Here’s the Mayor’s talk today thanks to CM Reynolds. As with usual Gadfly procedure, let’s take time to soak everything in first. Lot’s here. Then come back to comment or discuss.
The writer, known to Gadfly, prefers to remain anonymous. This post refers to comments on the zoning of 134 E. Broad in “Development doin’s.”
I was at that ZHB meeting that evening, and I am so glad I went, it was more entertaining than a movie could have been . . . and for free.
I’ll keep it brief now, but, in general, I would agree that there is the appearance that the ZHB is being, as you allude to, as seemingly voting in favor of developers against the zoning ordinance [ZO]. But then I thought, what you can never know statistically is, how well the ZO is really working, because you can never know how many times a potential development idea is shut down by developers and others, doing their diligence, before it even gets to the point of making an application for relief to the ZHB. So by the sheer nature of the ZHB, they are there to hear the “marginal” cases that rose to the top. To draw a similarity to similar systems, you only need to look at our legal system, which gives those found guilty, the right to “appeal” a case.
To the 134 case, I was initially moved to conclude that this was developer overreach, but after the case was argued, I was won over, and agreed with the ZHB. There are so many details left out typically in print, ya just had to be there.
But it wasn’t the 134 case that compelled me to write to you, it was the case that followed, which is what got me there in the first place. That was having to do with a developer, Dominic Villani. What was interesting in that case, argued by Bethlehem Attorney Jim Holzinger, was that in the audience, was none other than Mister X. Turns out, the parcel Villani was wanting to develop, was right next door to where Mister X lives, and because Mister X is a “renter,” he did not have standing at this hearing. Holzinger was quick to point that out to the ZHB but agreed to hear Mister X out when he made his argument AGAINST the project. There were other numerous folks who spoke against the project. But after all was said and done, it became abundantly clear that Villani’s plan, and intent, was a very viable request, so much so, that Mister X got up again, and told the ZHB that after all the testimony, he had changed his mind, and would be OK if the ZHB found in Villani’s favor, which they did.
Again, being there was quite compelling, and all around, the professionalism shown by all people in that room that evening made me proud.
Gadfly is big on citizen participation. You might have noticed.
Now he knows that there will not always be the kind of drama or electricity at City Council meetings to compete with Hardball and Entertainment Tonight.
That’s why you see Gadfly making “modest proposals” designed to generate viewer and spectator interest.
But even in meetings that look like they have no hot issues or big business agenda items, important things can happen.
Such was the public commentary by Stephen Antalics and Bruce Haines last meeting, February 5.
Gadfly never expected so much time and intensity around issues associated with Zoning and the Historical Districts when he started hanging around City meetings last year.
Gadfly has more than once marveled at the unexpected and puzzling “fluidity” of ordinances in these areas, finding himself, in self-defense, self-defining more and more as a strict constructionist.
So he was very much interested in the 1-2 punch of residents Antalics and Haines peppering an otherwise pretty sleepy meeting on February 5.
Take a look.
Stephen Antalics min. 23:00
Bethlehem has two historic district review commissions. North of the Lehigh River, the Historic and Architectural Review Board (HARB) reviews all exterior changes proposed to buildings in the Bethlehem Historic District. The Historic Commission (HC or HCC) is a separate historic review board that reviews modifications to the exterior of buildings in both the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation District and the Mount Airy Neighborhood District on the West Side.
The historic review boards are recommending bodies. They forward a recommendation to City Council and Council either issues or denies a Certificate of Appropriateness for the proposed revisions. Once a Certificate of Appropriateness is approved, a building permit can be issued for a construction project provided that all other conditions are met.
SA points to a division between how historic ordinances/guidelines are applied in the North and South sides. HARB is powerful in the North. You can’t change a storm door there without their approval. But things are looser in the Southside, and he uses three examples such as the Parking Garage and the new building attached to it at 3rd and New. In each case, significant variations were sought and approved.
SA: “The point I’m making is this, in your mind, looking at this logically, do you believe that the best interests of the Southside follow the best interests of the community in terms of its preservation – or the developer, who won out in these three cases, clear violations of an ordinance which in North Bethlehem wouldn’t have happened. So why did it happen in the Southside? So that might help you people behind that table to get more insight into whose interests are best served – the City against the will of the people behind me who argued against it supported by the ordinance of people who studied the issue. But they are totally ignored. So, ask yourself, whose interests were best served on the Southside in terms of preservation, the developer or the City or the citizens?”
