Buckets of questions about the Packer Ave. closing

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Kim Carrell-Smith is a 31-year resident of Bethlehem’s historic Southside, where she taught public history at Lehigh University for almost two decades. She is also an aspiring gadfly, buzzing in on issues of historic preservation, public education, city government, and other social justice issues. She tips her wings to the master gadflies who have served our community for so long!

[Gadfly would note that Kim’s substantial work was referred to approvingly several times in the February 18 City Council meeting. And rightly so! This is what it’s all about, good followers!]

Gadfly:

Re: Proposal to do a temporary closure of Packer Ave with an impact study

Many of us who attended the public meeting about the Packer Ave closure [Broughal Middle School January 23], and a number of my neighbors whom I’ve talked to about it since, have concerns about how any study of a temporary closure might be approached so that the most useful and accurate data would inform decision-making in the city, and so that pedestrians (and drivers) would be safe during the duration of the study. 

So this is what I asked city council and the mayor and his administration to consider before authorizing the temporary closure.

The questions are in two buckets: #1 is whether the city wants/needs to consider this closure (permanent or study period closure) at all, and if so, whether the time is appropriate now.  The #2 bucket is “if the city decides to do the temporary closure/study” questions. 

Bucket #1 –should the temporary closure/study be done and why?

1) What does the city hope to achieve with the proposed closure of Packer — not just with the short-term study time, but what is the city’s key objective for the proposed long-term closure of that section of Packer? Who will benefit? What will be gained? Who may lose? Do the gains outweigh the losses as we contemplate this closure?

2) [This was answered, mostly, or at least the accident data was. Without comparison to other locations it’s hard to know if this is a key dangerous intersection or one of many, or what . . . ]  One item we are still missing is data about how unsafe or safe that Packer Ave. crossing really is; no one has produced that data yet, despite Lehigh’s assertion that it appears to be an unsafe crossing. LU spokepersons have repeatedly and publicly said safety is part of what drives this closure idea. Can we learn more from existing safety data before diving into a study?

3) The other key reason cited by LU for the closure of Packer is that this would encourage students to feel the campus extends all the way to New, and could help them get closer to the commercial area and venture into it (on 4th and 3rd).  We already know that students tend to feel ill at ease going into the Southside, and that when they venture down they often go there by crossing (a) Morton, down New, and (b) across 4th St.  Isn’t it more likely that their Southside psychological boundaries/barriers are those streets rather than at Packer (hence the New Street revitalization plan to lure them past Morton and 4th, and down New)? How would the Packer closure affect Morton, in particular, with increased traffic and pedestrian movement? Will the closure adversely affect student movement north toward the commercial area, or will it encourage that foot traffic, as Lehigh asserts?

  • How and who will assess all of that — the study’s traffic consultants, a city business study, or another Lehigh study? If that student movement to the business district is a key objective in closing Packer, how will we know if the goal of increased pedestrian movement into the commercial area has been achieved, and when would we expect to know that?

4) Morton Street and the upper campus road are currently very congested due to university construction projects. Is this the best time to undertake a temporary or permanent closure, while those roads are narrowed, and there are flaggers, trucks, and equipment entering and exiting the construction sites all day long?

  • If the study goes forward, will the consultants measure pedestrian (and car) safety, not just at intersections but along that whole block of Morton where the street has been narrowed for construction, and the effect of the sidewalk closure on the south side of the street?
  • Will pedestrians really be safe during the study, while construction is ongoing?
  • Will the consultants measure the car traffic before and during the study to know the effects on the upper campus-E/W route across the Southside (including effects on the nearby neighborhoods)? [key issue of concern to my neighbors and me, over here!]

