatically?”
Bill Scheier

“I just ask, does this building fit into the character
of that neighborhood?”

Kim Carrell-Smith

In this next installment of “The Making of the 548,” Gadfly lept to his feet and commanded the podium-less microphone stage-left so that he was virtually speaking into what he thought were the inactive right brains of the City Planners.

Gadfly can’t figure out how to do a video-selfie, so you’ll have to settle for this still photo to go along with the audio, taken during the undercover phase of his gadfly training.

ejg-hat

  • “I’d like to hearken back to Mr. Stellato’s question about design.”
  • “I don’t think the Benners answered that question well.”
  • “You see the building without its context, without what’s on the left, without what’s on the right.”
  • “I think we have to think about how the building fits in to the neighborhood better.”
  • “What I would like to see the developers answer specifically is how does your architect, how do you see this building blending in with this neighborhood?”
  • “We can’t just look at the individual property.”
  • “I would actually like to see a form in whatever comes to you guys to start this process, a form that gives a space where the developer has to answer the question ‘How do you see the property blending in with its neighborhood,’ and I’d like to see a paragraph, or a page, or two pages in which the architect explains that to us.”
  • “The answer that you got, Mr. Stellato, has to do with the people who will be in the building, or this is the way that architecture is going for apartments — that’s off-point.”
  • “How does this design fit into the neighborhood — not historic district, but still I think we need an answer to that question.”
  • “I look at it . . . and I can’t see it blending in, but I’m an English prof, but an architect would say, ‘Hey, Gallagher, this is the way I see it fitting in, this is why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
  • “That’s the kind of answer I think we need.”

Gadfly hopes you enjoyed his three minutes in the spotlight.

But he wants to be sure you note two things that we will return to later:

  • he adopted the verb “blend” from his followers (in a comment to a recent post, Dana Grubb suggested “compatible” would be a good choice too)
  • he moves toward a possible solution to a (the?) problem in situations like this by requiring a statement from the architect

Gadfly resists the appellation (good SAT word) CAVE (a citizen against virtually everything). His natural instinct is to move toward solutions not just whimper and whine. You will note his “modest proposals” every once in a while.

But even Gadfly has to laugh at himself. His solution is so . . . “academic.” Write me (us) an essay, he says.

Chew on this.

to be continued . . .

“How do you justify changing . . . the historic streetscape so dramatically?”

(4th in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

Who’s in charge of beauty in Bethlehem?
Gadfly

No context needed. Just listen to these two fine resident comments on the proposal for the new building at 548 N. New St.

Bill Scheier:

  • “People tend to agree that there is a special quality of life in Bethlehem.”
  • “One of the components of that quality of life is the streetscape.”
  • “Your project will change the streetscape in that block that has existed for 100 years.”
  • “It is a dramatic change to the streetscape.”
  • “Other than market demand, and other than you want to build it, how do you justify changing the streetscape there, the historic streetscape so dramatically?”

The aforementioned Kim Carrell-Smith:

  • “I think that we are all pretty aware that Bethlehem’s brand, if we had one, would be history.”
  • “And I think that eliminating historical pieces of the streetscape bit by bit and replacing them with high-rises may miss that fact.”
  • “Historical architecture and historical streetscapes are economic drivers.”
  • “Bethlehem’s brand is history and its historical ambience, and that’s why the downtown was redeveloped with a historical feel in the 1970s, thanks to visionary City leaders who were really far ahead of their time in recognizing that historical preservation pays in many ways.”
  • “I think the New St. developers’ idea of demolishing this dignified brick twin . . . that was built around 1900 and replacing it with a glass and metal high-rise apartment, although perhaps appropriate for other communities and maybe other places in Bethlehem, is not in keeping with what makes Bethlehem’s downtown area, whether Southside or Northside, unique and appealing.”
  • “I’m kind of baffled by the developer’s characterization that this modern building fits into the historic downtown and complements it.”
  • “We are probably all in consensus that . . . the bank building . . . is not a great precedent or something to cite for the value of modernism or the scale in this area.”
  • “The design clearly [detracts from the historic district a block away].”
  • “Could apartments be constructed behind and hidden by a lower building?”
  • “Although a lot of people like to cite New Urbanism as a reason for urging density . . . currently most planners would agree that we’re kind of embracing a new New Urbanism these days where it calls for thoughtful density that fits into the character of the neighborhood.”
  • “And I just ask does this building fit into the character of that neighborhood?”

Chew on these.

to be continued . . .

“Everything we have asked them to do . . . they have agreed to”

(3rd in a series of posts about 548 N. New St.)

Who’s in charge of beauty in Bethlehem?
Gadfly

After “working with the City for roughly a year,” Garrett and Brandon Benner made this 12-minute presentation on new construction at 548 N. New St. to the Planning Commission on August 26.

Gadfly bets that almost none of his followers have ever witnessed a Planning Commission hearing. The City is now in the process of video-ing such hearings, and they will be available for viewing live as well as later.

But for now take a look at the Benner presentation through the roving unprofessional eye of an illegally loaned Sony held in Gadfly’s trembling senior’d hands.

At the head table are three Planning Commission members (one recused himself for this hearing) and two City planning staffers.

Look at what most of the discussion is about:

  • parking (there may be an unnoticed problem here, for early talk of the new Walnut Street garage calls for fewer spaces)
  • traffic
  • garbage
  • pedestrian safety
  • loading and unloading convenience
  • signals

And the Benner plan receives the City blessing: “Everything we have asked them to do and contribute for they have agreed to.”

The Benners are cooperative.

But who’s in charge of beauty in Bethlehem?

548 n. New st 2

One Planning Commission member — god bless ‘im — asked in a quiet voice what for Gadfly is the booming Ur-question, the question before all other questions:

“It’s a beautiful building to put between several brick buildings. Was there any thought given to the architectural design?  To fit in to the rest of the neighborhood?”

Gadfly believes that it’s Brandon Benner who answers:

“Actually, yeah, there is. We understand that it is modern, but when modern design is actually done right we feel it not only enhances it, not only complements it, but also enhances the historic architecture. So I mean, we feel that, we understand that people may not like this in the historic downtown, but this is invigorating type design . . . people want to live downtown, be downtown, live free, and spend money downtown. We feel this is, this is the way things are headed. We love design, we love Bethlehem, and we want to invest in Bethlehem . . . continue enhancing the downtown.”

Chew on this.

to be continued . . .