Irrelevant information

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Bill Scheirer is an economist who grew up in Bethlehem, spent 40 years in DC, and retired here in 2003. He is a life member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and was on the Mayor’s Task Force for the City of Bethlehem Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map.

Gadfly:

Donald Rumsfeld was known for saying that there are things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know. I would like to suggest that the things we know we know can be meaningfully broken down into two groups: things we know that are relevant, and things we know that are not. Two examples come to mind.

The first concerns 2 West Market Street. We heard that it was impossible to obtain a mortgage to buy the property because it had both a residence and three little commercial buildings. We were told the buyer of the property mortgaged other properties to buy the property. Why was this a problem? Did the buyer want to consolidate mortgages? Did the buyer want to make it easier to sell some day? If one or both of these were a problem, why wasn’t the lot subdivided to end the mixed use? I have been told subsequently that this would have required variances. But isn’t that a milder remedy than amending the zoning ordinance? Shouldn’t milder remedies be pursued as a matter of policy in preference to more drastic remedies like amending an ordinance? But this, of course, would not have satisfied the objective of the wealth management firm, which was to enter a historic district and convert a residence into an office building. In other words, the mortgage problem was an irrelevant excuse to enable a rezoning.

A second example of irrelevant knowledge was in the discussion about raising parking meter rates. We heard that other cities, including Reading and Harrisburg as I recall, had raised their rates from $1.00 to $1.50 per hour. Now it is possible that these cities knew something we didn’t on this matter, which isn’t very likely. And we certainly don’t compete with them. And we don’t compete that much with downtown Allentown or Easton. Out real competitors are the malls. And their parking rates are zero. So we ended up by putting our downtown merchants at a further disadvantage vis-a-vis the malls. Why did we do this? The only real answer was that it was done to raise money for new and/or renovated garages. This, of course, should benefit our downtown businesses. This is kind of like “no pain, no gain”. But in this case the pain is permanent.

Clear thinking requires all of us, myself included, to more carefully weigh all information, and decide which is relevant and which is not.

Bill

(See under topics on the Gadfly sidebar for the long threads on 2 W. Market and parking. City Council approved 2 W. Market for business purposes, and the Mayor approved the Bethlehem Parking Authority request to increase the parking meter rate.)

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Announcing a City Communication survey on Tuesday

On Gadfly’s calendar for Tuesday, March 26, at 3:30 in Town Hall is a press conference announcing a City Communication survey. Gadfly is not exactly sure whatz-up here, but he believes it is rooted in the following section of CM Reynolds’ “Bethlehem 2017” report — more like a vision statement (full document is linked on the Gadfly sidebar).

At least, Gadfly hopes thats what this event is about. Followers know that public participation and communication fuel the Gadfly project.

Well worth reading.

from
J. William Reynolds
Bethlehem City Council President
“Bethlehem 2017”
January 2017

#3 Engaging Bethlehem

As technology has been progressing exponentially in the past several years, so have citizens’ expectations of the application of that technology.  In 2007, being “friends” with or “following” an elected official or governmental body passed for a successful social media interaction.  Over time, people have come to expect a quicker and more personal interaction with their governmental officials and organizations.  Many times, citizens look to the internet or social media to solve a governmental problem (such as a quality of life issue) which is a different utilization of technology than was used ten or fifteen years ago.  While some departments in the City of Bethlehem do an effective job of responding to the citizens of Bethlehem, by and large, we remain behind other cities and municipalities in interacting successfully with our citizens of Bethlehem.  Some of that issue is likely inevitable in a world where technology is changing so quickly.  Technology is moving quickly and the City has not made it a priority to come up with a comprehensive plan on how to engage our citizens through social media. We must, however, switch from a reactive authoritative system to a proactive interactive system of social media services if we are going to optimize the current extensive opportunities available for technological citizen engagement.

Why can’t the issue of Social Media be looked at with Open Data?

There are many similarities between social media and open data.  Both involve computers, technology, and interaction between government and their citizens. They are not, however, the same thing. Open Data is data produced or commissioned by government or government controlled entities that can be used to create something new and innovative. The data is used to accomplish a separate larger goal of the community and the government.  Social media centers on websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social interaction.  The user goal of social media can often be met through the individual interaction.  The difference between the two is stark and understanding the difference is important in comprehending the future goals of the individual mediums as they relate to the City of Bethlehem.

What should be done? 