BUCKET #2 –if the temporary closure and study go forward

 But if one does think a temporary closure and study is a good idea, what is/will be written into that consulting contract? Is there language in the contract spelling out what the consultants must study: what exactly is to be studied, and how?  How will the results be made public, and will those results be shared before the decision is made to close Packer for good, or not? Will the public have an opportunity to provide their feedback on the temporary closure to Lehigh and the city? More specifically, then:

1) Will the consultants be studying the effects on pedestrians (and if so, is this something they know how to do, or do they need help from consultants who are more familiar with that kind of work)? We should be careful to use consultants who are experienced in pedestrian studies, and wary of using ones who may only specialize in vehicle traffic; I have no idea what these consultants are known for, but their performance in the public meeting at Broughal indicated to me that they had not thought about pedestrian studies much, if at all. It appeared that they only had focused their plans on the vehicle traffic.

Among the things we should know are

    • how do they plan to track Broughal student walking patterns and safety, and changes in those patterns and safety (if any)
    • and how do they account for safety issues as they study pedestrian movement in the extended area including Brodhead, Summit, over to Montclair and Carlton, down to 4th Street and perhaps 3rd as well; and eastward on Webster, 4th, 5th, and E.Packer.
    • What will Council learn about safety issues in the whole study area, by the end of the study?

2) [This was kind of answered, although it will be a shorter data collection period than folks first assumed when it was first announced.] How would the consultants plan to account for the traffic and pedestrian data in the earliest days of the study and closure, which will be done when Lehigh students and most faculty are on spring break: will that data be averaged in with the rest, thus skewing the results?  Studying traffic and pedestrians over spring break would definitely not provide representative data, although I see why Lehigh wants to start putting out blockades when students aren’t around and perhaps traffic is lighter. But that time should not be averaged into the data that is collected when the usual school year traffic (cars and pedestrians) is in full swing.

3) As my neighbors and I have shared with the mayor and the Lehigh Public Affairs VP, many of us suspect that W.8th to University Dr, and across campus, will become an even more appealing way to traverse the Southside (E-W and W-E) if/when Packer would be closed. Yet there will be even more construction up there on University Drive next year. The consultants should measure the before and after closure effects on that route, and also consider what could change when the next phase of dorm demolition and construction begins this summer through next year. Do we know if this is being considered in the study? I hope that the city will request a clear answer, and consider the following as well:

  •  Is the upper campus route going to be part of the city study, or would that be left to Lehigh to do separately from the consultant study? Would they include the surrounding neighborhood streets and what happens to traffic there? Will they share the data and seek community feedback?
  • Will the city be able to study the W.8th street entrance to campus and whether traffic is increased on that rather congested street that runs from Wyandotte into campus? What will be the impact on the streets to the east side of campus?
  • Would the data from a Lehigh campus road study be something accessible to the public, and would it be incorporated into city decision making?

4) Also, how will we know the effect of the closing when it snows? I mentioned at the public meeting that most of us over here are definitely aware that one doesn’t drive on Morton Street when it’s snowy; the city has never been able to maintain that street effectively; it is usually covered in slush, ice and/or snow for a number of days before things melt away- not ideal for Broughal kids and parents! That may be because of the way the buildings on the street shade the road surface, but I’m not sure.  Local folks just all try to avoid driving there when the weather gets bad. It’s a safety issue without any additional added traffic, whether for cars, buses or pedestrians; more traffic in snowy weather is a scary thought.

5) Finally, IF the trial closure and study are authorized by Council, you all, as well as residents and those who work in the area also should know how the final decision about long term closure would be made:

  • who besides the consultants will give or collect feedback
  • when
  • where
  • and how

…before the final decision is made?  What key issues will the mayor deem relevant to his recommendation?

I guess I don’t see all these questions as insurmountable, but as many of us see it, answering these questions in Bucket #2 (all of them) should mean that the planning for the traffic/pedestrian study would be quite careful, the study itself quite extensive, and both should include voices from the community.

  • Planning and contracting with consultants should also mean investigating their expertise in pedestrian studies.
  • And there should be a plan in place, before the study begins, to present the results of the study and hear from the public before any final decision is made.

Gadfly would note that Kim’s substantial work was referred to approvingly several times in the February 18 City Council meeting. And rightly so! This is what it’s all about, good followers!

