Planning Committee needs to take public-trust-building steps

logo Latest in a series of posts on City Government logo

Gadfly earlier this week reported the desire to have last Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting on the Armory moved from 4PM to a later time to accommodate the work schedules of more residents who wanted to attend. That didn’t happen, though residents were afforded the opportunity to make appointments to view planning documents in City Hall. At the meeting, moreover, residents were thwarted by and complained about inability to see the plans proposed, which were displayed on easels in front of the Head Table and visible only to the Commission members. Resident spectators could not see what the developer was showing the Commission. Beginning January the PC will move its meeting time to 5PM, which, though not perfect, is a step in the right direction. But, as Armory neighbor Jeff Pooley points out in the audio clip from the meeting and this email below, there are additional steps needed to make PC meetings resident friendly. Jeff describes that the effect if not the intent of PC practice is to “exclude” the neighbors, of creating a feeling of “not encouraging public comment.”

November 15, 2019

To: Darlene Heller, Director of Planning; Tracy Samuelson, Assistant Director of Planning; Rob Melosky, Planning Commission Chair

Dear Darlene, Tracy and Rob (if I may),

I am writing a quick follow up to the Planning Commission meeting last night—not about the substance, but about the public-input issues I raised in my comments. (I was one of the members of the public who spoke about the Armory application.)

Let me first say that I was, and remain, very grateful for your kind help, Tracy, when you showed me through the plans and answered my questions. Rob, I want to commend you for running a humane and fair meeting, with real empathy for residents and their concerns. It was noticed, and appreciated.

If I left with a bad taste in my mouth, it was entirely about the process up to and including the meeting—and that’s why I’m writing. (I am cc’ing Ed Gallagher, who I know shares some of these concerns.)

The news about the shift to 6pm meetings is genuinely thrilling, and answers one of my concerns. The City and Planning Commission could make additional, small moves in the same spirit—to encourage public input.

The first would be to post all application materials, including the City’s reply letter, as one or more PDF downloads on the City’s website.

The second would be to project those plans/PDF on the existing projection system during meetings, so the public is not shut out (as happened last night).

Every document in any application—even the large architectural renderings—now exists as a digital document. It would be a trivial matter to collect them into one or more PDFs for (1) download prior to a meeting and (2) digital display during the meeting. If materials are now delivered in paper form, the City could require digital copies too.

(Just to be clear, the PDF download that *was* posted prior to the meeting was a tiny, and completely uninformative, subset of the application that the public is entitled to. That is not what I am referring to.)

In the meantime—while a system like this is being implemented—my strong recommendation is that members of the public be permitted to take photographs, and or make copies (at a reasonable fee), of these public documents. I honestly wonder whether that restriction is even legal.

These seem, from the outside, like legitimacy- and public-trust-building steps that are nearly cost-fee. There’s certainly no justification, in 2019, for not sharing digital copies, nor for relying exclusively on unidirectional easels that, in effect, exclude the public.

I would love to work with you, and help in any way (including technical advice, given my day job 🙂 ), to make these small changes happen. I was pretty frustrated, and want to channel that feeling into helping to make a change—one that seems utterly feasible.

Thanks for reading.
Sincerely
Jeff
Needless to say, Jeff’s points apply to other City agencies as well using Town Hall. We need to keep pushing for the means for effective public participation in all areas of City government.

The cost to the quality of life from development could be greatly lessened if there was a true spirit of cooperation and collaboration

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development, and deputy director of community development.

Gadfly,

I have to chuckle at the “we’re communicating” comment. Communication suggests two way listening and achieving some sort of consensus and compromise as a result. That has certainly not been the case here and in a number of other areas of Bethlehem. It’s a lot easier for some to cry NIMBY, but the usual fact of the matter is that residents in established areas are open to development, but they want it to be compatible with the established environment, which it usually isn’t. I think it’s fantastic that people want to invest in Bethlehem, but it comes at a cost to the quality of life, which I believe could be greatly lessened if there was a true spirit of cooperation and collaboration between those already here and those who are coming. Establishing that kind of landscape in any community takes leadership. I’ll leave my observation at that.

Dana

Gadfly imagines a defibrillator moment at the Planning Commission meeting on the Armory

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

Armory 1

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

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.

Probably.

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.”

Hope.

Why could it not have been a condition of approval that the developer and neighbors agree on the fence type?

Period.

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?

Period.

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.”

Hope.

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.

Armistice on the Armory

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

The neighbors might not be totally happy — and for sure a “still deeply demoralized” Armory neighbor Jeff Pooley fired a last shot, looking back at 2017 and 2018 when the Zoning Hearing Board approved variances seemingly “over the objections of the entire neighborhood” and making “a mockery of the zoning code” — but peace apparently has come to the dispute over development of the Armory.

Jeff Pooley:

Last Thursday the Planning Commission approved plans from Peron for the development of the Armory site on the West Side, ending about three years of discussion, some of which was quite tension-filled.