The City of Bethlehem should look at what we currently do now in the field of social media and how we can increase interactions with the members of our community.   Potential goals to be included:

  1. Find out what people want. The world of technology is moving quickly and we increasingly have citizens who receive the majority if not all of their information from their computers and their phones.  Finding out what people want from the City of Bethlehem is an important place to start the conversation.
  2. Study other cities. Many other cities use social media in various ways related to the services that they provide. Looking at what other cities do and the value it brings to the efficiency of their services should be an immediate goal of the city.
  3. Interact with and talk to the members of our community who are actively involved with social media. The Bethlehem community is filled with many professionals who specialize in social media.  They should be utilized for information as well as best practices in determining what the City of Bethlehem is not currently doing well.
  4. Encourage more questions of our community. Many political leaders and governments throughout the country make open-ended questions a key aspect of their social media presence.  Asking questions of our community increases interactions, reach, and effectiveness of our social media efforts.
  5. Post and be willing to respond quicker – ex. disaster related information. We have not always responded to natural disasters such as snow events as efficiently as we could have or in the same effective way that other cities have.  For example, other cities have been constant in interacting and responding to community questions/concerns.  Other ideas include creating hashtags such as #SnowBethlehem as a way for community members’ questions/concerns/frustrations to be read and directed to city departments or employees with the capability to address that concern.
  6. Encourage more posting of pictures relating to services (leaf collection, code violations, etc.) The most basic job of a city government is to provide basic city services. For decades, the way people relayed a service concern was by a phone call or a trip to City Hall.  Social media allows people to report concerns and complaints instantly. This, however, needs to be done through a concerted effort to encourage people to do this.  For example, “Please send pictures of garbage violations to #BethlehemTrash” or “Please send pictures of garbage violations in a Direct Message to @BethlehemTrashConcerns”
  7. Create #hashtag days among departments to maximize reach of branding and news #VisitBethlehem #LiveBethlehem #SafeBethlehem, #WalkBethlehem, etc. Cities have been using hashtags to brand themselves for years.  Getting everyone who handles a City of Bethlehem social media account to tweet on the same topic increases not only the branding of Bethlehem but also the reach of important community events.

How should we go about improving our social media operation?  It is my belief we should follow the same procedure as outlined previously for Open Data and our Climate Action Plan.  Resolution #3 outlines goals to be accomplished in 2017 in the area of social media in the City of Bethlehem.  A Social Media team should be created using members of the Administration, current social media contacts in our individual departments, members of City Council, and, most importantly, people in our community who utilize social media on a daily basis for business.  Giving the Social Media Team ample time to study what we do, what other cities do, and create goals for the City of Bethlehem.

There is also an open house at the Banana Factory for the Southside Streetscape Design at 3:30-5:30, but, thankfully, also at 6:30-8:30, so no need to miss out on Tuesday’s doin’s.

You gotta listen!

The spectator value of last night’s City Council meeting from Gadfly’s roost in the cheap seats was totally front-loaded in the public comment space.

Yep, Council members did their business — necessary business — good business — especially involving $money$ (and big money, ’twas!) and approving resident members of City committees (have you volunteered lately?) and approving resolutions (especially of interest to Gadfly followers, resolutions of feasibility studies for the Rose Garden and a pedestrian bridge).

But you gotta listen to the quintet of resident speakers. It will only take you 15 minutes.

Barbara Diamond (min. 2:45) delivering Bethlehem Moment 8 on “Operation Book Move,” the community effort in 1967 to move all the books from the old library at New and Market to the current location in one day, and introducing 91-year-old Ed Beighe and his wife Eleanor — Ed was project chairman for the move.

Beth Behrend (min. 5:50) promoting a plan from the Bethlehem Environmental Advisory Council to ban single-use plastic bags, with follow-up by Gadfly #1 Stephen Antalics (min. 12:33).

Bill Scheirer, Gadfly #2 (min. 8:55) presenting a wise disquisition on two major past problematic episodes before Council — 2 W. Market and the proposals from the Bethlehem Parking Authority — episodes well covered on Gadfly — spurring us to clear thinking, which requires weighing all relevant information.

Doug Roysdon (min. 13:04) supporting the resolution on the table (which passed) to seek funding for a feasibility study for a pedestrian bridge — which he did in a strikingly exciting way.

Gadfly will come back to talk about some of these presentations individually later, but he encourages you to listen now to sense how interesting these City Council meetings can be and how valuable public participation is.

And to be turning out or tuning in the first and third Tuesdays of the month.

You can catch the meetings live. Or at your leisure. You can even binge-watch. Just like Netflix.

Great opportunity.

Watch City Council Live (if you don’t have the hard-to-get tickets to be there in person) tonight at 7pm!

