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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bethlehem City Council's Communication Problem

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate" is a refrain we all remember from Cool Hand Luke. It could easily describe what is happening as Bethlehem City Council considers controversial zoning changes at the 53-acre Martin Tower Development. Though City Council President Willie Reynolds claims he is really listening to concerns raised by Historic downtown and South side merchants, he and other Council members have certainly given them every reason to believe they are being ignored. Store owners have openly suggested that Reynolds and others on Council are getting their marching orders from Martin Tower owners and developers Lewis Ronca and Norton Herrick, who have yet to appear at a meeting. Reynolds and Bryan Callahan have even attempted to embarrass merchants into silence. They've responded with over 100 write-in votes for "Martin Tower" in last week's election.

Last week, City Council was supposed to have its final vote on zoning changes that would permit as much as 1.3 million sq ft of retail and a third downtown at Martin Tower. Reynolds vowed that Council would later change the law, but had to adopt it first do that the developers would be free to demolish a historic landmark. They had to pass the ordinance so they could change it.

This final vote never happened. Bethlehem Planning Chair Jim Fiorentino, zoning attorney Marc Kaplin and The Bethlehem Press were all quick to recognize the folly of this move. If that occurred, Martin Tower developers would be free to present a plan creating not one, but several publicly subsidized Promenades that would be the death knell for Bethlehem businesses already struggling to compete against restaurants and retail inside Allentown's publicly subsidized Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ).

Martin Tower Part of CRIZ

You see, the Martin Tower development is part of Bethlehem's Community Revitalization Investment Zone (CRIZ), modeled after Allentown's NIZ. This gives a closed club of five developers, including Martin Tower, the right to use state sales and income taxes to subsidize new development, including hotels, destination retail and restaurants. They were anointed behind closed doors, free of public input or scrutiny, in a glaring demonstration that "what we've got here is a failure to communicate."

A developer outside this closed club has little reason to invest in Bethlehem.

According to the Keystone Research Center, a left of center think tank, this creates an uneven playing field in which state tax revenues are diverted to the few at the expense of the many. When those few are campaign contributors who fund large portions of the campaign warchests of City Council members and the Mayor, as is the case here, questions of crony capitalism and pay-to-play arise. This and other media sources have raised these questions, as well as members of the public. They have gone unanswered.

The Keystone Research Center also questions whether tax incentives like the NIZ and the CRIZ help create a state budget deficit. Hotel Bethlehem Managing Partner Bruce Haines has stated that, even if retail at Martin Tower is scaled back to 400,000 sq ft from the original 1.3 million, that will still cost the state $6 million per year in lost sales, income and payroll taxes.

This CRIZ designation makes little sense at Martin Tower, which is more of a sprawling suburb than a struggling downtown, Yet in the CRIZ application submitted to the state, the former Bethlehem Steel HQs was touted as "ideally situated" and "readily marketable" under its existing zoning for office and residential use, with a very limited neighborhood retail component. The iconic 23-story building is identified as the "cornerstone" of the Bethlehem CRIZ, "another example of Bethlehem's efforts to create its future from the vestiges of Bethlehem Steel's past."

Now the City wants to demolish the tower. This is in stark contrast to the approach it has taken to redeveloping the South side, where the old blast furnaces are lit up by multi-colored spotlights and the former steel company stock house has been converted into a Visitor Center.

Lehigh University Political Science professor Al Wurth questions whether Bethlehem has become "a 'steel' city that denies its steel heritage, and the work and dreams of its forbears, in favor of 'incentives' - sweet deals for the new owners who control our future and our past, though they never did or will live here."

Why not just take the CRIZ designation away from Martin Tower, and open the card game up to another developer who might actually bring a new business into Bethlehem?  Can't do it, says Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) Director Alicia Karner. Under the state's interpretation of the CRIZ legislation, an interpretation that was surely fueled by the lobbyist hired by the closed club of CRIZ developers, any transfer of the CRIZ requires the agreement of the affected developer. The City would have to pay Ronca and Herrick to move the tax incentive to an area in the City where it might actually make sense.

Failure to communicate at "public" hearing 

Against this backdrop, where all the hallmarks of political favoritism are present, and merchants are concerned about their very survival, transparency and open communication between government officials and the public are extremely important. But the City has dropped the ball there, too.

This was evident at the very first "public" hearing conducted on this zoning proposal on October 6. Before a single member of the public could say a word, Planning Director Darlene Heller gave a power point presentation that lasted for two hours and 15 minutes. This was about twice the length of her presentation concerning a completely new zoning ordinance, adopted in 2012. She went on at great length discussing rear and side yard setbacks in what appeared to be an effort to lull over 100 people to sleep.

