Proposed zoning ordinance dusts off the Airbnb issue

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Short-term lodging, short-term rentals, home-sharing: sometimes conveniently referred to by the short-hand of Airbnb, the company with which this practice is most associated.

Airbnb locations in Bethlehem

“The Uber of the hospitality market, Airbnb acts as an online broker, connecting people who need a place to stay with hosts who have a spare bedroom, apartment or a full house to rent.”
————

The Airbnb issue is before us again. It’s been out of sight for over a year. Brought back by a proposal introduced at the Planning Commission December 12 for a change in the zoning code to complement an ordinance passed last year.

We’re going to spend several posts on this proposal. So it’s time to refresh ourselves on the background.

Click Airbnb under Topics on the right-hand Gadfly sidebar for access to previous posts.

For a deep background timeline, see: The Airbnb Controversy (1)

Though the roots of this controversy long precede Gadfly-becoming-Gadfly, the issue seems to have begun with neighbors’ reacting to a specific Bethlehem couple in the Northside historical district renting their home (and then homes) on a short-term basis.

In the next post we will want to ask why all of us should be attentive to what’s happening in one section of the City.

Charles Malinchak, “Bethlehem planners delay recommendations on short-term lodging changes.” Morning Call, December 13, 2019.

Bethlehem is considering a proposal to regulate short-term rentals — akin to renting rooms or whole houses to overnight guests — in its zoning code for the first time. While the city has an ordinance to license such uses, the new ordinance would actually spell out in what zoning districts they can be.

The proposed changes are in an zoning amendment aimed at what is being called “short-term lodging” which the commission discussed, but members determined at least two sections of the regulations need to be fined tuned. The two questions the commission requested be looked into further were how many days per year the home or room can be rented and what zoning districts should the activity be permitted.

According to a copy of the proposal, a short-term lodging facility is a single family home occupied by the owner who rents no more than two bedrooms for up to 30 days. The home would not be licensed as a hotel or a bed and breakfast and no exterior alterations or expansions of the home would be permitted to expand the rental operation, according to the amendment. The areas where the rental activity would be permitted or with a special exception permit include the following zoning districts: rural residential, single family residential and medium and high density residential.

Hotel Bethlehem Co-Partner and city resident Bruce Haines told the Planning Commission that the amendment doesn’t really mesh with an existing ordinance regulating housing. “The point is, these places need to be single family homes where the visitor has access to the entire house like the kitchen, living room and dining room,’’ he said after the meeting. One of the problems, he said, is that several homes in the center city historic district are already operating under the pretense of short-term lodging but are actually apartments with no access to the rest of the house.

The commission will continue discussion of the issue and possibly make recommendations at its January meeting. Those recommendations would be forwarded to City Council. The city began looking at the zoning issue after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court case earlier this year that ruled in favor a Monroe County municipality’s zoning of short-term lodging. The city’s current licensing ordinance is under appeal in Northampton County Court.

The ordinance was created after residents complained about the houses being rented out in their neighborhoods. Critics say they have no problem with homeowners licensed to rent out a bedroom or their house to overnight guests, but oppose investors buying homes for that sole purpose, creating a commercial intrusion into their neighborhood.

to be continued . . .

Competition for the Tasteless Architecture Award

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“But the city has no jurisdiction over architectural style.”
Dan Church

“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” laments Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in the classic A Streetcar Named Desire film.

Jerry reminds us that we depend a lot of times on the kindness of developers.

And sometimes the developer is not a stranger. The owner of 548 lives right there.

Jerry DiGiulio, “Bethlehem buildings don’t fit historic neighborhood.” Morning Call, December 9, 2019.

I thought the Skyline West project in Bethlehem had the Tasteless Architecture Award wrapped up, but incredibly a late entry at 548 N. New St. may win. Both are by the same developer/design team. Apparently their aesthetic was greatly influenced by early episodes of “The Jetsons.”

These proposed buildings are in or adjacent to the Historic District of Bethlehem. In researching how it is possible that these buildings could be approved, I found that City Council, the Planning Board and the Zoning Commission have no say over design, unless the building is in the Historic District.

