Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is a Drive-Thru Pharmacy a Good Idea at Allentown's 7th Street Gateway?

One of Allentown's bright spots is its 7th Street gateway, and that's mostly due to the efforts of Main Street Manager Peter Lewnes. Restaurants and little niche businesses line what Michael Molovinsky proudly calls Allentown's Business Barrio.

Well, Lewnes is asking for help at tonight's Zoning Hearing Board meeting, when Rite-Aid will seek permission to demolish what the Main Street Manager considers an "anchor building" in the Traditional Neighborhood Overlay, and one at which Rite-Aid at one time made money. The destroyed building will be replaced by a drive-thru pharmacy instead of a pedestrian-friendly business. Here's his letter.

I'm writing for your support against a corporate takeover of 7th and Allen Street at tomorrow night's zoning hearing board meeting. The meeting starts at 7 PM in city council chambers, first floor city hall (435 Hamilton Street). If you think that 7th Street is worth showing up and voicing your opinion...please come and join in the fight of our lives to keep this important Allentown corridor on track.

7th Street Allentown's development is facing a serious setback tomorrow night. The Rite Aid Corporation is seeking to demolish 602-618 N 7th Street, an anchor building that admittedly requires a ton of renovation but historically housed Rite Aid and served them well as a facility.

The threat lies with what they propose to replace it with. The Seventh Street Development Committee has worked to protect center city from suburban sprawl and becoming an extension of 145 in Whitehall. One recent example of SSDC's involvement was in the recent revision of the city of Allentown's Zoning Code, the results of which sought to ensure that infill development in historic sections of center city - covered now by a Traditional Neighborhood Development Overlay - is compatible with the scale and character of it's surrounding neighborhood. (That process was started after AutoZone's proposal to occupy a building along the 19th Street commercial corridor, as well as the suburban-style TD Bank building (built at the corner of 19th and Tilghman Streets) caused such a public outcry. Throughout this more thank 2 year process, SSDC continually advocated for restrictions on big-box, suburban-style development along the corridor - any type of development that would be detrimental to its street-oriented, pedestrian-friendly design.

What Rite Aid is proposing for the corner of 7th and Allen Street flies directly in the face of the results of this public, community-driven process. Rite Aid seeks variances from requirements that have been carefully put in place to protect the character and design of the Seventh Street Corridor. Approving such variances would set a dangerous precedent, making it that much easier for future developers to further decimate the heart of our neighborhood shopping district.

This is especially true since none of Rite Aid's variances relate to any actual hardship. Rite Aid is not new to the corner of 7th and Allen Streets. Prior to leaving the existing building on that corner (due to serious code violations in the property), the pharmacy there – with no setback from the street, no drive-thru, no oversized sign, and in a multi-story building – was one of the chain’s most successful.

We need your help - please forward this email to anyone that cares about Allentown and please show up to show that the community matters in center city.

If you can make it and plan on speaking - please drop me an email and I'll get in touch with you to go over more details.

thanks much - your friend

Peter Lewnes

Updated 12:25 AM: City Council member Michael Donovan Asks Zoners to Deny Application.

Residents of the 7th Street area have brought to my attention that Rite Aid Pharmacy, in its planned move from Hamilton Street to 7th Street, intends to construct a large, suburban style facility with extensive parking that includes space in front of the building. This is an inappropriate plan for that area. The result would be to detract from the atmosphere and design
of a steadily improving urban neighborhood that is based on smaller businesses who would not have the zoning advantages that would be given to Rite Aid.

Many corporations, when building new facilities in urban areas, agree to using designs that are more fitting than those found in suburban communities. I have seen many Rite Aid Pharmacies rely on these designs.

I urge the Zoning Board to deny the variance requests, and ask that they suggest to Rite Aid that they work with the neighborhood and the city to produce a design that works for everyone's benefit.

