Tuesday, December 08, 2015
Fiorentino Cancels Planning Review of Martin Tower
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.