Not to pick on Bethlehem, the same group has a like building proposed for Easton, also in a historic area. Looks like an alien structure giving birth, waiting for the mother ship to call them home. Neighborhood residents appearing before Easton’s Historic District Commission opposed the project. Hopefully, Easton will listen to them.

I hope the people of Bethlehem will Google these buildings, their locations and voice their concerns to the city.

“Neighborhoods are worth fighting for,” Gadfly always says — we must keep making our ideas known.

Councilwoman Crampsie Smith: “This area needs to really be given attention”

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Gadfly wraps up today’s long “neighborhood” thread from last Tuesday’s City Council meeting here.

He loves the real down-to-earth people from our town, and they are no more compelling than when they are in need.

He spun this thread out hoping you would linger on each of the resident testimonies.

You don’t want to depend on summaries and soundbites.

You want to hear the live voices. And recognize the common humanity.

So, where do you go when you are in need? When you are in trouble. When you need help.

You go to City Council, of course, which, as I always say, though administratively powerless, is to our residents the “face” of City government.

So these people came to City Council looking for someone to help.

Gadfly doesn’t mean to slight the other Council members, but he senses that in her short time on Council Grace Crampsie Smith, who has a family background in law enforcement, is focusing on such neighborhood issues as block watches, policing, housing.

So he brings this thread to an end (for now) with Councilwoman Crampsie Smith’s concluding remarks on the issues these residents brought to Council’s attention.

  • While we want every single neighborhood in the City to be safe, we are seeing certainly an increase in drug problems and poverty and homelessness and affordable housing, but I think this area needs to really be given attention because of the number of drug and criminal activities that have occurred in the last five years.
  • I really would ask that the City Administration and the Police Department and especially the Zoning do everything they can to try to rectify the problems we’ve been seeing.

It may not be clear from Gadfly’s clips that the main focus of attention in the resident comments has been on the 900 block of Main St., with some reference to Garrison St.

“I feel community policing is very important”

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A resident proposes a plan in response to the problems detailed over the last several posts, and — behold — we see another gadfly born!

  • I know many of the older police, and we managed to clean up quite a few blocks.
  • I feel community policing is very important, because it is the only way that citizens get to see that police are human too.
  • We became good friends.
  • And we managed to get good block watches going.
  • I hear now that nobody wants to get involved any more in community policing.
  • Some may not admit it, but they are afraid — and I understand that totally.
  • Because I’m afraid . . . some guy pulled a gun in front of my house at me.
  • I was pretty much a prisoner of my own home.
  • Community policing has done a lot for me and other people.
  • So I would really like to see something done with this.
  • Get officers in to this, I’ll even volunteer to work with them.
  • This is a very important part of the police department.
  • If they’re afraid to go out there and talk to people, that’s not good.
  • I’m going to be a thorn in everybody’s side, but I’m doing it for the good of my home, which is Bethlehem.

Gadfly knows this is a big change of pace, but how about this as an example of good community policing?

“We have so many issues on our block”

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No Gadfly comment needed here either . . .

  • We do have a block watch now [900 block Main st.].
  • We just call the cops all the time.
  • We have so many issues on our block.
  • I keep complaining to the Health Department and finally they were inspected.
  • So we keep complaining . . . and nothing’s being done.
  • I’m curious what you plan on doing to rectify this, to make it a safer environment.
  • We have a daycare, a grade school . . . It’s not safe to walk up and down the street.
  • What can you do to make it safer?
  • I would think there would be more due diligence.

“There’s a meth lab on the corner”

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Needs no commentary . . .

  • There was a shooting on our block . . . over drugs.
  • There are homes on our block that are known to be selling drugs.
  • I’ve called the police time and time again. Nothing is being done.
  • There’s a meth lab on the corner.
  • We need to do something . . . to take control of our homes and our neighborhoods.
  • It’s not safe for our children to go out and walk.
  • This is crazy, and nobody’s doing anything about it.
  • I worry about our next generation.
  • Do you want everybody to move out of Bethlehem because it’s not safe any more?
  • Nothing was ever in the newspaper about the shooting.
  • I understand that the police force needs more officers.
  • We need to do something.
  • We do our due diligence. We need protection, and it’s not there any more.
  • I’m afraid.
  • No one’s doing anything about it.
  • I get they’re understaffed.
  • My taxes should be going to safety.

to be continued . . .

