Martin Tower plans at Planning Commission today: the background (11)

Just take the “Connecting Bethlehem” survey, wouldya?

(11th in a series on Martin Tower)

Initial sketch plans for Martin Tower site at Planning Commission
4PM today Thursday April 11 Town Hall

Martin Tower demolition May 19

Gadfly was in another life in 2015. But the Martin Tower issue was all over the news in the last half of that year.

Martin Tower had lain long without action, languishing on the tax rolls, a prime location not utilized. The City proposed rezoning to “jump-start” development.

Meetings were several. Meetings were long. Meetings were jam-packed. Meetings were “hot.”

Meetings were described as “boisterous” and raucous.”

Martin Tower was a major public issue.

The major concerns with the City proposal included whether to demolish the Tower or not, the effect of commercial development on our current two downtowns, the large percent of the CRIZ granted to the project, possible traffic problems, the burden on the school district from heavy residential growth, lack of transparency by the developers, back-room dealing by the Administration, campaign contributions to Council members.

City Council ultimately approved the rezoning, permitting but not mandating demolition of the Tower with limitation on retail space aimed at the concern for creating a competing third business area.

Where are we now?

  • Martin Tower is coming down May 19
  • Developer plans for the entire site are being presented today – for the first time – to the Planning Commission
  • This is an initial review of plans; no vote

What should “we” be looking out for?

  • Since the developers have been basically silent all the way, we should be curious about all aspects of their plan.
  • the retail space: since the fear of creating a third downtown was the strongest objection. Did the “compromise” limitation on retail space work? Will the business community accept it?

Now there are other elements of this process that Gadfly might take up (comparison with other CRIZ cities, campaign contributions, back-rooming), but right now he is very anxious to see the plans and hear stakeholder responses.

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Timeline: information mainly from Morning Call files.

2001: Bethlehem Steel declares Bankruptcy.

2007: Developers Herrick and Ronca (HR) receive approval for a mostly residential community in Martin Tower (MT), a project shelved when the housing economy collapses in 2008. The property is in an office and research district created for Bethlehem Steel with a neighborhood overlay, requested by the developers, allowing homes and some commercial space as long as MT is retained.

2010: MT receives Historic Landmark designation (at developer’s request) to be eligible for tax credits.

2013: Bethlehem receives a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ) designation of 130 acres, which allows developers to use certain state and local taxes to pay off construction loans. The MT site occupies 53 of the 103 acres.

2013: The City removes MT from a list of historic landmarks protected from demolition.

July 10, 2015: Planning Commission (PC): To spur languishing development, the City proposes to rezone the MT site from research use/office use/residential development to a mix of uses: residential/office/commercial. The proposed new ordinance does not require that MT be retained and thus would allow MT to be demolished.

Concerns include:

  • demolition of the iconic MT
  • creation of a third, competing downtown subsidized by taxpayers
  • allocation of such a high percentage of the CRIZ to the MT project instead of to the downtowns

The PC tables the proposal, recommending revision to ensure that the entire site cannot be retail.

August 13, 2015: Planning Commission: The PC approves 3-2 a proposal to rezone the MT site as mixed-use but limiting the amount of retail space and with no requirement to keep MT (but not mandating demolition).

City Council in 2015 was Bryan Callahan, Eric Evans, Michael Recchiuetti, Cathy Reuscher, J. William Reynolds, Louis Stellato, Adam Waldron.

October 6, 2015: Public hearing: 4-hr, standing-room only crowd, marked by petition against the re-zoning proposal by 50 downtown businesses (no 3rd downtown) and request that some City Council members recuse themselves because of campaign contributions from developers. Lack of direct testimony from developers (no plan) is also raised.

October 20, 2015: City Council (CC): “Over intense opposition from downtown merchants,” CC approved the zoning change 6-1 at first reading with agreement to “massage the language” concerning the amount of retail space after it becomes law. Dominant concern by critics of the proposal is “fear that it would create a third downtown.” A lower cap on retail would meet that concern. There were again calls for recusals. Once again, the developers are silent about their plans, a point of some criticism. “Why would Council approve rezoning without knowing the developer’s plan for the site? Why did it vote for rezoning while simultaneously agreeing it should be amended?” (Barbara Diamond). Strong calls to limit retail space now not later.