While I understand Michael's good intentions, this letter should not be considered. A Zoning Hearing Board, unlike most other bodies, is quasi-judicial. A letter from one of the persons who appoints these members creates an appearance of impropriety On top of that, the letter is hearsay. You can't cross-examine a letter. If Allentown City Council wants to be involved, they can formally intervene. But they should avoid ex parte contacts.

Noon Update: Blogger Michael Molovinsky has weighed in on this issue.


Michael Donovan said...

I brought this up at council tonight, and several of us will write the board to deny the variances.

I cannot be there tomorrow because I teach, but several of my colleagues will be there.

I have written a request to the board asking for denial.

Best regards,

Michael Donovan

Bernie O'Hare said...

I saw that several Council members like you and Jeanette are opposed. I get concerned when City Council members do this, instead of formally intervening. I understand your good intentions, but it puts the ZHB, which is a quasi judicial body, in a bad position. You and the Mayor appoint them, not to follow your will, but to follow the zoning ordinance.

A few weeks ago, in Bethlehem, Blake Marles raised a stink over a similar situation in Bethlehem. He was even granted permission to query each zoner to see if there were any ex parte contacts. And he called a Council member who had sent such a letter to testify.

Also, Michael, your letter is hearsay. It cannot be cross-examined.

I think a more appropriate way to handle this is to intervene formally.

Once again, I know your intentions here are good. But this is like sending a letter to a judge, telling him how to rule.

We often forget ZHBs are more judicial in nature.

Michael Donovan said...

How the hell do I intervene, when I understand the the Zoning Board is independent, and their decisions, rule?

For my 4 years on the council, this is the only way that I have been told, by lawyers, that I can have an impact.

Tell me, Bernie, because just about everything concerning rationality in urban politics seems to be turned on its head in this Valley.

Michael Donovan said...

Cross-examined? Come on. Any Zoning Board, though appearing to be judicial, is just as much of a political body.

And that is not just here in the Valley. I have seen it in other places that I have lived.

Variances are variances. If approved, they are against the current rules. Therefore, it is a matter of deciding to change the rules for one party. That is not a judicial opinion. That is what the members "think."

Besides, in a state where the judges are elected? Since when is that "rational."

Elected judges, in my opinion, are not going to be necessarily, independent, by the various nature of elections.

Michael Donovan said...

I would be glad to testify, if I could tomorrow. Why? Because good urban design DOES not put a suburban type facility in a downtown.

Yes, that is maybe my opinion, but it is based on solid urban research, not hearsay, and not some Zoning Board member's opinion as to what should get a variance and what should not, often influenced by the Mayor who appointed him or her.

Bernie O'Hare said...

No Michael, this is law, and it is statewide. If the City wishes to intervene, it can adopt a Resolution authorizing its Solicitor to do so.

A few weeks ago, during a zoning dispute in Bethlehem concerning a drug rehab near a high school, 5 City Council members (a majority) sent a letter to the ZHB, opposing the project. They did so because the hearing took place before they could meet formally. But technically, this is a Sunshine Act violation.

The Attorney representing the drug rehab, Blake Marles, had a fit. He pointed out that the letter is hearsay, raised the Sunshine Act, and questioned ex parte communications by the very people who appoint zoners. He pulled a city council member out of the audience and raked him over. He queried each zoner individually.

At the very next meeting of City Council, they adopted a resolution to intervene, and directed their solicitor to get involved. That would cure the Sunshine Act violation, and that's a little more appropriate because everyone's on the same page.

Like I said, I know your intentions here are good, as they were in Bethlehem.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Any Zoning Board, though appearing to be judicial, is just as much of a political body."

A ZHB is very much a quasi-judicial body, with the power to subpoena. All testimony is stenographically recorded, and people speak under oath.

If a ZHB acts politically instead of following the zoning ordinance, it will be reversed. It's not the same as a City Council.

Once again, I recognize your good intentions.

Michael Donovan said...

Let them bring me to testify.