“We do have a drug problem here in Bethlehem”

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Public comment at the City Council meeting last Tuesday night had more than the usual “edge” to it as a series of residents made moving and powerful statements about problems in their neighborhoods revolving around drugs and called for more policing, especially community policing.

A few posts ago Gadfly called attention to the return to active duty of resident Gadfly Eddie Rodriguez. Here you can see him forcefully and bluntly consolidating the message that several other residents delivered and which Gadfly will present in subsequent posts.

But for now listen to Rodriquez presenting the problem and calling for action.

Gadfly’s idyllic Norman Rockwell image of Bethlehem took a hit.

  • I would like something to be done.
  • We do have a drug problem here in Bethlehem.
  • It’s important to take the input from these community members.
  • These community members are scared.
  • I know for a fact that what these people [neighbors] are commenting on, that is happening.
  • These people [drug people] are not going to give up just because you had a drug raid.
  • You have more drugs down on Garrison Street than what anybody suspects here.
  • I came from that world . . . so I know, personally myself, as to what’s happening in these communities.
  • If you’re not doing anything, it’s not going to happen.
  • You have to get involved, really involved, and bust these people.
  • It’s the drugs.
  • They don’t give a darn about what they do and how they do it and they don’t care about your churches and they don’t care about your community.
  • They are out to destroy.
  • Do something about it before this situation gets out of hand.
  • I’m pleading with you for the sake of the decent-living community members that came out here.
  • Do something now before it’s too late.
  • You gotta get the police more involved.

to be continued . . .

Homeless shelter issue resolved: “taking care of the homeless . . . is one of the paramount duties we have”

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Remember that we noted last week in the cold snap that the Bethlehem Emergency Shelter for the homeless at Christ Church United Church of Christ, 72. E. Market St., wanted to open early — before the December 1 date approved by its zoning — but a neighbor complained.

Raising some justified concern among Gadfly followers.

The Mayor announced at City Council last Tuesday that agreement was reached — certain members of Council were involved in the background — for an early opening.

Louis James, a close neighbor of the BES spoke in support of the early opening, praised BES for responding to neighbor concerns, and hoped that the City would help BES find a permanent home.

Councilpersons Colon, Reynolds, and Van Wirt spoke in support of the importance and high quality of the BES work, and Gadfly wished he was quick enough on the trigger to have recorded all their comments (but see the city video of the meeting, beginning at min. 1:41:48), in which, for instance, Councilman Colon mentioned working at the shelter.

But here is audio of Councilwoman Van Wirt in which she states that “taking care of the homeless . . . is one of the paramount duties we have” and her hope that Council can help make sure these people are cared for 24/7 and 12 months a year.

The Cookie-Cutter School of Architecture?

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The image on the left is the architect’s rendering of the recently approved building proposed after demolishing the buildings at 546-48 N. New St., which is just outside our historic district.

The image on the right is the (probably) same architect’s rendering of the building recently proposed inside Easton’s historic district.

The developers of the two sites are the same.

Gadfly — whose knowledge of 9 uses of the comma does not license him to make architectural judgments — senses a sameness in the two designs.

What’s bad for Bethlehem is bad for Easton.

 

Peter Blanchard, “‘That looks like a robot’: Neighbors, Easton historic district board not sold on proposal for 12-story building.” Morning Call, November 13, 2019.

“That looks like a robot,” says a neighbor of the Easton project on the right, “It doesn’t look historic.”

A follower who called this article to Gadfly’s attention and who might not want to be identified suggested delightfully that the Bethlehem project on the left looks like something from outer space.

Why — with a nod to follower Kim Carrell-Smith — can’t we get architecture that blends with its unique neighborhood?

It can be new but blend.

But this smells of the Cookie-Cutter School of Architecture.

The 2 W. Market case: “what am I missing?”

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Kate McVey is a concerned citizen, 30-year resident of Bethlehem, professional organizer, dog owner, mother of two children, been around, kosher cook . . . explorer.