When she finally had finished, and before the public could say a word, Council members who has already publicly announced their support for these zoning changes used Heller and DCED Director Karner as props to justify the zoning changes. Bryan Callahan actually stated that "no one will be happy with this" so he therefore supports it.

When it was finally time for the public to speak, four who had signed on had already left. But 28 of them remained, and except for Bethlehem Democratic Committee Treasurer Clyde Thomas, all were opposed to the zoning changes.

Failure to Communicate Continues in Subsequent Meetings

This failure to communicate continued during City Council meetings on October 20 and again on November 4, where Council refused to engage in any dialogue with 48 speakers who addressed them during a portion of the meeting called "courtesy of the floor." This is no courtesy. It is a right under Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act. Speakers are limited to five minutes, and are answered with stony silence, even when mild attempts at humor are made. Council members have explained that they are silent because they have no desire to interfere with the public's statutory right to speak. But this lack of dialogue, which is rare in local meetings elsewhere in the Lehigh Valley, contributes to a growing perception that the public is nothing more than a third wheel on the government bicycle heading over a cliff. In an effort to be more inclusive, City Council is unwittingly closing the door on real discussion.

This lack of dialogue frustrated Marc Kaplin, a zoning attorney hired by the merchants to protect their interests. When Council refused to answer his questions, he reminded them that "it is also your duty to justify or respond or tell me I'm wrong."

Council Intimidation

Instead of meaningful dialogue, two Council members have used their positions to intimidate members of the public.Council President Willie Reynolds  has threatened to stop anyone who raises the question of political favoritism as a result of campaign contributions made to him or others by Martin Tower developers. The Appollo Grill's Rod Holt and Bethlehem Brew Works Jeff Fegley have ignored this threat.

But that pales in comparison to what Bryan Callahan has done. After various merchants have spoken and are unable to rebut him, Callahan has ticked off concessions that have been made to them, often erroneously.

At the end of the November 4 meeting, Callahan actually accused one critical merchant who won't be named here of paying all of his Bethlehem employees from an Allentown-based business to be able to take advantage of Allentown tax incentives.

In addition to being untrue, how employees are paid and taxed is confidential information protected by the Local Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Disclosure of that information is unlawful. According to Callahan, he obtained this information from the City's taxing authority, The Keystone Collections Group.He then used this confidential information at a public meeting to intimidate one of the merchants who has been critical of the Martin Tower rezoning..  

What's next?

This lack of communication continues as Council member Eric Evans has introduced a series of five amendments, introduced just prior to the November 4 meeting, designed to reduce the amount of destination retail and prevent a third downtown. Evans was the only Council member to oppose the rezoning of Martin Tower. He is concerned about merchants as well as West Bethlehem residents who have no desire to see a large residential community.

No copies of these zoning amendments were available for pubic inspection. Evans' own explanation of them was tortured and disjointed, prompting Hotel Bethlehem's Bruce Haines to suggest that the whole proposal be scrapped. "It is one thing to be blind-sided by Allentown, but to be  blind-sided by our own administration is beyond my wildest imagination," he argued.

Because these amendments must be reviewed by both the City and Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, Council is unable to vote on the ordinance as amended. Reynolds stated the matter would  be reviewed by the Planning Commission and return to Council for a final vote on December 15.

But the City Planning Commission has already canceled its November meeting, so it's unclear whether the final vote will occur this year.

(Blogger's Note: This story also appears in the November 11 2015 print edition of The Bethlehem Press.)


Orefield Otter said...

No decision on the tower should be made until Pastor Jim Gregory is released from SCI Pitts and is involved in the dialogue.

Donchez and his toadies fear the olive skinned Adonis not only for his propensity to bed married women but also for his political acumen which has been described as equal to or greater than the a "Mouth of the South" James Carville.

Anonymous said...

In light of the comment at 1:46 I am compelled to post this comment. It was copied from one of Bernie's entries from the other day. It is truly amazing. Enjoy,

"People need to remember that Bethlehem city will be fine. Soon Jim Gregory will be back and rebuilding his political dynasty. His days of suffering for his cause are coming to an end.

He will no doubt be running for Mayor in 2017 and bring Bethlehem into the Golden Age it deserves. Soon the countdown will begin. The Unity-Pac is awaiting his rectum. Soon you can all rally to his cause of Fraternal love and fellowship."

How can anyone put it better. Donald Trump, eat your heart out!

Anonymous said...

Why would the planning commission cancel its meeting? The MPC does not require that they actually hold a meeting or offer its recommendations, it just requires that the board be given 30 days for "an opportunity to submit recommendations." Council can move ahead after 30 days with or without those recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Enough already with all the Main St. complaining. How much more tax money does the rest of the city tax payers have to keep supporting them. There are other areas of the city that need work. Look at our roads in the West side Clearview area! We don't want more residents!!!!!! Why are main st merchants telling us what should be in our back yards. Bring in nice retail shops so I don't have to drive to Allentown and the Lehigh Valley Mall. Keep our tax dollars in Bethlehem.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"The MPC does not require that they actually hold a meeting or offer its recommendations, it just requires that the board be given 30 days for "an opportunity to submit recommendations." Council can move ahead after 30 days with or without those recommendations."