You know why? If I were not on council, I would sit there and say exactly the same things. What makes it any different, eh?

That would be my testimony. How can that be hearsay, if I sit on the stand and cite years of urban research about corporations that do alter their urban designs to fit with local desires?

Fine, maybe I need to take off my council hat and say it, but let me say who is the real culprit here.

I suspect that the Mayor is pushing this because he needs to have Rite Aid off of Hamilton for his Arena, which has not yet been adequately justified, even though I have supported it to date. The mayor promised reports months ago that would help to justify the project, and I have yet to see any of those reports, even though I understand some exist.

I am ready to pull my support from the project unless I get adequate analysis soon, and I'm not talking about what might be presented at the open houses.

The Rite Aid issue is part of the overall Arena discussion. The Arena has not been adequately examined. I am for this project if it makes economic sense on several levels.

The levels are complex. They begin with the Brooks Brothers, but that is their analysis. It then goes to the Arena operation for whatever authority manages it. That is of concern because their is a desire to provide a PILOT to the local governments who would lose "some, not much" real estate tax in the Arena plot, alone. Next, is the ability to pay the bond obligation out of the NIZ. I was told months ago, that this was fairly certain(and being told included some sophisticated preliminary analysis), but the lack of information since then makes me wonder. I need information.

Finally, there is the overall impact on the city. Does the project produce positive ripple effects for the 118,000 who live in this city. I also have not seen adequate analysis to this topic.

Bottom line? The Rite Aid request is just as influenced by parties who wish to see it move to its new location unopposed, as I am trying to say that the design is not the best.

So, I will write the Zoning Board, and I'll stand ready to go toe to toe with any lawyer.

Bernie O'Hare said...

OK, Michael. Whether you are on Council or not, a letter is inadmissible hearsay because it can't be cross-examined. You can't go toe to toe with any lawyer because you won't be there. That's why it is objectionable. So are petitions, etc. This is not some arcane peculiarity of the Lehigh Valley, but hornbook law.

But if you send a letter and nobody objects, then you get away with it.

michael molovinsky said...

michael, i wish you had felt that strongly about suburban architecture not belonging on Hamilton Street.
furthermore, and more importantly, you can pull your support from the arena project, but your opportunity for input is over; it ended when you voted to approve the city using eminent domain if necessary. if you had any doubts, that was to time to exercise your option.

Michael Donovan said...

Did not have doubts, then, Michael.

And right now, I do not, but I am getting close.

Unlike so many people here in this Valley, I rely on facts and analysis, something that seems often to be avoided.

If you followed my comments at council for 6 months, you would know that I have pushed and pushed for analysis. If you saw me at internal meetings, you would see the same.

I wanted the public meetings months ago. Told the Mayor and AEDC that months ago.

This is an important project if done correctly. Yes, my faith in it being done correctly is declining. Still, I do trust some people in this project. I do not trust the Mayor, but I do trust others.

I am being patient, but that may change very soon.

Anonymous said...

"7th Street gateway". Really??

Most sane people driving down old crack alley, are less than impressed. 7th street is a harrowing drive thru Hell. If you are not trapped behind the double parkers, you may get hit with stray gunfire or hit one of the many unsupervised kids who use the street as a playground.

If this is going to "attract" anyone to "charming bistro's", they will be NY drug dealers or ladies of the night, day, anytime really. Thirty bucks takes you round the world.

Dirty Sanchez

Bernie O'Hare said...

I like 7th.

Anonymous said...

If Councilman M. Donovan does not trust the Mayor and is seeking more information on the hockey areana or will pull his support if does not receive, if councilman donovan pulls his support, i am sure this would start public discussion and others would pull their support which would require the Mayor to providde the financial analysis as to the cost to the taxpayers for the areana project.

Anonymous said...

The letter isnt what will get this matter dismissed. Zoners dont like to disrupt neighborhoods this badly. It will likely be denied bc it is so horribly out of place. This isnt one or two small things: it is completely contrary to the zoning ordinance.