So Gadfly,

I have never understood the hubbub about this property. It looks so much better than it did, and it does bring people in and out of the neighborhood unlike the Verizon building and the fortress that used to be a bank. To my knowledge, I guess we could count the dead people in the cemetery there as residential (?). But the school surrounds that property, there is a B and B across the street, and a lawyer’s office, and there was a small shop farther down Market. There is an old folks home next to the cemetery and only one residential property on the south side of Market street. And what about the one story building behind it on New St.? There is a business in there.

As stated in the other blogs, the zoning board changes the rules constantly to please new projects. At least the 2 Market St kept the old building and the character of the area. Going down New there is the Kemerer Museum and a shop on the other corner of Church and New.

The residents have even admitted that 2 Market people are good neighbors.

Historic Bethlehem needs to sometimes get over themselves. So what am I missing? Also further down on Market there are law offices, a boarding house. Come on, what am I missing?

Let’s focus on tearing down the Judd building and what the new development being proposed will do. Not to mention the Airbnb issue, what happened to that?

Kate

It’s not the Zoning Hearing Board’s responsibility to craft strategy on behalf of the residents of Bethlehem

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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:

Your header regarding ZHB decisions indicating a desire to change Bethlehem’s character is a very interesting one. However, it’s not the ZHB’s responsibility to craft any overall desire or strategy on behalf of the residents of Bethlehem. Rather it’s their responsibility to review and act upon each request on a case by case basis. A recent commenter on a post I placed on my Facebook page expressed it succinctly when she wrote, “a zoning board is supposed to uphold the “essential character of the neighborhood.”

Dana

Zoning Hearing Board decisions may indicate a desire to change Bethlehem’s character

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Gadfly #2 Bill Scheirer does the math (probably a 1000 new apartment units on line) and makes us wonder if there is a conscious policy to change the character of our town.

In the approaching Christmas season during which we all will be watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” again (and again), Bill makes Gadfly #00 think of Bethlehem as Bedford Falls and reminds him of the resident in public comment at Council a year or so ago who spoke of the “Capra-esque” quality of our town.

We do have that kind of charm.

Are we in danger of losing it?

  • “We have constructed or proposed or in various stages of approval 12 apartment projects in the City of Bethlehem, 5 on the Southside, 4 on the West Side, and 3 on the Northside.”
  • “Let’s say 30 variances were requested, 2 were rejected.”
  • “That’s a 90% approval rate when a developer appears before the Zoning Hearing Board.”
  • “It would seem that the Zoning Hearing Board has a desire to see Bethlehem change, change its character.”
  • “And it’s up to us to decide if that’s what we want Bethlehem to become.”
  • “Do we want it to become a more dynamic and more busy and more congested and more noisy and become like many other small cities with pretensions.”

Neighbor-produced-data relevant to 2 W. Market

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Fighting for one’s neighborhood. Always a good thing in Gadfly’s book.

Yesterday Gadfly focused on the forceful testimony of Paige Van Wirt before the Zoning Hearing Board on November 12 as a model of good citizenship.

Gadfly does the same today with the example of Martin Romeril.

The issue in the 2 W. Market case is the insertion of a business in a residential neighborhood.

Unbelievably, from the beginning of the recent chapter of this case, the nature of the neighborhood as “residential” has been questioned, despite what the zoning map says.

Go back to post 49 in this (so-far) journey of 89 posts with Gadfly, the post “CM Callahan on ‘the 2’.”

Here’s what Councilman Callahan had to say about a year ago: “I think what it comes down to is, the main question is this, where does the residential neighborhood begin and where does it end? And the bottom line is it doesn’t. It doesn’t. There’s nobody that can tell me where the residential community in that neighborhood on that block begins and ends.”

As Gadfly said back in December, “The zoning code says 2 W. Market is in an area zoned residential. [Callahan] says, in effect, there is no residential area there.”

That subjective suspension of the zoning code by a Councilman bowled the then innocent Gadfly over.

Now around the same time the City — which supported the owner of 2 W. Market and is now vigorously opposing the validity challenge — produced a map that also seemed to have the same effect, the downplaying of the residential nature of the West Market neighborhood and thus minimizing the impact of the inserted business.