Still looking for a way to jam this down people's throats, eh? The PC had no quorum this month de to one member being elected to CC and another member being in Florida. The whole reason that MPC requires planning review is to give the public more imput and provide for more transparency. If you move aherd without bothering to get that imput, you will be proving the truth of every word in my essay.

Anonymous said...

Do you know why people do not shop in downtown Bethlehem? The prices are way to high. You can go to a mall where they actually have sales. Bernie, do you shop in downtown Bethlehem? The downtown is a place for tourists, not citizens of the city. City folk can't afford to eat at the Hotel Bethlehem. but they can afford a sandwich at the mall. The drinks are overpriced at the Brew Works. Take a poll and see how many shop owners in Bethlehem, shop in downtown Bethlehem. I am sure they don't. There will not be money taken away from downtown if they build retail at Martin Towers. Just tear Martin Towers down and build some decent retail stores for the citizens of Bethlehem and let the tourist continue to support the downtown business.

Anonymous said...


I have noticed that someone has been parking truck trailers in the tower parking lots. The number has increased over the past week and a half. I am unable to get an actual count, but there have to be around 20-30. They also are paying a uniformed security guard to control access (it's the side where Muskifest parking is). I have to wonder if this use is allowed at the site as the area is starting to look like a truck terminal. I am also curious about who is parking the equipment there. Im through there regularly and I never see any tractors coming or going.


Anonymous said...

i am confused here based on this part of the article.
But that pales in comparison to what Bryan Callahan has done. After various merchants have spoken and are unable to rebut him, Callahan has ticked off concessions that have been made to them, often erroneously.

"At the end of the November 4 meeting, Callahan actually accused one critical merchant who won't be named here of paying all of his Bethlehem employees from an Allentown-based business to be able to take advantage of Allentown tax incentives.

In addition to being untrue, how employees are paid and taxed is confidential information protected by the Local Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Disclosure of that information is unlawful. According to Callahan, he obtained this information from the City's taxing authority, The Keystone Collections Group.He then used this confidential information at a public meeting to intimidate one of the merchants who has been critical of the Martin Tower rezoning".

so the tough guy Callahan broke a law? He used the info in a public setting , to intimidate a member of the public. Why has he not been charged? Why has he and the city not been sued? Who else on council knew tough guy was going to do this.
If the public only knew the skeleton hanging in tough guys closet and the closet of his brother and their families, he might want to think twice before breaking the law to intimidate members of the public.

what am i missing here? the term used by BOH was unlawful. does that mean a law has been violated?

Bernie O'Hare said...

There is no doubt in my mind that the Local Taxpayer Bill of Rights was violated and that Callahan used confidential information improperly.

Anonymous said...

And what are the consequences of that violation BOH? I am sorry for harping on this issue, but didn't we just have the feds/IRS use confidential tax payer info against people and or groups ? in fact i also remember Harry Reid going to the senate floor and making the claim that Romney didn't pay taxes for 10 years, which was a complete lie as admitted by Reid. From following this site for the last few years, I know you believe in democracy and Our Constitutional Republic. This type of politics is dangerous , very dangerous, not only for the private citizen , but for democracy.

When any member of the govt,including Callahan, on a local, state or federal level use confidential info against anyone, there needs to be serious consequences.
And Callahan claims to be a private/small businessman? Maybe what is good for the goose will be good for the gander in due time. If this is how he plays , one can only imagine the scams he uses to run his so called business. This is a violation and a complete misuse of so called political power. This is a soft tyranny, if there is a such thing.

Bernie O'Hare said...

There will likely be no consequences unless the affected businessman makes a complaint. I doubt that Callahan acted with the intention of breaking the law, but it should be made crystal clear to him that disclosing confidential information like this has no purpose other than to chill free speech. It is a civil rights violation in addition to being a violation of the local taxpayer bill of rights. Callahan owes the businessman he smeared an apology and then should consider exercising his fifth amendment right to remain silent bc every time he opens his mouth, he puts his foot in it. He is a very nice guy, but he is alienating everyone.

Anonymous said...

Bernie...In your statement you said the Al Wurth questioned the incentives for new owners that will never live in our City. Mr. Wurth is right on with his statement and let me add that Alecia Karner does not live in the City and I doubt will ever. She lives in Bangor and was given that position to play this silly game at the cost of our long time Citizens. There is no sense in talking about a Mayor that was on Council and stated he would never agree to tear down the tower. He just follows what he is told to do. There are many people that backed him that will never vote for him in the next election. It's sad we have to wait until that time to get rid of him and Karner.