Anonymous said...

Raise the alarm! Something bad could happen in downtown Allentown and Main Street Manager Peter Lewnes wants us to take action. Good one. What is a "main street manager" anyway?

Scott Armstrong

Anonymous said...

This Lewns guy must be some sort of troublemaker.

Allentown Democrat Voter

michael molovinsky said...

michael, i cannot make heads or tails from your comments. the arena is a done deal. city council had one bargaining chip, the eminent domain vote, which you declined to use. if you pull your "support", the project still proceeds.

Anonymous said...

Peter's introductory sentence easily could be about the arena, but then he remained silent.

Anonymous said...

Michael Donovan said...

How the hell do I intervene, when I understand the the Zoning Board is independent, and their decisions, rule?

What inappropriate language for a college professor! Shame.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

"7th Street gateway". Really??

Do you have any idea how many shootings have occurred along this
gateway? More like Gunsmoke than Gateway.

Michael Donovan said...

I forgot to mention that our solicitor said that it was appropriate for council members to submit in writing material that would become part of the record.

That is what I have done.

I do not see the problem with that Bernie. I apologize for "hell," but really if I cannot go to a meeting to testify, which I would, why can I not submit a memo for placement in the record.

Michael M., nothing is never a "done" deal, especially, when it comes to final design features and structure. I say again -- I am for this project. What I am against, and have stated repeatedly, is that I want more information.

And the commentator who notes that just might bring out more information is correct, that is my intention.

Also, the reason why we finally (far too late) have meetings with the public is the pressure that I started placing on the Mayor last spring. Indeed, I threatened pulling my support in September. That is what led to the action being taken on getting information to the press and to the public.

Far too late, but finally.


Monkey Momma said...

The efforts to "save" 7th Street make me sad. Where were these kinds of objections when the arena plans were approved for Hamilton?

Obviously, Rite-Aid will get the variance, as the City wants to avoid litigation. This is but one ripple effect from the arena. Who knows what the other ripples will be??

Anonymous said...

Councilman Donovan -

If you were on Council for 3+ years and were still willing to support this project moving forward - for over a year - with only the promise of adequate analysis from the Mayor, you are either the biggest fool in the city or incredibly naive.

You more than anyone should have known who you were dealing with and insisted on this info up front.

It's obvious that you learned nothing during your time on council. I would think that's a bad thing - particularly for someone in the profession of education.

Anonymous said...

"This Lewnes guy must be some kind of troublemaker."

Clearly, Comrade Allentown Democrat Voter.

Not quite the thorn in the side of the magnificent Palace of Sport championed by heroic Chairman Pawlowski and the righteous Rubber Stamp Apparatchiks that this renegade Molovinsky is, mind you.

A troublemaker, nevertheless, though ... the People's Democratic City of Allentown deserves better efforts from its citizens.



Anonymous said...

The ZHB is under no obligation to approve this and in fact in a separate case, the ZHB rejected an application of a tenant also being displaced by the arena project (it was a day care). whether or not there are potential lawsuits, the ZHB will make its decision based on the zoning ordinance. If I am a gambling man, this baby doesn't stand a chance. It will be 3-0 to deny, if, in fact, the applicant even bothers to go through with the hearing. It's fairly common for applicants, when seeing the crowd and knowing they were pushing the envelop to begin with, to seek a delay or withdraw the request.

Worth watching: does ZHB member Scott Unger, Executive Director of AEDC, the organization principly responsible for the execution of the arena project, continue to recuse himself from any hearing related to the arena. He has thus far.

Also worth watching: does Queen Hailstone show up to talk about how wonderful this is? Queen Hailstone has been throwing the arena project around and has indicated that she will show up to speak in favor of the relocation. Indication is that she has asked Lewnes to back off.

THE observer said...