Council folk speak up about the temporary closure of Packer Ave. (4)

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President Waldron (votes for the temporary closure)

Above, courtesy of YouTube’s choice, is Lehigh administrator Brent Stringfellow
not President Waldron

  • This is an opportunity where we can see how it will shake out.
  • My concern is how are those data used after we do receive them.
  • How is it disseminated to the community and the stakeholders . . . what mechanisms for feedback will there be to communicate concerns.
  • If this were the full-time street vacation I would not be supporting it, however I am in support of the temporary closure.
  • I really have to agree with Mr. Reynolds, Dr. Van Wirt about some of that conversation how the community is drawn up to Packer Ave. and feels a little bit more welcome on the campus.
  • I’ve spent some time just walking around Lehigh’s campus and it’s tremendous, a wonderful asset to our City, and I think to expose that to other people is only a good thing for Lehigh and the community.
  • I would like to see more in the conversation about how you bring the community up to that space.
  • And if Packer Ave. is eventually vacated . . . I would hope for a kind of all-in approach from Lehigh, some thoughts especially from Dr. Van Wirt about how we can make that space feel more inviting — is there a playground there, is there a community space . . . community programing?
  • That should be a major consideration in a potential vacation of the street.
  • Ultimately, this has to be a partnership between Lehigh, the City, and the community as well.

In conversation with Lehigh and City administrators, President Waldron asked about why the dates were picked, consideration of other traffic calming measures, who owns Packer Ave. if it is vacated, whether Lehigh could build on that space, what about utilities under that road, the financial value of the land, and loss of parking revenue.

All good president-type questions.

Council folk speak up about the temporary closure of Packer Ave. (3)

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Councilman Reynolds (votes for the temporary closure)

  • You look at somebody with a private interest coming forward, of course . . . there are reasons that they want to do it.
  • The key in the decision the governmental agency has to make is whether or not there’s overlap between the private interest and the public good or the public interest.
  • We’ve heard from some citizens, we need to hear from more citizens.
  • We are very fortunate here, in that a lot of time we have to deal with hypothetical benefits or hypothetical negatives . . . that is not always the best way to make decisions.
  • The best way to make decisions is when you have rational, qualitative data.
  • That’s what this is really about, giving the City and the public an opportunity to see whether or not there is a public interest in doing this.
  • The real boundaries . . . are not physical.
  • I really do give the Lehigh community a lot of credit for . . . directing more and more of their interest and energy toward how do we bring the Southside together in a way . . . how do we bring people up.
  • How do we bring people together.
  • What we’re not as good at is bringing people together that have different identities . . . to interact in that way that creates community.
  • If this is done well, it is another step in that direction.
  • Those two goals especially have an overlap between the City of Bethlehem’s public good and Lehigh University’s self-interest.
  • But that all has to be proved before anybody’s able to take that next step.
  • If this was just good for one group of people, it wouldn’t make sense to do.
  • It’s really about how is this going to be done and whether or not the important questions are going to be done, some of which we don’t even really understand yet.
  • Often times the groups that are most affected, they’re not here because they don’t exist yet.
  • We often talk about how we don’t have more information to be able to make decisions, and this is an opportunity to gain information.
  • The decision we make tonight is much smaller than the decision we are going to make, at the earliest, several months from now.
  • It is people and institutions coming out to saying we see this or we don’t see this as a good thing.
  • I think that there is an opportunity with this to really kind of go about doing this the right way.
  • For me it will come down to do I think this is a step in the right direction for bringing the Lehigh community together with the Southside community that has often been at odds.
  • We’re breaking down those kind of emotional and economic barriers one at a time, and that’s going to be the big question for me at the end of the day.
  • Is there a public good here that is worth us closing down or vacating the street, and does that interest work for both the institution that is before us as well as our community and the public good?