City Council meets the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 7pm in the Town Hall rotunda. That means tonight. These meetings are now live-streamed on the Council webpage and on YouTube.

On the surface, the agenda doesn’t look too “exciting.” But a good many Gadfly followers will be interested that approval of resolutions to seek feasibility studies for the Rose Garden and a pedestrian bridge are on the agenda.

But you never know what might happen. In any event, Gadfly followers know that he is enamored of our resident voices during public comment. And he likes to record and distribute them. Democracy in action.

As example, he captured these comments at the recent Planning Commission meeting: citizens Murdock Saunders, Anne Evans (min. 3:08), and a woman whose name he couldn’t catch (8:18) cautioning the PC about a proposal for student housing in their neighborhood.

Listen to the clear, courteous, firm, fair, reasoned voices. Speaking up. Exercising their right. Your fellow citizens in action. Makes you proud. Makes you tingle.

But, though the agenda looks docile, anything could happen tonight. Impossible to anticipate.

But what if we could anticipate some things of interest?

Gadfly followers know that he has been making “modest proposals” about the various City authorities and boards making periodic presentations about what’s going on in their worlds that affect us — presentations that we could advertise so that you could tune in.

So that, for instance, you would know, say, that you could hear from the Parking Authority tonight about what’s going on in their hands and heads?

If you like that “modest proposal,” write your Congressperson . . . er, Councilperson. Email addresses on the Gadfly sidebar.

So, if you aren’t coming in person tonight, at 7pm go to the City web site >>> Quick links (bottom left) >>> City Council Meeting Agendas and Documents >>> “View Live Stream City Council Meeting” at the top of the page.

On that same page you can find the agenda for the meeting, any pertinent documents for the meeting – and, for later reference, the print version of the minutes plus audio and video recordings of the meeting.

You can also go to YouTube at <City of Bethlehem Council> for live-stream and archiving.

But being there is always best! Gadfly will save a seat for ya.

Need for a more robust discussion on the state of the City

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

In one of his “modest proposal” posts a few posts back, Gadfly whined as gadflies tend to do (sigh) about the venue for the Mayor’s “State of the City” address, the audience for it, and the dissemination of it.

The content of the Mayor’s address is very positive, very upbeat, as such addresses are wont to be, but, I think, legitimately so. And Gadfly has admitted to wishing that the Mayor seek the spotlight a bit more and foster a widespread positive feeling about the good news among “the people.”

But the dissemination of the address seems better this year than last. Virtually immediately, there was an “announcement” on the top page of the City web site with a link to the audio of the address accompanying the Mayor’s slides. And there is a link to the printed text of the address at the top of the quick links on that page as well.

And the Call article that day is a prominent size: “Bethlehem mayor showcases city’s untold development story.” (The headline of the Call print version is “Bethlehem mayor stressed development; Donchez highlights investment numbers in State of the City address.”)

But that’s still not enough.

Gadfly’s whine is basically centered on the venue and the audience: As the Call says, “Donchez delivered the remarks Thursday to 250 business people at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks.”

I say again. That just seems wrong to me. Symbolically. Probably not politically.

You aim your speech at your audience.

And, though the Mayor’s address contains much more, the Call headlines saw the address primarily through the lens of that venue and audience, focusing on the Mayor showcasing, stressing, highlighting development – even to the drama of revealing to readers an “untold story” of development.

And astronomical numbers dominate the content of the news story: one imagines an audience of slick-haired Gordon Gekko’s salivating at the Mayor’s financially erotic language: 190 million, 295 million, 54 million, 370 million, 22 million, 15 million . . . 1 billion! 1.3 billion! Even Gadfly swooned.

And, though there is more in the Mayor’s words, the Call reports that post-address questions centered, as one might expect in that venue and with that audience, only on “two big projects,” Martin Tower and the Sands.

Gadfly sees the “State of the City” address as an exciting moment for robust wide-ranging discussion from a broad set of perspectives.

We didn’t have that.

So Gadfly’s been thinking about a “modest proposal” of his own for next year.

Assembling, say, four people to complement the Mayor’s address with posts on Gadfly.

Complement not compete with, criticize, answer, or attack like what happens with our national “State of the Union” address.

Complementary views.

Aimed at fostering a sense of community.

The state of the City seen from a variety of angles, through a variety of lenses, using different metrics. Equally valid.

Gadfly hasn’t been around long enough to know. Who are the wise heads representing a range of perspectives that he might invite next year to fill this delicate and valuable role?

Give him your suggestions–

Attack on councilperson damages credibility (13)

(13th in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

Steve Melnick has had a career in economic development for over 35 years in several states, with the last 20 years here in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley.