Carmen LoBaido said...

Would you like to see your Main St/ Historic district lose all of its retail? Do you want an empty Main St. like most small towns and cities have? why do you have to do to Allentown fir shopping? Is there not enough retail in the township or the Promenade to meet your needs. Think about it. Do we really need more retail shops with more and more people buying online. Heard just heard Target is closing stores. Look at the Westgate Mall. The smart thing to do is revitalize what ia already existing, not to add more and watch what is there close their doors.

Carmen LoBaido said...

Did you ever eat at Johnny ' s bagels or Marlo's pizza. Very affordable. Retail expensive downtown? Not really. I know for a fact the retail shops carry a variety of items, many if not all produced locally or in the U.S., unlike big box stores, that are reasonably priced. Sad that you feel only tourists should support the downtown but that is your opinion and your right. When I buy something at a big box store and it falls apart after several months I say oh well I got a "good deal" so I'll just go out and get another one because I don't expect anything else from China made junk but I can show you many items, purchased years ago, from those "expensive" shops in Downtown Bethlehem that still grace my closet and I still wear. I'd would really rather buy quality that lasts me many, many years then junk that will last only 1 or 2 seasons. I still wear a wool cape I bought at Donegal Square over 10 years ago that looks brand new. Gats purchased at In the Mood that , after several years of wear, still look good abd shoes bought at Aardvark that have held up fine going on year 2. i can't say that for many things I have purchased in big box stores. I am a merchant on Main St. and do support my local businesses. Try us sometimes, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find and still own after many years.

Carmen LoBaido said...

Also why not bring in light industry to the Martin Tower site where it would create living wage jobs for the people of the city. Retail does not create living wage jobs. That is what the existing merchants have been asking. As far as we know there has not been any effort made to attract industry to that site. At the last meeting it was noted that a merchant had spoken to the powers that be at Guardian life. They are building, in Hanover Twsp., a facility to house 1800 employees. They were never aporoached about possinly considering the Martin Tower site. Why were they never approached? Because CRIZ money would not be profitable to the developer unless it is used to build retail where all the sales tax money, for many years, will he used to go back into the developers pocket, one developer who does not actually even live in the Lehigh Valley. I believe he is a California resident. This is what the Main St. Merchants would prefer above all. Luving wage job creation and the positive effect it would have on existing businesses.

Anonymous said...

No offense Ms. LoBaido, but we don't tell you what to do with Main St., please don't tell us what we want on our side of town. The Westside has been ignored for years. We get NOTHING! We DO NOT WANT your more residential units or corporations/offices. You can go shop at the Westgate Mall all you want. We live here. It seems to me the city should worry about the people who live here, not the people who own businesses on Main St.

Anonymous said...

Ms. LoBaido, the fact of the matter is that most of the residents of the City of Bethlehem can't afford to shop on Main Street. A wool cape at Donegal Square costs what 300-400$. I can go to JC Penney and buy a wool coat for much less. Johnny's Bagels are a good price, but when you pay more for the cream cheese than you do the bagel, it makes it un-affordable for most residents of the city. I do not believe retail at the Martin Towers site will take away from the business on Main Street. I am sure if you took a poll you would see the residents of Bethlehem are not on Main Street.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The above statement is completely untrue, and is just the latest set of lies. Actually, Main St is the most attractive area to people who live in the LV. It would have much more business if people could park.

Anonymous said...

If people could Park? There are two parking garages less than 100 feet away from Main St. with the lowest parking garage rates and the lowest meter rates in the entire Lehigh Valley!!!!!

Anonymous said...

People hate parking garages. They are unmanned and unguarded. Unlike street level parking that is easy and safe, the garages are crime magnets. People have told officials this over and over but are ignored, wanting to suck as much money as they can from these high rise garages. Their own pompous greed is their biggest problem.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I'm sure you NEVER have out of town guests to show them the history of our little town. I also assume you NEVER worked or supported a mom and pop business before. It's a shame. YOU are missing out. If all you can find that you "like" is a $300 wool cap at a store the specializes in imported items, then yes, you should go to the mall and buy the crap that is made in China.
Guess you have never had a "date" night and walked through our little town. Maybe you should move. Mom and pop stores built this country. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

People that live in 8th Avenue area have no clue what a Promenade sized mall will bring in the way of traffic versus the benefit of an office park community. With an office park there is only traffic in the the morning and late afternoon 5 days a week. That is the way the current zoning is for that property. As a retail destination, 8th Avenue will be jammed 7 days a week all day and night.

You are not thinking clearly on this and box stores take money out of the Lehigh Valley while local stores in both north and south side Bethlehem are local business owners that recycle their earnings here in the valley. A decayed downtown has negative property value implications for all of Bethlehem.