Council folk speak up about the temporary closure of Packer Ave. (2)

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Councilwoman Van Wirt (votes against the temporary closure)

  • My first concern is why is this being done.
  • I’m not convinced by the safety argument.
  • The first thing that comes to mind is not vacation of a city street.
  • The real reason . . . Lehigh wants to consolidate their campus, and that’s not inherently a bad thing.
  • But it has to be addressed in the correct way so that the citizens who are giving up city-owned land have faith in the process that all the data was transparent.
  • I would ask that the Mayor and Lehigh make the contracts with the consultant transparent.
  • This study must have a plan in place to disseminate the results.
  • I thought more people could have been brought in by a more robust campaign to get the word out about what was going to be talked about.
  • What was good about that meeting was that a lot of the stuff brought up was incorporated into the plan.
  • There was a lot of people calling out that this was not being done for safety.
  • I think that you can engender trust in the community of South Bethlehem if we’re pretty frank and candid about why we’re doing this.
  • We’re doing this to make Lehigh stronger . . . that’s why we are doing this.
  • The primary reason is for the university.
  • That is citizen-owned land . . . steep price.
  • The traffic concerns are real.
  • What are we doing with the dollars we’re given for that land? I would like to have some discussions now.
  • What does it physically look like?
  • Are those crossing guards going to be permanent for the Broughal students?
  • How do we draw the citizens up into this space that was formerly theirs?
  • How do we make it more like the citizens of Bethlehem feel they are more pulled in to?
  • How do we create better bike and pedestrian experiences?
  • How do we pull South Bethlehem back up in to the campus so that we can really integrate it?
  • What I really would encourage Lehigh to do is postpone this.
  • There’s too much that needs to be done before the March date.
  • Have this study happen in the fall.
  • I do have a vision of what this permanent closure could look like for Bethlehem, and it’s a great vision.
  • I think that it could be a great thing for South Bethlehem if it’s done correctly, and that means it has to be a slower process with the community involved.
  • I would advocate for a citizens’ steering committee.
  • Maybe the money we get for the land itself gets put into a community fund dictated by the committee for what it’s used for.
  • Maybe Lehigh can help start a South Bethlehem Business association . . . Maybe that could help with some of the problems we are having drawing students down the 3rd and 4th streets.
  • I have a vision that this can work., I just ask Lehigh to slow down.
  • . . . a community process that better addresses the problems brought up here.
  •  . . . fully pulls the community in to this so that they believe the process instead of feeling that it’s being jammed down their throats.

The Council folk speak up about the temporary closure of Packer Ave. (1)

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Ok, you are not new to the question about a test of the closing of Packer Ave. between Vine and Webster.

And you probably don’t need to be reminded that the issue here is control over your neighborhood (though this issue does have ramifications for all of us who drive in Bethlehem).

Lehigh is asking “us” to conduct a test whose end result is, if positive, in effect, to end the main function of a busy, healthy street on the Southside. Is their reason compelling?

Even if you don’t live in this area, you need to be alert to the kinds of things that could happen in your neighborhood.

Gadfly loves to compare his thinking to our elected officials. Join him. The Council members gave us clear and substantial rationales.

Remember, too, that one of the main reasons for the Gadfly project is to help you know your Councilpeople better so that you can be the most informed voter you can be.

This is a good opportunity.

Whom do you agree with, disagree with? Who makes you think? Who gave you something new to think about? Whom are you glad to see with a seat at the Head Table?

Councilman Colon (votes for the temporary closure)

  • I’m curious to see what comes out of the temporary closure.
  • We’ve already vacated a couple streets that we didn’t have this opportunity to test.
  • I remember how big deal it was when that street (Broad Street) was closed and then reopened.
  • We have an opportunity to have a temporary closing and then come back to the table and see what happens.
  • Now is a good time . . . to do the study. (students there, unlikely weather event, construction conditions on Lehigh campus)
  • Where I stand on permanent closure, who knows.
  • I’m encouraged by the Mayor’s comments about having another public hearing.


Councilwoman Crampsie Smith (votes against the temporary closure)

  • I do have concerns about the temporary closure. One is the proximity to Broughal Middle School.
  • I worry about their [Broughal students] maturity level.
  • There’s also St. Peter’s Church . . .
  • Also is the concern that the Southside is so congested already.
  • For many walkability is not an option [people with physical disabilities, an aging population] impeding people attending Lehigh events.
  • I wonder [from the community perspective] if this isn’t an extreme jump.
  • Sophisticated crosswalk like done at Moravian . . . overpasses, walkways.
  • I wonder if we’re not taking an extreme leap.
  • I just have a lot of questions. Perhaps in the future I would be more inclined to agree.