Enter Romeril.

And his production of a color-coded map that shows the neighborhood 87.3% residential!

Romeril map

Here is Romeril testifying about his work at the November 12 Zoning Hearing Board meeting:

But Romeril’s investigative work didn’t end there.

When the City attorney posed this question — “Mr. Romeril, you expressed some concern about the impact of 1304.4b throughout the City, have you been able to identify other parcels where 1304.4b might apply?” —  he seemed surprised that Romeril’s “Yes” answer was embodied in a 3-page chart, done with the help of a friend, based on evidence offered by the 2 W. Market attorney:Romeril chartGadfly invites you to note the long silence at the end of the following clip with which the City attorney responded to Romeril’s work:

Romeril didn’t just accept the study done by the City.

Romeril didn’t just accept the research done by the 2 W. Marketers.

He challenged both and provided data that supported the neighbors’ position.

It is, of course, by no means clear that the neighbors will win this latest round before the Zoning Hearing Board in this marathon controversy (everyone seems to feel resolution in the courts will be necessary), but Gadfly is pleased to help disseminate these examples of active citizen involvement as models for us all when we need to struggle for the quality of our neighborhood life.

The Hearing Board meets again on this case December 11.

The 2 W. Market beat goes on

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Gadfly has lost count. But there was another 4hr meeting of the Zoning Hearing Board last week on the challenge to the validity of a text amendment to the “storefront”  ordinance originally intended to apply to properties like the one on the left but benefiting 2 W. Market on the right — an ordinance passed by a Council, in Gadfly’s opinion, not in its best hour.

This is the 88th post on the long history over the controversy of the zoning on 2 W. Market, and followers can refresh themselves on that history by clicking the link on the Gadfly sidebar.

Gadfly loves examples of citizen participation, of which there were several at this meeting, and he invites you here to both learn about the issues surrounding 2 W. Market and to enjoy a model of good citizenship through the testimony of Paige Van Wirt.

How does this zoning amendment impair or impede the residential character of the neighborhood? (3 mins.)

  • “There’s no families in this business to watch little kids on the street, there’s nobody to see that somebody fell down on the corner.”

What are your concerns given that this property is on the edge of a commercial district? (1 min.)

  • “Now this neighborhood is struggling to come back and have a full residential character to it. Any conversion . . . of a previously healthy residential home . . . is going to erode the fabric of my neighborhood.”

Do you have concerns about commercial creep? (1 min.)

  • “This does give a signal that our neighborhood’s zoning is not a wall.”

Will this amendment erode the reliability of the zoning ordinance? (1 min.)

  • “As a homeowner . . . I would be much less inclined to buy a property on this block if I felt there were going to be more commercial/residential flips.”

Describe the importance of drafting the memo to the City Planning Director asking for more data? (2 mins.)

  • “My concern was that there was no impact study done by the City. . . . that we were asked at City Council to adopt an ordinance where there had been no data and research done.”

Does the amendment support the general health, safety, and welfare of the residents of Bethlehem? (1 min.)

  • “I understand why this is in the best interests of Quadrant, I get it, they did a great job on the building, but it doesn’t pass the litmus test of being in the best interest of the City, and that’s fundamentally what City Council is here as a representative body of the citizens of Bethlehem to do.”

Interesting material came out as Van Wirt parried with one of the attorneys under cross-examination. (9 mins.)

  • “This is a border neighborhood. . . . You’re not going to go six blocks in to the middle of Wall St. to try to set up a business there.”

Are you familiar with uses of the properties on your block? (1 min.)

  • “If this amendment could be so broadly applied that it would affect my own home, it made me understand the potential impact this would have on the rest of the City.”

Why did you wait so long before requesting data from the City? (2 mins.)

  • “Call me naive, but I never thought it would get that far. Once it was apparent that there was enough people on Council considering voting for it, that’s when I said, O, my God, I’ve got to show them, I’ve got to prove to Council why this is not in the best interest of the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Bethlehem. . . . That’s my job”

The hearing board will convene again December 11 to continue consideration of this case.

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

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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

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Armory 1

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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

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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.