Former Mayor John Callahan, Director of Development for Peron, summarized the project, emphasizing that the plan is going forward under historical guidelines and has been presented to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission — which was music to Gadfly’s ears.

John Callahan:

At the meeting approximately a half-dozen residents asked questions, offered statements, and made constructive comments on such topics as parking, traffic, traffic visibility, bike parking, green space, appropriate trees, view blocking, environmental pollution, and walkability.

Concluding comments by the Commission members framed the project and the resident participation in positive terms, and Gadfly would especially call your attention to the comments by Mr. Malozi in the following clip, in which he finds “quite a lot of net positive for this type of project” (“urban infill,” “adaptive reuse of a historic structure,” “walkability,” desirable “density,” sufficient parking, safety, LANTA enhancements, traffic calming, possible boon to the downtown and feet on the street).

Planning Commission concluding statements:

It just might be that Thursday marked the last meeting on a long and sometimes bumpy road.

But Gadfly says look for at least one more post as he reflects on this meeting and the planning process related to the Armory and development in Bethlehem in general.

Nicole Radzievich, “Redevelopment of Historic Bethlehem armory approved 3 years after it was proposed.” Morning Call, November 14, 2019.

The historic Floyd Simons armory in west Bethlehem would be recast as an artist’s studio and living space surrounded by 70 apartments, under plans the Planning Commission approved Thursday.The 10,000-square-foot drill hall would include a studio and apartment for painter and sculptor Emil Lukas and his wife, who now live in Stockertown.

In addition, the basement of the armory, which once housed a rifle range, would be converted to a fitness center, meeting rooms and other amenities, according to owners Peron Development.

The project would also include 70 apartments built in and around other armory structures at 345 Second Ave. That would include 64 units in four-story building attached to the former armory, and six apartments converted from two garage additions at the existing armory.

A portion of the area of Second Avenue that widens would be narrowed and a landscaped median installed to slow down traffic. There would be 101 parking spots available, and grassy patches would replace some stretches of macadam, producing a smaller impervious-surface footprint than what is there now.

In justifying his support for the land development and subdivision approval, Planning Commission member Matthew Malozi said the project contains a lot of the themes the city has been pushing: historic redevelopment, walkability, and the density of housing near the downtown.

Jeff Pooley, who lives on Prospect Avenue near the armory, questioned, among other things, why the off-street parking is close to the street like a suburban strip mall. Modern urban design, he said call for buildings to be closer to the street and parking behind.

According to the Historic Register nominating form, the art deco-style building is a good example of the structures designed for military training before World War II, and the architectural details would be retained in its reuse.

Down Memory Lane on the Armory controversy

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

Looks like the Planning Commission meeting on the Armory goes on at 4pm today, though neighboring residents have indicated trouble attending because of the time when many people work.

The City provided the opportunity for people to come to City Hall this week to discuss the plans to be presented, but Gadfly is not sure that happened.

Supporting documents are now online; they weren’t the last time Gadfly looked.

In any event, not all interested parties can attend the PC meeting to make their views heard, and Gadfly knows that sometimes “numbers” can have effect on decisions.

Gadfly calls your attention to City Council minutes of February 6 and March 20, 2018, when there was significant public comment and Council discussion on the Armory. Gadfly was not Gadfly at the time, but he did participate in the issue as a “detached observer,” and that unpleasant experience was part of the reason he eventually started the Gadfly project.

To refresh ourselves on the controversy surrounding the Armory, Gadfly prints here — with permission — part of a comprehensive email to Council by Armory neighbor Jeff Pooley dated February 7, 2018:

