Over 100 people were there. Those who could find no seat in Town Hall stood in the hallways, hoping for a chance to be heard. But ordinance backers had a secret weapon at their disposal designed to deter public comment, and they used it, too.
It was Planning Director Darlene Heller.
The Darlene Heller Power Point
For years, Western leaders have fretted over the outrages perpetuated by ISIS in the Middle East. Instead of bombing missions, the Pentagon should seriously consider sending Darlene Heller and her power point to Syria and Iraq. Those poor bastards would be begging for mercy in no time.
Before a single member of the public had a chance to say a word, Heller droned on for 2 hours and 15 minutes about the ordinance. Side yard setbacks. Rear yard setbacks. Misspelled words. A major discussion of the difference between fast and fresh food restaurants. Deleted provisions.
Dana Grubb, who was sitting behind me, passed out. A few people died and are still there, along with the camera bag I left behind when I finally ran out of there.
After Heller was finally finished, Council President Willie Reynolds called a ten-minute recess that lasted fifteen minutes, and then, before allowing the pubic to speak, opened the floor to questions from Council members.
It was now 9:30 pm.
Adam Waldron, believe it or not, asked about the frickin' tree canopy. That prompted a fifteen minute response from Heller. Fortunately, she had no power points to discuss the different kinds of trees or we might still be there.
Then Bryan Callahan, Mike Recchiuti, and Reynolds all went on to say they support the ordinance, something they had already announced to the press.That took another 15 minutes.
Finally, at about 9:45, the public was finally given an opportunity to speak at what was, after all, supposed to be a public hearing. Four of the people who had signed on to speak had already left. But there were still 28 people who spoke against the ordinance. These include many of the merchants who believe they will be adversely affected by a third downtown at Martin Tower.
Only one person spoke in support of the ordinance, the treasurer of the Bethlehem Democratic Committee.
The Bruce Haines Confrontation
Hotel Bethlehem's managing partner, Bruce Haines, condemned the ordinance as one that will lead to 1.3 million sq ft of retail development, about four times the size of the Westgate Mall. He criticized the use of public tax dollars that will permit a single developer "to dramatically increase the use of his property at the expense of existing businesses." He asked why none of $8 million in RCAP funding was ever used to remediated the $12 million asbestos and sprinkler problem at Martin Tower.He scoffed at the notion that this was ever a "shovel ready" project, and added that none of the 12 projects identified in the Bethlehem CRIZ were ever shovel ready, but were misrepresented as such in the application to the state.
Haines also criticized both Reynolds and Recchiuti for accepting $4,000 from Martin Tower developers Lew Ronca and Norton Herrick. That money was contributed this year, and accounts for 10% of Reynolds' funding and 20% for Recchiuti.
"Your five minutes are up," announced Willie Reynolds, but then allowed Haines to go on a bit before cutting him off and responding.
In a rambling speech, Reynolds blasted Haines for daring to "attack the integrity of the people up here." He noted that Haines had received over $14,000 in 2013 for campaign events conducted by Mayor Donchez at Hotel Bethlehem. He then asked Mayor Donchez to vouch for him and Donchez obliged. Reynolds called the very idea of there being a quid pro quo both "ridiculous" and "insulting."
Reynolds failed to address a very real investigation going on right now in Allentown in which one developer has already pleaded guilty to bribery. His contributors include some of the developers and engineers identified on Allentown's FBI subpoena list
They also include heavy union support from trade unions, which would benefit from building a third downtown.
If Reynolds and Recchiuti really wanted to avoid questions about their integrity, they could have easily refused to accept this money. They also could have announced they are recusing themselves to avoid any question of an appearance of impropriety.
They chose to do neither. So questions about their motives are fair.
Reynolds responded to Haines far beyond the five minutes that Haines was allowed to speak.
"Methinks he doth protest too much," mumbled one thespian in the audience. Finally, audience members began yelling out to Reynolds, "Your five minutes are up!"
Haines asked to rebut Reynolds, but was denied the privilege. He was told he could speak again at the end of the meeting, when three people and crickets would be there.
Mike Schweder Sets Record Straight
In addition to Haines, Council also heard from Mike Schweder, a former City Council President who sat on Council when a zoning overlay at the site was approved in 2006. Darlene Heller had told Council that the 50,000 sq ft limitation on retail development was a mistake, but he set the record straight. He said that the ordinance approved in 2006 contemplated that the Martin Tower site would be 90% residential. At that time, developers assured council that construction would start no later than January 2007. This was two years before the housing bubble burst, but there was no development.
Heller has argued that the 2006 ordinance permitted 50,000 sq ft of retail on the site in addition to retail in the 375,000 sq ft contained in the outbuildings. Not so, said Schweder. He insisted that the ordinance never contemplated anything beyond the 50,000 sq ft of retail use approved.
He recalled being told by the Planning Department that there would be an upscale restaurant at the 412 and 78 interchange. What came was a Waffle House. He recalled being told that a nice drugstore would be built at the intersection of East and Easton. What came instead was a 16-pump gas station.
"You have no idea what you're voting for," he warned Council. He added that it will end up being 95% nonresidential. He also raised the possibility that, as soon as this ordinance passes, the developer will flip the property.
This possibility was repeated later by economist Bill Sheirer. Noting that three members are leaving Council at the end of the year, Scheirer suggested they allow the newly elected Council decide this issue.
50 Downtown Businesses Present Petition Condemning Ordinance
Rachel Griffith, who manages Bethlehem's popular Appollo Grill, told Council that the City is simply unable to handle a third downtown. She presented a petition signed by 50 business owners on both Main Street and the City's south side.
She noted that some Council members have asked her, "Why is the Appollo worried? The Appollo will always be the Appollo."
"We're in this together," was her answer."We support one another."
Myrtle Beach and TriBeCa Examples
Council was also told about similar developments that have resulted in disasters in other communities.
New York City transplant Rocco D'Amato once sat where City Council now sits. Except he governed in TriBeCa, and voted to restore a blighted high rise with retail. Barnes and Noble and other major retail chains came. Old book stores, Korean delis, health food stores and all the small businesses that make up an organic neighborhood have all "dried up."
Moreover, because the CRIZ is subsidized by tax dollars, there is no fairness.Instead of the market, the government will pick winners and losers. He challenged Council to review "unintended consequences."
So did Dave Klein, who owns properties on Main Street and Stefko Boulevard. He told Council about a Market Common District in Myrtle Beach, where tax dollars used to pay for development, have resulted in declining revenues and property taxes elsewhere in Myrtle Beach.
He also told Council that spending $12 million to remediate 500,000 sq ft of a building is "nothing."
This property maven called the proposed ordinance a "disaster."
Le Cul de Rat
Lehigh Professor Steve Antalics noted that the City will be subsidizing a developer whose real estate holdings are in excess of $5 billion and who owns a stable with 49 thoroughbreds. "[H]is bottom line is maximization of profit," said Antalics. "Is he concerned about the health and welfare of our community? A polite gentleman might say his interests are equal to, in safe French, "Le Cul de Rat."
Put more bluntly for we vulgari, the developers don't give a rat's ass about what is best for Bethlehem.
Updated 6:03 pm, to spell out more clearly how Mike Schweder set the record straight.