Gadfly:

Several points of debate have been raised recently that speak to the walkability issue in Bethlehem. Unfortunately when they are used to denigrate the opinion of a current city council person, they lose much of their credibility.

The points raised by Professor Thode may, in certain cases, be valid. However, Bethlehem is a unique community, and his advocacy of high rise development in our two urban cores is nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to justify the fact that our leaders have allowed or, in certain cases, been forced into allowing developers to build what they want, where they want, with little or no accountability for our existing zoning and planning regulations.

Why do we have historic districts, conservation overlays and other zoning and planning regulations if we continue to ignore them? By the way, what defines our urban cores? Where do they begin or end? Is Stefko Boulevard in the urban core? Is the Lehigh campus part of the urban core? Experts usually avoid ambiguous terminology because it can skew perceptions.

Walkability is more than having access to supermarkets and medical facilities. It is true that the North side urban core has low density population. I view that as a positive attribute. Other communities that have allowed the subdivision of grand old homes and buildings into a myriad of apartments have seen the disastrous results of those actions.

Allentown, our neighbor to the west, has seen numerous high rise developments built in the last few years. Ironically, this increased density and alleged criterion for walkability according to Dr. Thode has resulted in not a single supermarket being located inside the urban core. Indeed, the Giant supermarket and Wegmans are 4 and 5 miles away from center square respectively.

I guess in that category we, as residents, have to make a judgment. Do we want crowded residential development to justify a supermarket on the north side, or are we willing to drive to one outside of the urban core and preserve the architectural beauty of our historic district?

Demographically urban core supermarkets market to the residents that surround their site. The C Town market on the Southside is the perfect example. Its product mix and pricing reflects the neighborhood it serves. I believe this debunks the low population density argument for the southside.

By attacking a current council person for advocating for sound urban planning, Dr. Thode has completely revealed his bias. Currently developers in Bethlehem have been allowed to build what they want, where they want with no thought to the existing zoning and planning regulations. Could Dr. Thode have an ulterior motive for attacking a candidate using the cover of academic expertise? Food for thought.

Steve

“you are not aware of my positions about walkability and downtown development” (12)

(12th in a series of posts on Walkability and Bikeability)

Paige Van Wirt is a Bethlehem City Councilwoman, physician, and small business owner.

Dr. Thode,

Since we have never met, it stands to reason that you are not aware of my positions about walkability and downtown development. I don’t know where you got incorrect facts.

“Since Councilperson Van Wirt is on record opposing high rise development of any kind in the urban cores of Bethlehem, good luck with that.

I wonder how many miles Councilperson Van Wirt logs on her car each year. Where does she shop for groceries? Where does she go for medical services? Where does she shop for household items? Where does she go to see a movie, or hear a concert? Does she walk to these places? Does she take LANTA? Or, does she take private transportation?

Stephen Thode”

I am not on the record opposing high rise development of any kind in urban cores of Bethlehem.  Please, show me where I said that? I voted FOR the Benner/Parks project on West Broad Street, which went against HARB recommendations, precisely because I do believe we need increased amounts of downtown residential development. My remarks at the time of the vote reflect this belief.  I am for the use of the Boyd for market rate housing.  I voted FOR the vacation of 2nd avenue for the Armory project. I have never once said I oppose high rise development in Bethlehem.  I have been on council for one year and my voting record is crystal clear for all to see. Please, be sure of your facts before having them published, in a blog or otherwise.

I am a physician for nursing home patients.  I take care of patients at over 25 different nursing homes and ALFs in the Valley. You can bet that if they were in one walkable radius, I would be walking there. How inconvenient for my personal transportation beliefs that they are spread from Sellersville to Hometown.

I shop for groceries at the Wegmans. I would be more than happy to shop at a local food market, such as C Town, if there was one in North Bethlehem.  But there is not, which is why my husband and I joined the Bethlehem Food Co-op, to help establish a market in a food desert.

I live in the heart of downtown Bethlehem, a choice my husband and I made so we could walk to as many activities as possible. The fact that you cast aspersions on how I live my life without even knowing me gives me great pause. I do not understand why you took your feelings on Bethlehem’s walkability to Bernie, without even bothering to have a conversation with me about this.  You are substantively and factually incorrect in your assertions.

Dr. Thode, I am deeply surprised that an educator such as yourself would not do the research before making assertions.   The sad thing is, we share the same beliefs about what would make Bethlehem better in terms of walkability.  If you ever would like to sit down with me and hear my own beliefs and then come to a conclusion on their validity, I would be more than happy to make the time.

Paige Van Wirt