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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Fiorentino Cancels Planning Review of Martin Tower

Bethlehem Planning Commission Chairman Jim Fiorentino has canceled a meeting scheduled on Monday afternoon to review and recommend amendments to a controversial new zoning ordinance at the sprawling 53-acre Martin Tower development. His decision is based on documents obtained through the Right-to-Know law, which were first disclosed in The Bethlehem Press last week. Fiorentino asserts that the Planning Commission was "misled regarding the involvement of the owner/developer in the drafting of this ordinance."

Documents produced by the City reveal a seven-month dialogue between City planners and Martin Tower developer Lewis Ronca, including seven different versions of the new ordinance. They reveal that, even as the first public hearing was taking place, Ronca was sending text messages to Community and Economic Development Director Alicia Karner, seeking updates.

Ronca never actually appeared at any of the public meetings, and told city officials he "needed to avoid reporters."

This troubles Fiorentino.

"It is difficult to escape the fact that much of our work was performed in the dark because of behind the scenes negotiations between the developer and the administration," Fiorentino states in a letter to the Mayor. "The process of rezoning this significant and historic tract should and would have been done in the light of day."

Fiorentino has invited the Mayor and Karner to January's meeting of the Planning Commission to disclose the "exact nature" of their discussions with Ronca.

City planners have stated they've engaged all interested parties, including merchants opposed to the new zoning.

Amendments to the Office Mixed Use Ordinance, proposed by Eric Evans, would still permit nearly 380,000 sq ft of destination retail development at Martin Tower. This is roughly twice the size of the shopping district in Historic downtown Bethlehem, according to Hotel Bethlehem Managing Partner Bruce Haines.

This would be publicly subsidized as well. The Martin Tower development is part of Bethlehem's City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ). Developer Lewis Ronca can use state sales and other taxes to help fund the cost of the project. He can also tap into a $9 million state RACP to recoup the costs of demolishing the 21-story iconic Martin Tower.

On November 19, a divided Lehigh Valley Planning Commission recommended these amendments in a 12-7 vote, but called it a matter of "regional planning significance" and wants an impact study done once development plans are filed.

Hotel Bethlehem Managing partner Bruce Haines calls Fiorentino's letter a "public warning," but City Clerk Louise Kelchner stated that City Council would go on with its public hearing, scheduled for Tuesday night, despite the absence of a report from the Planning Commission.

Bethlehem planning a "fractured exercise in appeasement"

In addition to Fiorentino, Planning Commissioner Matthew Malozi yesterday forwarded a letter to Bethlehem City Council, criticizing the Martin Tower ordinance. He complains that planning in Bethlehem has devolved into "a fractured exercise in appeasement." He adds that meaningful public discourse "is being supplanted by ad hoc negotiations." .

Like many others, Malozi is disturbed that "no vision or plan" for Martin Tower has been shared with the Planning Commission.

Melosky Has Quasi Meeting Anyway

Fiorentino and Malozi were obviously in no mood for a meeting. Planning Commissioner Olga Negron, recently elected to City Council, has told the City she no longer is attending any Planning Commission meetings. Pro-development Planning Commissioner Thomas Barker, was in Florida and would be unavailable for today's meeting. But Rob Melosky, disappointed at the last-minute cancellation, decided to have a meeting anyway.

Three members of Council - Eric Evans, Lou Srellato and Willie Reynolds - were there. Planning staff were present, too. Some members of the public, apparently unaware of the cancellation, came to the meeting as well.

But no members of the public were permitted to speak. I rushed down when I learned of the meeting, but arrived too late. Melosky tells me he believes that Fiorentino and Malozi should have consulted with him before calling off the meeting.

Also missing from this meeting was developer Lewis Ronca. That has been the problem all along.


Anonymous said...

Bethlehem did the same thing when the casino was being planned. They handed over the Ordinance to the Sands lawyers to be written so the pesky public couldn't challenge or hold up development. Old habits die hard I guess.

Anonymous said...

WTF is going on here?
Good for Fiorentino and company, this thing smells like Allwntown!

Anonymous said...

Thank You Mr. Fiorentino. The Mayor unfortunately has to take it on the chin as the chickens are coming home to roost. This is the Callahan way of operating and he got that when Callahan clan member Karner was foisted on him.

The Mayor wanted to do his friend the state senator a favor but he knew nothing about Karner as she as part of the expected Callahan county group and not a Donchez fan.Now he is paying the price for being a decent guy.

This entire Martin Tower fiasco has really giving
Bethlehem a black eye.
Big thanks to the planner leaders. Also remember Molusky is a Callahan guy as well. Not surprised he was fuming.

Anonymous said...

This is a tough one. I doubt that Donchez who hates controversy expected this much of a problem so soon in his administration. His planners let him down. The old ways of cozy relationships with developers is not a good thing.

Anonymous said...

here comes all the double speak bs from the administration and council

Anonymous said...

WOW!! Actually a little honesty going on in Bethlehem. Too bad it's not coming from the administration

Anonymous said...

Karner recently gave a presentation to the City of Altoona. She was somewhat pessimistic of CRIZ as it is not as luctrative as the NIZ. She suggested some have suggested changes to the CRIZ that would allow the zone to keep more tax dollars. Not sure how that is possible given the state cannot finance existing programs.

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Anonymous said...

The Mayor should remove Fiorintino and Malozzi from the Planning Board. That is their only job and they cancelled a meeting because they don't agree with the administrations opinion on the property. Their only job is to give their opinion on plans presented to them and they refused to do it.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like 8:22 is Ronca.

Anonymous said...

@ 1:20 am So let me get this straight, we are 2 yrs into the Donchez administration, we have an entire right to know that shows Donchez and Karner up to their ears in this rezoning, and now it is Callahan's fault? That is quite a stretch. You have some amazing powers of denial and are blinded by hate.
Callahan guided a far more controversial issue, the casino planning and rezoning, with far less controversy and the public, both for and against, had its say.
Callahan Had NOTHING to do w Karner getting hired by Donchez. That was his call and Donchez has got to own it. Stop being a Donchez apologist.
Oh and by the way, Callahan appointed Fiorintino too, but you forgot to mention that.
Lets see if Donchez reappoints Fiorintino. I doubt it. But based on your logic that will be Callahan's fault too.

Anonymous said...

Fiorentino and his colleague deserve a warm thank you from every Bethlehem citizen concerned about a open democratic process and the future of our town.