I thought the Skyline West project in Bethlehem had the Tasteless Architecture Award wrapped up, but incredibly a late entry at 548 N. New St. may win. Both are by the same developer/design team. Apparently their aesthetic was greatly influenced by early episodes of “The Jetsons.”
These proposed buildings are in or adjacent to the Historic District of Bethlehem. In researching how it is possible that these buildings could be approved, I found that City Council, the Planning Board and the Zoning Commission have no say over design, unless the building is in the Historic District.
Not to pick on Bethlehem, the same group has a like building proposed for Easton, also in a historic area. Looks like an alien structure giving birth, waiting for the mother ship to call them home. Neighborhood residents appearing before Easton’s Historic District Commission opposed the project. Hopefully, Easton will listen to them.
I hope the people of Bethlehem will Google these buildings, their locations and voice their concerns to the city.
“Neighborhoods are worth fighting for,” Gadfly always says — we must keep making our ideas known.
So there was considerable kumbaya from the Head Table at the end of last Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting on the Armory, what is probably the last public meeting before construction begins.
Two of the Commission members really and no doubt sincerely applauded the value of the resident participation.
For example, just before the vote that perhaps once and for all green-lighted the developer, one member said, I “really appreciate the comments from the public today, some very good suggestions, some great dialog here today . . . we’re communicating.”
Whoa! Not so fast.
The residents spoke. But the best they have is hope that the developer was listening and will/might act on their recent ideas and suggestions.
What the neighbors were left with was hope.
Why couldn’t the Planning Commission add some conditions based on resident input?
For instance, the neighbors thought they had a “verbal agreement” with the developer to work together on the barrier fence between the new construction and the adjoining properties.
Likely, nobody mentioned that agreement to the architect. She said that the fence “probably will be that shadow-box type of fencing” that apparently the neighbors had previously talked about.
It is not obvious that the developer remembers such an agreement. And Gadfly is no expert in voice tones, but the developer’s “I’m open to discussing it with the neighbors” doesn’t sound to him all that enthusiastic. Listen, see what you think.
And all the PC chair can say, while explicitly agreeing with the neighbors, is that kind of fence “would be something I would hope the developer would consider.”
Why could it not have been a condition of approval that the developer and neighbors agree on the fence type?
Then no need for the neighbors to hope.
A second example.
The subject is tree removal.
Look at how in these words from the PC chair, hope — fragile hope — is the soft pivot (literally in the center of his statement) around which glittering encomiums (good SAT word) about the value of resident ideas orbit.
“The dialog that we’ve had here this evening is important. It’s so important to hear what the neighbors and the taxpayers and the citizens have to add. One thing that was mentioned . . . I hate those lantern flies. I hope the developer does something to remove those trees so that those things don’t come back. Little things like that, those are details, and I won’t even say like small details, those details are vital.”
Damnation, if what the neighbors had to say is so important, if the tree “little” detail is so “vital,” then why not make it a condition of approval that the developer do a certain action?
Instead of hoping that it will be done.
Does not the PC have that power?
A third example.
And the most significant.
Jeff Pooley describes the “suburban strip-mall type parking area” along Second Avenue in the proposed design and says the “Planning Commission has the opportunity to prevent what could be a kind of a self-inflicted wound,” for all authorities would agree that best practice is to move the building to the street and put parking behind. Even Gadfly knows that from his summer reading in Jeff Speck that he reported on in these pages multiple times.
But all Jeff can do is hope. “Putting suburban strip-mall parking along the street is a great mistake,” you heard in his conclusion, “and one we hope you would prevent.”
Now this is a big point. A major revision of the design. And one determining the look and feel of a gateway to the West Side.
If ever there was an invitation to “great dialog,” there it was.
Wouldn’t it have been a great moment — for Gadfly a defibrillator moment — if the PC chair had turned — politely — to the architect and asked for her professional response to Jeff’s comment?
Instead there was a polite “Thank you, Mr. Pooley,” and the chair moved on.
That kind of design comment/question might as well be spoken in another language in meetings like this.
Gadfly is reminded of his recent muddle over 548 N. New (see the sidebar to refresh on this pertinent series of posts). By the time that Bill Scheirer, Kim Carrell-Smith, and Jerry Vergilio questioned the design, it was too late in the process.
The process is then too far along for a proposal to be questioned much less for it to fail.
Something is wrong with such a process in which such significant and informed public commentary is not aired and addressed earlier.
Planning Commissioner backpatting was well meaning but a bit self-serving. Communication is two-way. The PC didn’t act when it could have. Didn’t speak when it should have.
As you will notice, there is not a tree or any other living thing in front of the building [548 N. New]. Also if you look at [the developer’s] property on Union (Black Box, 124 W. Union), there is nothing but a weed here and there.
I listened recently to a speaker from PHS (PA Horticulture Society) speak about the importance of trees to a city. I wish I could remember the statistics, but the de-forestation of PA is a real concern. Bethlehem likes to put up signs about being Tree City USA but does nothing, requires nothing of builders, to support the citizens who have trees on their property. There is nothing to encourage a person to plant a tree.
I think this should be mandatory on any new building that there be some sort of greenery and at least a tree with each new build.
And the Union building is not a “bungalow,” which is defined as “a one-storied house with a low-pitched roof.” Just sayin’.
Gadfly always amazed these days at how fast time goes.
A sign of his senior-seniorness.
(Sinatra’s “But the days grow short when you reach September” plays faintly in his inner ear these days.)
Been 8 days since he promised a “to be continued” on 548 N. New.
The 11 and 15 W. Garrison St. matter popped up (see sidebar).
Can’t multi-task anymore.
In media res the Garrison St. discussion, Jerry Vergilio*** stepped up twice — calmly, concisely, patiently, sensibly — to put the current issue in its meaningful frame.
548 N. New and Skyline West:
How do they fit?
Are they a done deal?
Vergilio*** is Everyman, a concerned citizen who doesn’t understand the thought process or the bureaucratic process or the political process that has enabled these highly significant visible projects to outrun his awareness and anyone’s ability to curb their forward motion.
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.”
That does not seem responsible planning.
to be continued . . . (Gadfly can really beat a topic to death, can’t he?)
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.
“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.