Bruce Haines min. 27:50
SA was followed by BH who consoled SA that the situation in the North is no better than the South: “Ordinances anywhere in the City are far some sacred.”
BH’s specific point of reference was recent approval of apartments at 134 E. Broad, a request for a variance to allow no commercial in a building in the commercial district – the exact reverse of the 2 W. Market case that you will recognize Gadfly followed for so long at the end of 2018.
Here’s the owner’s appeal application. Take a look. You might never have seen one.
See exhibit A. The developer says he cannot fulfill the requirement for a commercial operation on the first floor because of the setback. Thus, he is proposing all apartments.
What do you make of that argument? Make good sense? Gadfly is not sure that the claim that the setback makes the property unusable or unrentable for commercial purposes was challenged at all — minutes of Zoning hearings are not readily available.
BH: “It’s bizarre, we don’t have a zoning ordinance here in this City that is being complied to at all, and you [City Council] are facilitating that.“ Haines charged that we have a Zoning Board with predetermined disposition to take care of developers in this City. “We have a Zoning Hearing Board that’s out of control.” “You guys need to get a handle on this stuff, you are appointing people who are rubber stamps on these boards.”
Now tension over development has been a steady theme in the year Gadfly has been following City business.
Gadfly must admit to a default disposition to distrust developers. Not that he would deal with them with a whip and a chair.
He wonders what the statistics show — what percentage does the Zoning Board turn down? What percentage approve? And that happens to the numbers when you compare appeals by developers to appeals by private citizens?
And there might be another tricky situation on the horizon. Take a look at proposed plans for the Boyd Theater coming down the line.
“The long-shuttered Boyd Theatre, once a beloved vaudeville and movie house in Center City Bethlehem, will be demolished to make way for a $22 million apartment and retail project under a proposal owner Charles Jefferson plans to submit to the city.”
“He said Tuesday that the 120-apartment project would bring residents to a sleepy block just around the corner from historic Main Street, injecting more vibrancy into a downtown that grew up around the city’s original Moravian settlement. The first-floor retail would augment a stretch known as Restaurant Row.”
“Mayor Robert Donchez said he’s pleased redevelopment of the Boyd property, which has been shuttered for eight years, is showing signs of moving forward. That key block, the mayor said, holds a lot of potential and has been underused far too long. ‘It would have been nice had the Boyd been renovated, but sometimes the cost outweighs the benefit,’ he said.”
“The Boyd is just outside the city’s historic district and not listed on the city’s preservation plan. The proposal for the Boyd is the latest project to bring more apartments near the historic downtown. Last year City Council approved a rezoning critical to the development of a five-story apartment building, Skyline West, overlooking the Colonial Industrial Quarter.”
There’s a good argument to be made for more people living close to Downtown even though this is a commercial district, and the Boyd has hung on the City’s hands for a good while. And at least one can say that this plan follows the ordinance by having commercial on the first floor in the commercial district.
But 120 apartments in that space? Whew! I can’t wait to see that plan.
City Council meets the first and third Tuesdays of each month at 7pm in the Town Hall rotunda.
Going is best.
But the meetings are now streamed “live” and are stored for later viewing on the City web site.
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.
This is a new opportunity.
Let’s make sure to use it!
“We are not in the 50s and 60s where the guy is the breadwinner.”
“If a woman is doing the same job as a man,
she should be paid the same amount of money.”
CM Callahan has initiated the process to introduce an ordinance banning employers from asking questions about previous salary for the purpose of reducing racial and gender salary inequality.
Hear him describe the ordinance and the rationale in a brief presentation at the monthly meeting of the Bethlehem City Democratic Committee this week:
“Looking to close the pay gap between men and women, Bethlehem City Councilman Bryan Callahan on Thursday called for a wage equality ordinance that contains a provision struck down in federal court.”
“The proposed ordinance would require employers in the city to compensate workers based on job function and experience, rather than what the applicant made at a previous job. Those who do business in the city would be banned from asking an applicant that question, he said at a news conference.”
“The rationale is that basing new salaries on past salaries perpetuates any racial and gender inequities. Women in Pennsylvania are paid 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. . . . The court ruled employers can be prohibited from basing compensation on previous salary, but it was a violation of the First Amendment to stop them from asking the question.”
“Bethlehem would be subjected to that ruling — at least under current case law — because it falls within the same federal court jurisdiction as Philadelphia, [Callahan] said. The ruling has been appealed to the U. S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a level below the U.S. Supreme Court. In recent years Bethlehem City Council passed ordinances of questionable enforceability in order to send a policy message to higher levels of government.”