“The Rose Garden is the centerpiece of West Bethlehem”

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Press Release from State Rep. Jeanne McNeill:

BETHLEHEM, Nov. 14 – State Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, has announced that a $210,000 state grant has been awarded to the Rose Garden Park in Bethlehem to renovate the facility.

The Rose Garden Park is an eclectic park that has a play area and has a replica of the first home in Bethlehem and a Civil War monument. The garden features more than 100 variety of flowers.

“The Rose Garden is the centerpiece of West Bethlehem,” McNeill said.  “The park will undergo some improvements that all can enjoy including walking and biking paths, a picnic area, and additional shade in front of the bandshell for concertgoers.  I was very happy to work with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to secure the funding for this treasured park in my district.”

The grant was awarded through DCNR’s Community Conservation and Partnerships Program, which provides financial and technical assistance to local governments, river and trail organizations, and trusts, and other nonprofits for planning, acquisition and development of park, recreation, conservation and greenway project.

——

An email from the Mount Airy Neighborhood Association spreading the good news contained this litany of thanks:

Lots of thanks are needed for this wonderful support for our Rose Garden Project.
Thank you, Jeanne for getting this through the State.
Thank you to Amy Zanelli and Phil Armstrong in Lehigh County.
Thank you to Mayor Donchez and our City Council members who voted unanimously to give us $!00 k in matching funds so this project could go forward.
Thank you to Darlene Heller (City planner), Cindy Smith (former City arborist), Chris (from public works) for putting the details in the plans. And I’m sure there are others .

AND THANK YOU CHRISTY ROYSDON FOR ROUNDING US ALL UP AND GETTING US TO WRITE OUR PARTS OF THE APPLICATION!

THANK YOU! THANK YOU, EVERYONE!

Emergency shelter for the homeless not permitted to open early

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A post on the Next Door Mauch Chunk blog urges residents to attend the November 19 City Council meeting to discuss this.

Sara Satullo, “Complaint forces Bethlehem cold-weather homeless shelter to ditch early opening amid frigid temps.” lehighvalleylive.com, November 15, 2019.

Bethlehem’s emergency shelter for the homeless hoped to open for the season early due to the Lehigh Valley’s deep freeze but a neighbor complaint thwarted the effort.

In 2017, the shelter at Christ Church United Church of Christ, 72. E. Market St., got zoning approval to operate from Dec. 1 to March 31 each year. On average, the church houses 65 men and women from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. each night.

Posts on the group’s Facebook page indicate the shelter hoped to open on Friday evening as the region’s been gripped by frigid air with temperatures dropping well-below freezing at night. Overnight temperatures Friday and Saturday are set to dip to lows of 26 and 25 degrees.

But it seems a neighbor complained, forcing the shelter to adhere to the schedule approved by the Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board.

“All of us who support BES and our mission to serve our street neighbors are deeply disappointed in the situation that forced us to delay our opening until December 1. However, the board is requesting that people refrain from making any disparaging comments about those in the neighborhood or others who have voiced concerns about the shelter,” Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering board chair Rodney Conn said in a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page. “We have and continue to work with the community to ensure that the Shelter operations provide security to our neighbors, the Church, our volunteers, and our guests. Thank you for your cooperation.”

The nonprofit group began hosting rotating shelters for men and women at area churches in 2009. It was a realization of a dream when in December 2017 the nonprofit opened a permanent co-ed shelter in the heart of the city’s Historic District.

The shelter and the city began requiring anyone staying at the shelter to first register at the nearby police station to obtain a voucher last year in response to neighbor complaints. Police run a criminal check to ensure a person does not have outstanding warrants or is a sex offender.

The church also hired professional security guards last year and installed surveillance cameras in response to neighbor complaints.

Down Memory Lane on the Armory controversy

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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 . . .

The 2 W. Market case goes south (geographically, that is)

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Note: The Zoning Board Hearing tonight is at Southside campus Northampton Community College, room 605.

The latest chapter in the 2 W. Market case unfolds tonight.

Posts on this recent phase of a controversy that is almost as long as our national involvement in the Middle East wars begin at post #80. Click on the sidebar link if you want to refresh or catch up.

Let’s call it the Neighbors v. the Marketers.