Van Wirt and Reynolds next–

Gadfly says Lehigh might want to lock Carolina Hernandez in her office

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Before we look at the interestingly different ways Council voted on the proposal to do a pilot study for closing Packer Ave. between Vine and Webster, let’s wrap up by looking once again at Gadfly’s stance.

Gadfly is a first premise, first cause, begin-at-the-beginning kind of guy.

He is very often most interested in the “why” kinds of questions.

Lehigh is proposing to close a section of Packer Ave.

Gadfly is neutral on the proposition. He stands to be convinced. As he assumes the Council members should be.

To Gadfly’s observations, the conversation about the pilot study moved too swiftly to the details of how a pilot study will be implemented. And that blurs the why question. It assumes the why question has been answered satisfactorily.

For instance, in the initial 4-minute Lehigh presentation at Council last Tuesday (there were four Lehigh speakers), one minute was spent on the reasons for wanting to close Packer, three for how the study will be conducted. Gadfly would reverse the percentages. He would not go to how the study will be done till he was reasonably convinced there was a compelling reason to do it in the first place.

So Gadfly rivets on the question of why Lehigh says it will be a good thing to close Packer.

Recognizing the similarity in the deliberative process so far to the process in which he participated hundreds if not thousands of times over five decades as a writing teacher, Gadfly notes that the Lehigh proposal has gone through three drafts: at the January 23 Broughal meeting, at the February 4 Council meeting, and last Tuesday at the February 18 Council meeting.

As one would expect, the drafts are somewhat different. As one would hope, the latest draft is somewhat stronger.

But, in Gadfly’s mind, the Lehigh proposal is “not there yet.” And as a Council member, he wouldn’t be ready to accept it, or even to accept the seemingly harmless first step of a free traffic study.

There are three points to Lehigh’s case that have shifted somewhat but remained basically the same over the three drafts. In the language of draft #3:  1) pedestrian safety 2) pulling the core of the campus farther in to the Southside 3) an improved pedestrian amenity for the campus and the community at large.

Listen to fussy, crotchety old prof Gadfly at the February 18 Council meeting calling for a yet stronger 4th draft before the Lehigh proposal is in shape to present to Council for their deliberation.  (If you want to see fussy, crotchety old prof Gadfly from his best viewing angle — the back — go to the City video min. 49:45.)

1) pedestrian safety: this third draft produced statistics on accidents and injuries at “the crossing” on Packer. But a) the crossing has been there for years. If conditions were so bad, why hasn’t the City done something/said something? Where is testimony from the City traffic and safety people? That would have more legitimacy than “partisan” testimony from the Lehigh officer. b) Still nothing addressing less nuclear traffic calming measures. As Gadfly said a few posts back, he feels that possessing that space is the prime reason for the proposal. The other options would not enable closing, would not enable possession of that space. The traffic rationale is a necessary means to possession. Lehigh has, in fact, said several times that safety is not their prime reason for proposing the closing but one of three “overlapping reasons.” So what bothers Gadfly is that the pilot traffic study is not addressing the main reason for the closing — which is the underdeveloped reason #3.

2) changing the face of Lehigh, pulling the core of the campus closer into the Southside: Sorry, Gadfly is not overpowered by the logic here. Closing Packer is not the same as moving Lehigh offices to the Flatiron building or to 3rd and New. Closing Packer is not the same as funding the Southside Ambassadors. We are talking here about moving the symbolic center of the University from the University Center flagpole/lawn to Packer Ave — about a one minute walk apart. Spitting distance. Gadfly agrees with the Mayor’s goal of more University and student involvement in the Southside but doesn’t see this move relating in virtually any way to that goal. On its own. But Gadfly must remember that Lehigh is talking not about three separate reasons but about “overlapping reasons,” which puts interesting emphasis on their third reason. Read on.