“Mayor Robert Donchez said he supports pay equality but wants to review Callahan’s proposal before taking a position on it. In Bethlehem, a job application posted on the city’s website asks its prospective employees for starting and ending salary at previous jobs. But Donchez said Thursday the city plans to remove that question from applications.”
“Callahan said he expects to review the details of the proposal in committee and would look for guidance from counsel about penalties and how it would work.”
Anyone interested in serving on a City Authority, Board or Commission, please submit a letter of interest and resume to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Gadfly has spent a year vagabonding around from meeting to meeting of our Authorities, Boards, and Commissions.
Check them out on the City web site.
There’s a bunch of them.
By and large, Gadfly has been very, very impressed at the good, selfless work done by “regular” residents.
He finally caught up with a Southside group two weeks ago and was quite impressed with the range of activities going on that he never heard about.
You might have a particular skill, talent, or interest that matches with one of these ABC’s.
Or you just might want to get involved.
Getting involved — participating — is what the Gadfly project is all about.
So think on this opportunity to get your name in the mix and consider hustling off an email to headquarters registering your willingness to serve.
(18th in a series of posts on City Government)
Next City Council meeting 4hrs from now as Gadfly writes this.
Can you make it?
If not, remember that the meetings are now filmed — accessible on the Council website, and accessible on Youtube.
And that they will soon be televised “live.” 7PM, first and third Tuesdays of the month.
A tip o’ the hat and wave of the wings again to President Waldron and others for making this happen.
We must take advantage.
To wit: I went to another meeting January 15 instead of Council, and so “took advantage.”
I’m glad I did.
There is a very interesting and revealing interchange at the January 15 meeting among CW Van Wirt, CM Callahan, and CM Reynolds.
Take a look. 10 mins. The full episode is 1:24:30 – 1:33:40.
The interchange is revelatory in respect to both substance and style of each council person.
I have said that one mission of the Gadfly project is to get to know the CPs better when it comes time to vote and to help you do the same.
CW Van Wirt is bothered by actions of three city agencies: Redevelopment Authority, Parking Authority, and BRIA. Here are clips of her concern, but watch the whole thing:
Why am I bringing all this up? Because I do not want it to go down unchecked in the public record. We as a Council are representatives of the taxpayers. We have not received an adequate explanation of why this $800,000 grant to the developer was made instead of into what the public would benefit from. I’m deeply troubled by the lack of oversight of our boards and commissions. . . . I’m concerned about lack of oversight of the Parking Authority. . . . Why does all this matter? These three Authorities – BRIA, Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, the Parking Authority – were created to work for Bethlehem citizens. . . . I think they have been exceptionally poor performers. . . . I will be calling out crony capitalism and poor management when I see it till things start to change.
CM Callahan responds by suggesting CW Van Wirt needs to do more research.
CM Reynolds cools things down a bit.
Passionate concern at visible wrong > defense of the ones perceived to be committing wrong > calm, sensible reconciliation.
Very interesting, and, I think, representative of their Council personae.
Now, in terms of the issue of oversight and explanation here, let Gadfly say that, as followers will surely remember, he followed the Parking Authority diligently through 70+ posts in the last quarter of 2018, and his conclusions on that organization align as completely and as passionately as CW Van Wirt’s.
That is one of the reasons for his Modest Proposal post of January 20:
that the half-dozen or so “independent” Authorities be requested to attend at least two City Council meetings per year, once in the first six months and once in the second, to report on current activities and future plans and to receive comments and questions from both Council members and the general public.
Let me take this opportunity to say that if you agree with this or any other modest proposal, that you take the opportunity to let the Mayor and/or Council know. We can’t be sure they are reading the blog. But, in any event, receiving responses from other than the Gadfly would be a great gauge of public worth. You can find links to email addresses on the Gadfly sidebar.
Two other allied sections in last meeting are worthy of attention too. During public comment Bruce Haines (begin min. 28:15) challenged Council to be more critical of those nominated for city boards, authorities, and commissions, and CW Van Wirt (begin min. 50:12) asked for resumes and contact info for nominees to be provided to Council. The idea from both is to tighten up the oversight.
Thumbs up from Gadfly based on his sense from following the Parking Authority that serving too long on a Board might in some cases be a problem and a sense that some board members are not involved as they should be.
So “take advantage” of the new opportunity afforded you to see your city government in action.