The Neighbors are challenging the validity of a text amendment favoring the Marketers.

The Neighbors are in process of re-introducing witnesses (Gadfly testified last time) from at least 4 major Planning Commission and City Council meetings, re-introducing them under oath so that they can be cross-examined.

The neighbors have about 17 witnesses to put on as well as a few “expert” witnesses. Since the last meeting was dominated time-wise with testimony of the City Planning Director, only three other witnesses were put on.

The ZHB goal is for the Neighbors to finish their case tonight, but one wonders how that will happen given how slow past testimony has gone.

Gadfly suggests turning the heat off in the NCC classroom in order to move things along.

The ZHB members were visibly impatient last time, which does not seem to bode well for the Neighbors’ case.

For those closely following the legal arguments, here is the Neighbor’s attorney outlining at the last meeting the 9 issues that form the basis for the validity challenge of the ordinance.

Now that last meeting was 4 hours long, and Gadfly reported from the equally long meeting before it that one aspect of the Marketers’s position was “what led up to the text amendment approved by Council doesn’t matter. All that matters is the amendment itself, and the effect it has or will have. The basis of Council’s approval does not count, only the fact of that approval embodied in the text amendment itself. The Zoning Hearing Board should not look backward, only forward.”

This position feels very strange to Gadfly, but at the last meeting it was validated based on a 2009 case that Gadfly could not catch the name of.

The basis on which the Council made its decision, what the motives of Council were, what was in the minds of Council — do not count.

Hear discussion of this point between the Board solicitor and the Neighbor’s attorney at the last meeting:

The state of mind of the Council members who voted for the text amendment does not matter.

Ugh.

For this was not — in Gadfly’s opinion — Council’s finest hour. Councilman Martell is not here any longer, so let’s skip him. But Councilman Callahan disputed the validity of the Zoning map itself and cozied up to the Marketer. Councilman Reynolds was impatient with the proceedings and made the famous remark that people who didn’t want commercial nearby should move to the townships. And President Waldron gave no reason at all.

Aiiii — Gadfly remembers well feeling that the “yes” votes were all flawed.

But that doesn’t matter legally.

The challenge has to be based on what they approved not why or on what basis.

Ugh.

Now another issue, related but somehow different, still seems in play.

Remember there was a question before Council about how many other properties would be affected by the text amendment.

The idea was that a decision shouldn’t be made till that was determined.

The Marketers presented a study involving 8 properties, the City did one on 140 properties.

The City study did not become available till the morning of the Council meeting, and Councilwoman Van Wirt reasonably moved to delay a decision to provide time to study the study.

That motion was denied. And the vote approving the text amendment was taken.

Whether that’s a flaw in the approval process (which it sure sounds like it should be) seems to be still in play.

Onward — Gadfly will report on tonight’s doin’s.

Gadfly hopes someone will go to the first tax hearing tonight or watch it live and post thoughts.

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

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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?

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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

Planning Commission meeting on the Armory development inconvenient for many neighbors

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The controversy over development of the Armory on 2nd Avenue occurred before Gadfly was Gadfly, but he attended and spoke once or twice at meetings on the issue. In fact, what he thought was a “raw deal” for the articulate and substantial number of neighbors was part of the root motivation for starting the Gadfly project.

Planning Commission meeting, 4PM, Thursday, November 14, Town Hall

3. LAND DEVELOPMENT AND SUBDIVISIONS
a. (19-OO5LD&S) — Bethlehem Armory Land Development & Subdivision Plan and Landscape Waiver Request — 345 2nd Avenue – Ward 10, Zoned RT, Plan dated July 30, 2019 and last revised October 15, 2019. The applicant proposes the consolidation of lots and vacated streets for the redevelopment of the former Armory building. The project is construction of a 4 story multifamily building with 64 units attached to the former Armory Complex. The 2 garage additions of the existing Armory will be converted into 6 apartment units for a total of 70 units. The Armory drill hail space will contain a live/work unit for an artist. The 2.57 acre site will also contain 101 parking spaces.

As he writes, Gadfly does not see supporting documents for this agenda item posted on the City web site.