November 4, 2015: City Council: In “an overture to disgruntled downtown merchants,” CC, voting 5-1, limits retails space to 380,000 square feet, necessitating sending the proposal back to the PC for consideration. The issue of campaign contributions leading to recusals was raised again in public commentary.

December 7, 2015: Planning Commission: The PC meeting is canceled on discovery of hitherto unknown City Administration contacts with the developer going back to the beginning of the year – contacts revealed by blogger Bernie O’Hare. The PC chair says discussion should have been done in “the light of day.”

December 8, 2015: Public hearing: The Administration is accused of “working behind closed doors” with the developers. “Corruption,” “ethics,” “integrity” are topics of commentary. Mayor charged with ignoring “near-unanimous train of residents.” The Mayor later presents a detailed defense of his proposal and the process behind it.

December 15, 2015: City Council: “Capping off a six-month raucous debate,” CC votes 6-1 to approve the rezoning with the 380,000 cap on retail. Same objections heard again. The Mayor defends self and Council defends him.

City Council in 2015 was Bryan Callahan, Eric Evans, Michael Recchiuetti, Cathy Reuscher, J. William Reynolds, Louis Stellato, Adam Waldron.

Just take the “Connecting Bethlehem” survey, wouldya?

The Other Iron Man: Bill Scheirer (2)

Second in a series of posts on Gadfly History. The Gadfly seeks stories or suggestions for stories on the Bethlehem tribe of Gadflies. If we had something like Bill White’s Hall of Fame, who else would be in it? Eddie Rodriquez, Mary Pongracz, Bob Pfenning, Chuck Nyul, Lucy Lennon?

You see them together a lot in the same quadrant of Town Hall, Stephen Antalics and Bill Scheirer, the “iron men” of this generation Bethlehem gadflies. Stephen on the short side, Bill tall. Stephen, who can be crusty and truculent with Council, Bill always cool, soft spoken, urbane. Stephen in your face, Bill of gentle wry wit. I imagine them playing ball together in the old days in some half-lit Church basement gym. Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. Stephen the point guard, dervish-like setting the plays, elbowing his defenders, trash talking, creating the openings, Bill, patiently underneath, biding time, counting the broken lights in the ceiling, waiting the pass, finishing it off. We tipp’d our hat to Stephen last time (see Gadfly History #1), Bill now.* Scheirer

Bill must be a true numbers warrior. When his heavily detailed and impenetrable 400-page budget book, an accountant’s dream, damn near caused a riot, Mayor Callahan was forced to produce a slimmed down snappy version for weak-kneed Council. But no watered-down, gussied up version for Bill:  “The new document, if [it] gets more citizens involved in the budget process, is a good thing,” he said wisely. “But it can never replace the detailed budget. That is the one I use.”  And that’s Bill.

Nobody best accuse this mild-mannered man of lacking “stones.” During the ugly democracy-crushing debate over razing Broughal high school, “Professor” Scheirer took to assigning grades to the school directors, giving them a “C” for their often-chaotic procedures. “These parliamentary grades go on into your permanent record,” he quipped.

Bill tempered Mayor Callahan’s enthusiasm over a positive citizen mail survey, indicating wonkily that “the important thing is the nonresponses” and that a random sample of the nonrespondents “should be aggressively pursued, and that if those results differ from those who responded, the survey could be flawed.” Not something His Honor the Mayor wanted to hear.

And during the Broughal debacle he said, “just because other middle schools have athletic fields doesn’t mean Broughal needs them too.” Bada Boom! Run for the hills!

When Bill praised me for good alliteration in the phrase “prayer, pledge, past” I used in some pitch during public comment at Council, I replied, “Ahhh, took a little English along with that Economics, eh!” But little was I prepared for this moving meditation on personal and national tragedy that I found in the old newspaper files.