* The Commonwealth offers a prime asset to the RDA, a public entity, for a **far below-market** amount (around $270,000).
* The RDA, using a legitimate process (though some applicants may have been scared away), awards a **far-below market** RFP purchase option to Peron, at $322,000 (according to the figures I have seen).
* In both cases, the reason for foregoing a straight market-rate transaction is the Commonwealth/City/RDA’s interest in preserving the historic Armory and in encouraging an adaptive reuse of the building and site that would benefit the City.
* The neighborhood group (MANA), and literally every single resident I have encountered (and I’m sure there are exceptions), both support the redevelopment AND have legitimate questions about the Peron proposal.
* Literally every resident (in my experience, and across over 30 West Side residents’ testimony at the ZHB meetings that I believe you have seen), has argued that the new construction is too large AND that Peron’s lack of plans for the Armory is troubling for a range of reasons. There are a number of other concerns that have been repeatedly expressed, in good faith, about neighborhood parking, and about the anti-urban strip-mall style design.
* But everyone that I have ever spoken with *also* supports redeveloping the site and preserving the Armory. I have literally never heard a single, NIMBY-style dissent to redeveloping the site.
* We worked responsibly to engage the developer, Peron, through their representative, former mayor John Callahan. He met with the whole neighborhood (via MANA) once, and met with those (like my wife and I) adjacent to the property a second time—though not the neighborhood group MANA (which I think was a mistake). To Peron’s credit, they did replace an egregious and unworkable 22-space, cantilevered parking plan for Rauch Street with a 14-space lot off Rauch that was once used by the Armory.
* But Callahan and Peron would not compromise on the plainly out-of-scale new construction, nor on the strip-mall design.
* So we put our faith in the public bodies that enforce planning principles and the zoning code. We were especially confident because the project is not a regular private development. It was hallowed state-owned property provided to a city-affiliated nonprofit to transfer to a private developer at a *far below market rate* in exchange for protecting and advancing the public’s interest in preserving the Armory and enhancing our thriving neighborhood. This was no ordinary development, we thought.
* So we were stunned, first, when the Planning Commission swept away, with literally not a single word’s comment, the public’s concerns.
* The Zoning Hearing Board, speaking for myself, was by far the most deflating and demoralizing experience I’ve had since moving to Bethlehem from a corruption-plagued Allentown five years ago. Peron’s legal arguments for the crucial parking special exception were an audacious act of legal chutzpah that literally stunned me.
* The main claim was that the developer deserved 24-space special-exception relief due to “adaptive reuse” of the Armory—even though the zoning code exception language plainly and unambiguously refers to reuse of a “principal building.” The argument that a pair of attached garages—one from the late 1960s—constitute the “principal building” didn’t (and does not) pass the laugh test. It was ironic that Peron entered into evidence a flyover portraying their winning RFP design that showed the two garages utterly demolished for new construction. They, like literally everyone, consider the Drill Hall the “principal building”
* The backup claim was that the 24-space exception was owed because of a topography hardship. If anything, this argument was even more absurd, since the *only reason* they “needed” relief from the parking code was because they had proposed a 70-unit building. You can’t claim a hardship that you literally created yourself. Peron’s “hardship” would, of course, vanish if it merely reduced the number of units.
* You can image how stunning it was to watch the flimsiest of legal arguments upheld unanimously by the Zoning Hearing Board without a single word of explanation.
* We all had watched the same Board lecture a resident, right before the Armory case, over needing a “hardship” for a variance—in that case, 7 feet or so for his shed next to his property line beyond what the code allowed. The Board unanimously denied that request, before taking up the 11 Peron variances.
* To watch Darlene Heller, who I otherwise respect a lot, shamelessly use the last public-comment period to aggressively shoot down neighbors’ concerns and back up the developer—that was utterly deflating. Here you had the city’s planning director pitching for a developer to violate 11 variances/special exceptions and make a mockery of the zoning code. It was lost on no one that a major and disastrous precedent was established, leaving the zoning code open to follow-on exception requests.
* Over 9 hours of hearing, there was not a single resident who supported the proposal in its bloated, illegal form. Not one from over 30 who spoke.
* For me and my neighbors it was the plainest evidence that, for the Zoning Hearing Board at least, there are two Bethlehems. There’s one for ordinary residents, who get lectured about small variance requests that are unanimously denied. And then there’s a second Bethlehem for a developer with a well-connected former mayor. If you’re Peron and John Callahan, you get 11 variances on laughably dubious legal grounds approved unanimously.

Everyone knows the Armory is a “hot” issue in that Westside neighborhood.

Other Commissions have agreed to move their meeting times to accommodate residents on hot issues.

Why not the Planning Commission?

birds chirping . . .

Changing the meeting time for Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting on the Armory: another try

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

from Darlene Heller, Director of Planning, Monday, 8:43AM:

Ed

The prior meeting was scheduled at 6 to help us get a quorum for those meetings.  The advertised time for the meetings in 2019 is 4:00 PM.  We readvertised the 6:00 meetings so that we could get a quorum of members.  The December meeting is also scheduled to be held at 4:00 PM at this point.

In 2020 we are scheduled to hold the meetings at 5:00 PM.

Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss.

Darlene

—–
to Darlene Heller, Monday,  10:30am:

Hi again Darlene:

The Mayor’s memo to Adam dated Aug 29 titled “Board Meetings” and copied to everybody in the system indicates that the Bethlehem Authority, the Bethlehem Parking Authority, and BRIA all indicated that they would push back meeting times if the issue was “hot” or if the Mayor requested.

Precedent.

I think the issue is hot.

How about asking the Mayor?

The  logic of changing a meeting to achieve a Commission quorum extends to enabling a “quorum” of affected parties.

Whatta y’say?

Ed

City officials: could/should the Thursday Planning Commission meeting on the Armory be moved to 6PM?

logo Latest in a series of posts on the Armory logo

sent Sunday, November 10, 4:54PM:

To: Bob, Darlene, Alicia, Rob, Matt, Lou, Adam, Bryan, Michael, Grace, Olga, Willie, Paige:

The Armory is again on the agenda for the Planning Commission this Thursday at 4PM.

This is a “hot” topic. Neighbors want to attend. 4PM is inconvenient for many.

Agendas show the Aug and Sept PC meetings were at 6. Why now at 4?

The PC did agree to start meeting at 5 come the new year, which is a step in the right direction for resident participation.

Could/should the Thursday PC meeting be moved to 6?

I think the answer is yes.

Your consideration much appreciated.

Ed