Unfortunately, the 4PM meeting time is inconvenient for many Armory neighbors. At the urging of people like Councilwomen Van Wirt and Negron, a few months ago the Mayor requested afternoon-meeting Authorities, Boards, and Commissions to consider moving to later times for citizen convenience, and the PC did agree to move to 5PM starting in the new year.

But that will not help now.

Gadfly has written to the Mayor, the responsible City administrators, the Planning Commission chair and members, and City Council urging a Thursday time change.

Followers — even if you are not Westsiders — are urged to do the same. Find contact info on the Gadfly sidebar.

For a reminder of the details of this controversial development (another one!), see the following good email from Mary Toulouse, Mount Airy Neighborhood Association president.

Dear all,

The Armory land use plan is the subject of the Planning Commission meeting on Thursday 11/14, at 4pm in the Rotunda. You will recall that as part of the Armory debacle (when 14 variances were granted the developer) the City will vacate half of 2nd Avenue between Spring and Prospect and hand it over for free to the developers for  parking.

Second Avenue is an important gateway to the West Side neighborhood, and the changes will have a direct impact on most neighbors. This entrance is already a tricky spot; if changes are to be made, it is important that we speak up and make sure that they benefit the neighborhood, both in terms of safe traffic patterns, but also in terms of beautification landscaping.

As I recall, some concerns about the preliminary proposal of the developers as vetted at the Zoning meetings included:

  • Diagonal parking at the base of the street will have cars dangerously backing into cars turning right onto 2nd Avenue from Spring. These diagonal spaces were needed to meet the requirements for the number of projected apartments in the design plan for the new building. Couldn’t this be changed so that the street is safe for everyone?
  • Is the space adequate for buses and cars to make the left turn from 2nd onto Prospect Ave?
  • Will the landscaping enhance the area or will it be minimal and turn the street into a Stefko Blvd with strip mall style parking?
  • What safety measures will be in place for cyclists or pedestrians going past the swath of cars in the parking lot?
  • What impact will the proposed landscaping have on the Armory itself, which is a national historic monument?
  • Where will the neighbors park?

Hopefully, some of these questions have been responsibly addressed by the City. But, unfortunately, the planning meeting is at 4PM  on Thursday—a time when most working neighbors cannot attend. Please attend if you can.

Kind regards,

Mary Toulouse

Neighborhoods are worth fighting for!

Info on converting Linden and Center Sts. to two-way

(the latest in a series of posts on Northside 2027)

Gadfly attended the Committee of the Whole meeting on the 2020-2024 Capital Plan — the kickoff of the budget season — before the Council meeting on Wednesday.

2020-2024 Capital Plan

Mostly routine matters not especially rising to the interest of Gadfly followers, except perhaps this Northside 2027 item on the long-considered conversion of Linden and Center Sts to 2-way, which was expanded on in discussion by Councilpersons Colon and Reynolds as you can see in the short video.

The benefits of the conversions are described as traffic calming, an aid to the businesses there, and increased future development. PennDOT plans are still pretty far out there time-wise, but Councilman Reynolds pointed to the priority of Linden from Fairview to Church and its relatively low cost.

Linden and Center Streets Two Way Conversion

Dating back to when Bethlehem Steel was in operation, Center Street was made oneway  north and Linden Street one-way south between approximately Elizabeth Avenue and the fahy Bridge (New Street). This was to facilitate traffic to and from the Steel Company during peak hours. Since the closure of Bethlehem Steel, the roadways have been left in their one-way configurations and the City will explore the conversion back to two-way traffic with the driving forces being economic impact and traffic calming /accident reductions. A full traffic impact analysis would be conducted to analyze the proposed modifications and recommend timing changes to the signals and/or the installation of additional signals, etc. to support the conversion. Design costs will also incorporate the revisions to all signal permits. Construction costs are anticipated to be high due to the amount of signal work to be completed on both roadways to support two-way traffic. This project has been placed on the Long Range Transportation Plan with funding planned between 2031 and 2045. Penn DOT has programmed $7.2M for this project in the future. We believe the Linden Street portion of the work could be completed for far less and have estimated a 2020 cost of $lM. The conversion of Linden Street is a higher priority for the City and we may complete that project sooner if alternate funding is identified.