|Is Value Place cutting edge architecture?|
Developer Lou Pektor has proposed converting the abandoned 28-acre ITT facility, located next to St. Jane's along Hartley Avenue, into 312 apartments spread out among 13 buildings He calls his project Palmer Points, and hopes to collect between $1,200 and $1,600 per month for one and two bedroom apartments. They is within spitting distance of Route 22, so he's sweetening the deal with a clubhouse and a swimming pool. The ITT building would be razed. But he's got a problem. This area is zoned light industrial, and he needs Palmer Township's blessing to change the zoning to residential. Not just that, he also wants Supervisors to give him a density bonus for excellent architectural design. Based on poor testimony last night in a meeting room packed with about 50 objectors, he did a poor job of demonstrating that he's entitled to any bonus.
High density apartments are usually quite unpopular. In the Lehigh Valley, deconversion of single-family homes into multi-family apartment buildings is thought by many to be the single biggest reason why cities like Allentown, and to a lesser extent, Bethlehem and Easton, are in such trouble. The following arguments are often made:
• Multifamily apartments lower the value of single-family homes in the neighborhood.Those arguments against Palmer Points have been made. Resident Joe Gagliano has made them, and has presented Supervisors with a petition signed by 83 homeowners opposed to re-zoning. Whether those arguments are factually supported is another question. According to one Harvard study, the data fail to show that multi-family apartments lead to lower property values, cause more crime or create more traffic. A similar conclusion has been reached by the Urban Land Institute, which adds that high density apartments are far less destructive of the environment.
• People who live in apartments are less desirable neighbors and more likely to engage in
crime or other anti-social behavior.
• Apartments overburden schools, produce less revenue for local governments, and require more infrastructure support.
• Higher-density housing creates traffic congestion and parking problems.
The reality is that apartments are hot. People are no longer interested in purchasing homes because of the uncertainty in the job market and difficulty in obtaining financing. Home ownership has declined more than 6 percentage points in the last decade - from nearly 70% to a little over 63%. That translates into 10 million more family units who rent rather than own.
The type of apartments Pektor is proposing are for what we call "volunteer renters" - that is, folks with the means to buy a home but who have chosen to rent an apartment. $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom, or, $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom is hardly Section 8 territory.
But there's no denying the perception that high-density housing will cause problems.
Jeff Acopian, who has hired hired prominent Easton Attorney Gary Asteak in this dispute, does provide a factual analogy. In an email to Supervisors, he makes the following comparison to Forks Township.
Look at Forks township. Palmer isn’t as congested as they are- YET. But this kind of project will get us to the Forks level of congestion. Years ago, those in favor of this kind of development in Forks used the argument that this kind of project is good for the tax base. But look at what Forks has now! Besides a very congested community, they've also had to raise their taxes a total of almost 25% in the past 3 years alone. It's a false economy to say this type of project will keep the taxes of Palmer residents low. That's just not true.Acopian believes more effort should have been invested into luring a light industry into the site, mentioning a trend toward "Made in the USA" industries. But distinguished Zoning Attorney Jim Preston, who represents Pektor, told the Board that Pektor has tried. "If we could sell the property tomorrow, we would not be here."
Jessica McAndrew told Supervisors that this project is very similar to the Madison Farms apartment complex in Bethlehem Township. According to her, people who live in surrounding neighborhoods are now experiencing more vandalism, thefts and scams from "out of state people." She claims things are so bad that a Neighborhood Block Watch has been formed. McAndrew also complained about crowded classrooms at Palmer Elementary, where 30 students to a class is the norm, becoming even more crowded.
I don't know if McAndrew is accurate about Madison Farms. I believe a block watch is being formed, but it's a reaction to the apartments at Northampton Community College, not Madison Farms
Some have hinted that allowing this site to remain light industrial would make it more difficult for Charlie Chrin to lure businesses to his 1,000-acre industrial park in northern Palmer Township, which is supposed to create 5,000 jobs. Converting the zoning here to residential would certainly remove some of the possible competition to Chrin.
After the record was closed in January, Pektor decided that he needed zoning approval for 48' high buildings, and not the 36' in his application. So he presented testimony to the Planning Commission two weeks ago, and Easton architect Jeff Martinson spoke on the subject last night. The higher buildings and density bonus would be permitted if it could be established that there is "excellence in architectural design."
Martison showed two pictures of the proposed buildings and claimed that the rooftops, manufactured stone and chimneys provided that excellence.
Gary Asteak tore poor Jeff apart. He admitted he himself was not the architect who designed these buildings, and is unaware of any awards given to the actual designer. When pressed, he called the design "prototypical" and then later called it part of the "vernacular architecture" in this region. In other words, common. He refused to use the word "common" or "typical" once he realized where Gary was headed, but had already screwed himself.
Amazingly, this architect had no idea what the height of these proposed buildings actually is, and never bothered looking at the Zoning Ordinance, which defines these things. Eventually, Chairman Dave Colver had to read the definition himself.
Martinson did no favors to his cause when he produced pictures of the proposed buildings, which look exactly like the Value Place Extended Stay Hotel in Bethlehem.
"You're trying to turn this town into extended stay hotels!" joked resident Alex Karapetian.
It was at this point that Colver decided he had heard enough for one night. Though he kept tight control on outbursts, he made sure that everyone who wanted to speak got a chance. Some residents were allowed to speak several times. He mentioned there's a five-minute rule on comment, but added he has never imposed it.
One woman - her name is Karen Wasielewski - made comments when she was supposed to be asking questions and asked questions when she was supposed to making her arguments. That's common at zoning and planning hearings. Palmer Township Solicitor Chuck Bruno gently teased her on her mistake, and she joked, "That's because I'm married to a dumb Polack."
Updated 9:30 am: In an earlier version of this story, I got Lou Pektor and Lew Ronca mixed up. Now both of them are going to sue me.