I thank The Morning Call for the Sept. 9 article on “The Falling Man,” a picture of a person plunging from the World Trade Center on 9/11. It may be the most compelling photograph I have ever seen.
falling manAlthough it was not appropriate to publish the photo on the first page of the Arts & Ideas section, where eyes that were too young might have seen it, I agree with the decision to publish it the day after the tragedy, for it has a very positive message.

In that situation, most of us would have retreated within ourselves in some corner of the building, cherishing the last few seconds of life, perhaps hoping that the fire would miraculously burn out and that the building would not collapse.

The man in the photo had the strength of intellect to clearly see that was not going to happen. Rather than passively wait for his death, he chose to end it on his own terms, showing the “control” mentioned in the article. But, it was more than that. It takes strength of character to initiate some action that will almost certainly result in one’s death, if one is not suicidal.

In a way, his act was not unlike the courage of the passengers of Flight 93 who chose to take positive action rather than wait to die.

Whatever went through this man’s mind, I believe it was an act of self-affirmation, essentially an act of human dignity. He also sent a message to the terrorists: You may hurt us, you may kill some of us, but you will not defeat us.

That, my friends, is something.

Bill Scheirer – economist, community organizer, government critic, preservationist, gadfly.

*Thanks to the files of the Morning Call.

A Star is Born: Stephen Antalics, June 22, 2001 (1)

The Gadfly seeks stories or suggestions for stories on the Bethlehem tribe of Gadflies. If we had something like Bill White’s Hall of Fame, who else would be in it? Bill Scheirer (with Stephen the current other “iron horse” in Bethlehem Gadflydom), Eddie Rodriquez, Mary Pongracz, Bob Pfenning, Chuck Nyul, Lucy Lennon?

Click here for Stephen Antalics, “With a stigmatic past, Bethlehem’s South Side suffers history of neglect, ” Morning Call, June 22, 2001.
Antalics 6-22-01

The name of Stephen Antalics, who ranks as Gadfly No.1 in the pantheon of Bethlehem Gadflies, first appeared in the pages of the Morning Call in 1996, but here is the 2001 first article with his by-line (a robust 1000 words). Stephen burst into print here as a Southside warrior, and current City Council attendees recognize that his combative voice is undiminished. Stephen sees a kind of Civil War at the very beginning of Bethlehem history rather than mid-way as in our country at large. From the get-go it’s the North and its high-toned Christians and culture v. the “sin city” of the South filled with speakeasies, gambling, opium dens, and brothels (who knew??). The “native Americans” of the North looked down on the “foreign invaders” of the South and the “unopposed infiltration of organized crime.”

Most importantly, for Stephen this “arrogant attitude never disappeared” and “can still be traced in social attitudes and administration policies even today” [2001]. To wit, the 1950s Clarke-Rapuano Study, the city’s first formal redevelopment plan, relegated antalicsSouthside development to “a later date.” To wit, the 1970s Gruen plan urged the formation of “Southside 76,” but “This plan never saw fruition.” Thank God for Bethlehem Steel and Lehigh University – “There is a God!” literally exclaimed one businessman. In the 1990s, for instance, Lehigh responded to Southside needs “by building a student housing and shopping complex . . . on Morton Street, designed to improve the area and keep the buying power in the community,” but the City administration refused “to amend zoning codes to reduce the number of student housing in a given area by a density clause.” “A drive down Montclair and Birkel avenues today [2001] shows the results of this omission,” claims our Gadfly. Bottom line: the history of the Southside is a “history of neglect.”

What do you think of the Stephen’s vision of history here? How does it relate to the resurgence of the Southside we are seeing now? What about Lehigh’s current construction of additional dorms close to the Southside business district? How about Stephen’s grim Jeremiah-type prophecy at the just-past September 4 City Council meeting about the Montclair/Birkel cancer spreading to the Northside via the Airbnb contact? What else does the piece make you think about? Stephen, would you like to comment on your own piece of seventeen years ago?