I fail to see what's the big deal about this. you have a decrepit building that was closed for code violations. In a urban setting[wink wink] a company is going to tear down an eyesore, replace it with a new structure. And peeps are bitchin it will be a palace for the forlorn. wake up mr Lewnes and smell the betterment of "the seventh st corridor"

Anonymous said...

The Allentown ZHB regularly receives letters, including letters from the administration, which, if not objected to, become part of the record. I've seen it many times.

Not to single Allentown out, this practice of letter and memo writing by the municipality to the ZHB is done all too frequently, and is infuriating. One cant cross examine a letter, and lets not forget about the oath for testifying witnesses.

The problem is, once the letter is received, it is presumed read, the cat is out of the bag. Mebe someone should move the board to recuse themselves to push the issue.

The PA MPC puts it further. The board or the hearing officer shall not communicate, directly or indirectly, with any party or his
representatives in connection with any issue involved except upon notice and opportunity for all parties
to participate, shall not take notice of any communication, reports, staff memoranda, or other materials,
except advice from their solicitor, unless the parties are afforded an opportunity to contest the material

so noticed and shall not inspect the site or its surroundings after the commencement of hearings with
any party or his representative unless all parties are given an opportunity to be present.

I would say a letter from any city employee, councilman, administrator, etc, is barred as a communication or staff memorandum.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks for quoting the law, NLV Logic. Isn't that cheating? Allentown's Solicitor is nutz if he told Council members to send letters.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I don't believe Lewnes works for Hailstone, although there is an indirect connection, I suppose.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"What inappropriate language for a college professor! Shame."

Really? Why don't you go fuck yourself, you anonymous coward.

Now you have something to 'tsk, 'tsk about.

ironpigpen said...

Ausgezeichnet! Du hast sehr gut dann gemacht, Herr O'Hare.

No fan of the Rubber Stamp Apparatchik Donovan, here.

And I actually understand where Anon is coming from with his comment --- but I absolutely abhor all the political correctness and am completely weary of the PC on full parade every day, all day here in contemporary America.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that cheating? Allentown's Solicitor is nutz if he told Council members to send letters.

As I said, its done all the time. A simple records request to the Atown admin could prove my point. I spoke out about it recently in Lynn. Didn't Blake raise a similar point in the Atiyah appeal (Sorry, I cant spell his name and I'm too lazy to look it up)

I think also part of the blame lie with the ZHB. The chairman or its solicitor could easily quash the practice.

Is the ZHB too cozy? Perhaps?


Anonymous said...

"I don't believe Lewnes works for Hailstone, although there is an indirect connection, I suppose."

He doesn't work for Queen Hailstone, but are you surprised that a Pawlowski appointee would pressure somebody? Lewnes' employer receives a lot of money from the city through CDBG funding, with Hailstone making recommendations on the matters. The mere threat of funding cuts would send Lewnes' bosses scrambling to shut him up.

Anonymous said...

To back up what Anon 2:09 said:

If you don't think something like that could happen, go ask the Allentown Redevelopment Authority how things are going.

Anonymous said...

Any project that tears down existing multi-apartment structures should be approved by Allenetown. That is the only thing to do to clean the city up.

If a business wants to tear down and build on 7th street, find the most rat infested apartment building and use eminent domain to give Io to the company.

The more of the resident rats you displace the better the city becomes. If you are compassionate buy each of the rats a ticket to NYC.

Anonymous said...

241... you will be happy to know that this is not an apartment building. In fact, it used to have a pharmacy in the first floor.

The proposed new building belongs in whitehall, is smaller than the existing building and will be dangerous to pedestrians. more importantly, the new building is prohibited under the zoning ordinance. Ironically, the existing building is not.

Anonymous said...

I would be happier of all the fleabiten rat infested flop house apartments disappeared from downtown.

NYC bus tickets. Now that is urban renewal.

Anonymous said...

Allentown can keep their barber shop and pawn shop district.

Anonymous said...


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