3) an improved pedestrian amenity for the campus and the community at large, providing a safe and welcoming east-west access for the community: go back and listen to the video of Lehigh’s Carolina Hernandez, the last of the four Lehigh presenters at last Tuesday’s Council meeting. She talked of programs in which Lehigh brings students to campus. Wow! thought Gadfly when he got up to talk — even smacking the podium table over this point (so dramatic, he is). This flips Lehigh reason #2. Not taking campus farther into the Southside. But bringing community members uphill, on to campus. Yes. Yes. Yes. This is the part of the conversation from Lehigh’s Tuesday night draft #3 that caught Gadfly’s attention — as well as Councilwoman Van Wirt’s, as we will see in the next post or so. Yes, yes. yes. Let’s think of how this vacated space might be used to blur lines, to bring more Southsiders over physical, symbolic, or emotional (an interesting term used by Lehigh in a past meeting) borders. So Gadfly ended up saying that the most important addition for the 4th draft of Lehigh’s proposal would be specific examples of boundary-blurring programing that Lehigh could institute in that space. If I were a Councilperson, such examples would make my mouth water and satisfy my need to consider approving such a proposal for the public good of the City. If I were Lehigh, I would lock Carolina Hernandez in her office till she developed two or three specific programs that would turn a vacated Packer Ave. into a truly shared space. Put as much detailed thinking about the use of the public space as has been given to the details of the traffic study. (We pretty much know where every traffic cone is going to go in the traffic study, but we get zero information about reason #3.)

So Gadfly urged Council not to approve the proposal for a traffic study. Yet. Wait for a 4th draft, he said. And then make your decision. (At such moments in conferences asking for a 4th draft, Gadfly had to keep sharp objects away from his students.)

But Council approved it.

Gadfly is not devastated.

The Council rationales were good. The Council rationales were clear. We’ll dissect them next. That will be instructive on several levels.

The idea of a test pilot is always good. The urban planning guru Jeff Speck whom Gadfly spent the last summer reading (you might remember he battered you with post after post of Speck’s ideas) strongly recommends such when possible.

But Gadfly says we shouldn’t think that the results of a test on traffic will touch the main issues here.

And debate about these three rationales will continue if the test pilot passes the test, so the thinking we do here and now is not wasted.

And maybe then Carolina will have been sprung from her office, 4th draft of the proposal in hand.

“Will you incorporate residents into some of the final decision-making process?”

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Gadfly has had occasion to say several times over the course of his tenure that “done deal” is one of the most terrifying phrases in the English language.

Gadflies have a penchant for exaggeration.

But “done deal” is the death knell to citizen participation.

You are invited to participate, you participate, then you find out the decision has already been made or that the decision is made without you.

Screw it, you say, and turn into one of those who lose faith in the democratic nature of city government.

There is still some concern about genuine and widespread community knowledge of and involvement in the “conversation” so far. Of course that will change big-time March 9 when the barriers go up!

Breena Holland and Kim Carrell-Smith are familiar and, Gadfly jokingly says, “professional” commentators at Council meetings. Otherwise, though Carrell-Smith presented the results of some polling she did of neighbors, there was only one near-by resident voice at the meeting — Gail Domalakes.

While attracted to the uses that Lehigh might make of that space, Domalakes “uses Packer Ave. a lot” both car-wise and walk-wise and finds the street “very pleasant” and does not “feel unsafe.” Au contraire, where she feels “on very high alert, adrenalin-rush” is at Brodhead and Morton and Vine and Morton, and to push more traffic down there might not be a “responsible thing to do.”

Holland and Carrell-Smith (and Domalakes too) support the pilot study. But both women make the clear point that data collected in the pilot study be shared with the community before a decision is made to go ahead with a permanent closing of that section of Packer.

The Mayor himself was clear at the January 23 Broughal meeting that he wanted the widest range of information he could get. So we’re hoping/expecting that there will be an open meeting for the public to share data and ideas about it and other salient and significant issues with Mayor and Council before any final decision is made.

Let’s try very hard to avoid the mutterings of “done deal.”