Wednesday, December 02, 2015
RTK: Will Martin Tower Be Replaced By Gas Station?
A controversial mixed use ordinance at the 53-acre Martin Tower campus is poised for adoption by Bethlehem City Council later this month, following a review by the Planning Commission. Mayor Bob Donchez and Council President Willie Reynolds have publicly stated that they want to give developer Lew Ronca more flexibility for numerous different uses like destination retail, big boxes and apartment buildings. But documents provided in response to a right-to-know reveal that, despite numerous meetings with city officials since January, Ronca appears to have no idea what he wants to do. Only two things are clear. First, he will demolish the iconic 21-story building that once stood as headquarters to Bethlehem Steel. Second, he will replace this landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places with a small commercial building, most likely a high end gas station. .
Ronca instrumental in securing CRIZ in Bethlehem
Documents released by Bethlehem reveal that Ronca was instrumental in obtaining a City Revitalization and Investment Zone (CRIZ) designation in Bethlehem. The Martin Tower project is described as the "cornerstone" of Bethlehem's 130-acre CRIZ plan and as "another example of Bethlehem's efforts to create its future from vestiges of Bethlehem Steel's past."
Ronca orchestrated the use of lobbyists Anthony Pugliese and Heather Browne, wife of State Senator and NIZ author Pat Browne, to navigate the treacherous political waters in Harrisburg to secure favorable tax concessions for a closed club of developers that included him, Dennis Benner, Mike Perrucci, J.G. Petrucci, Majestic Realty and the Sands Casino. At the time that Ronca and then Mayor John Callahan were conducting conference calls with these lobbyists, emails reveal that developer Lou Pektor was on the outside looking in. He tried over and over to get a seat at the table, but it was a closed game.
When the CRIZ designation ultimately came in late 2013, Ronca finally had a green light to use state sales and income tax to fuel development at the site. What's more, any attempt to transfer the CRIZ away from Martin Tower to another part of the City would require his assent. He could just sit on the entire tract and do nothing, and the City would have to pay him to move the CRIZ somewhere else.
Ronca Also Beneficiary of $9 Million RACP Grant
Think the CRIZ is enough of an incentive to jump start development? Think again.
In addition to the CRIZ, Ronca has another government concession. It's $9 million in taxpayer dollars to remediate asbestos at the site, as well as add a sprinkler system. Over the summer, Mayor Donhez requested a one-year extension on the site, signing off on a letter that had been prepared in advance by Ronca. This is part of the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), and was initially obtained by Lou Pektor he was involved in the Martin Tower project. Since this funding stream was approved before the CRIZ, Ronca will be able to take advantage of this state grant as well as use state taxes to pay for construction.
Instead of using $9 million in RACP funds to just remove the asbestos from Martin Tower, he intends to do that and then tear down the building. He will spend $5.1 million on asbestos remediation, $1,75 million for demolition and $1.5 million on regrading. The tower structure is to be replaced by a $4 million commercial building. The state will reimburse $9.075 million of the money spent.
Ronca Wants To Replace Martin Tower With High End Gas Station
This new commercial building will most likely be a high end gas station. Ronca and his business associate, Duane Wagner, began meeting with City officials in earnest concerning a new Office Mixed Use Ordinance in January. In late February, Ronca broached the idea of a high end gas station, possibly a Sheetz, to replace the Martin Tower. He seemed concerned at the time that it might be too close to Interstate 378, but his worries seem to have been answered.
A high end gas station is appealing to Ronca because, as he explained in email exchanges with City officials, it will generate $210,000 annually in state taxes. That money can in turn be used to fuel more CRIZ development.Thus idea was discussed with Mayor Donchez.
According to a timeline Ronca submitted to the state. he was hoping to get the Office Mixed Use Ordinance approved in November. After that, he would present a Master Plan for approval in February and a specific plan to demolish Martin Tower in May. The Tower would tumble in October 2016.
This is completely contrary to redevelopment elsewhere in Bethlehem, where the emphasis has been on adaptive re-use of Bethlehem Steel structures.
What happens to the rest of the site is unknown.
Contacts With City Officials
Ronca and other CRIZ beneficiaries have been major contributor to Mayor Donchez and several Council members. The Right-to-Know request asked for all written communications between these elected officials and Ronca, even phone text messages and emails from their personal accounts. Aside from two emails from Michael Recchiuti, inviting Ronca to campaign fundraisers, nothing indicates that Ronca reminded any elected official of his contributions or that there were any communications at all between Ronca and elected officials, with the exception of meetings with Mayor Donchez to discuss the new zoning proposal.
But Ronca did have frequent contact with City Planning Director Darlene Heller and Department of Community and Development Director Alicia Karner, as several drafts of the new proposal went back and forth.
Finally, after two meetings with the Planning Commission, Heller forwarded the new zoning ordinance to City Council with a memo calling Martin Tower "blighted and obsolete." She claimed the City was being "proactive," but the reality is that this ordinance was inspired by Ronca, who provided the original draft or a mark-up of an existing ordinance to the City on January 20, 2015.
In addition to being the driving force between this new ordinance, Ronca business associate Duane Wagner even went so far as to provide Darlene Heller with "talking points" to answer merchant concerns about the ordinance as fears of a third downtown began to surface. The ordinance went through seven different drafts, and included as many meetings with City Officials, including the Mayor.
Ronca Strategy : Wear the Public Down.
Instead of publicly defending his proposal, or presenting a specific plan of what he intended to do at the 53-acre site. Ronca's strategy was to wear the public down. He failed to appear when the new zoning ordinance was presented to the Planning Commission in July and August, and has been absent at three public hearings concerning these zoning changes.