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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Palmer Tp Approves 312 Apartments at Vacant ITT Site.

Gary Asteak chats with Chuck Piazza before the hearing starts. 
Palmer Township's Board of Supervisors unanimously decided last night to approve controversial plans for a 312-apartment development called Palmer Points at the old ITT factory at 3100 Charlotte Avenue. They did so before a standing-room only crowd and over the vocal objections of prominent Easton Attorney Gary Asteak, numerous residents and Asteak's client, business owner Jeff Acopian. He kept referring to himself as Rodney Dangerfield. The Board's decision followed 10 1/2 hours of testimony in contentious hearings that first began in January.

The developer of this project, Lou Pektor, was represented by zoning law expert Jim Preston. Providing legal advice to Palmer's Board was respected Easton Attorney Chuck Bruno, who got his start under the wing of Charlie Spaziani.

The apartments will be a mix of one and two bedroom apartments spread out among 13 buildings inside the 28-acre tract. These will be three and a half stories high. Developer Lou Pektor has been allowed to increase the density, but will be required to provide a needed traffic signal at the Greenwood and Hartley Avenue intersection and make other infrastructure improvements.

Pektor will collect between $1,200 and $1,600 per month for one and two bedroom apartments. They are within spitting distance of Route 22, so he's sweetening the deal with a clubhouse and a swimming pool.

Pektor's Bethlehem Fields
Although Supervisors spoke of other apartment projects in Palmer, this is very similar to Pektor's Bethlehem Fields apartments on Cherry Lane in Hellertown, right off the route 78 exit. That is a 216-unit development, is fully rented, and has resulted in little additional traffic.

High density apartments are quite unpopular, especially when planned near single family homes. The following arguments were made concerning Palmer Points.
• Multifamily apartments lower the value of single-family homes in the neighborhood.
• 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.
Palmer Tp's five-person board, chaired by Dave Colver
Those arguments are rebutted by a Harvard Study as well as the Urban Land Institute. But after hearing these complaints from so many people, Palmer Board Chair Dave Colver asked Township Manager Chris Christman to look into these concerns at other apartment buildings in Palmer Township.

Impact on Schools - Palmer View is a 306-unit apartment complex and has 27 school age children. Woodmont is a 216-unit operation and has 20 school age children. Based on what is going on there, Christman estimates that Palmer Points will produce 30 school age children.

Traffic - Police spent 30 days measuring the traffic along Hartley Avenue, the main point of access of  Palmer Points. They counted 3,350 cars per day, driving an average of 30 mph. The 312-apartment complex will add 624 cars to the road and will increase traffic by about 50%.

Crime - Woodmont, Gateway Terrace and Palmer View all have extremely low call rates. Statistically, they are negligible  According to Christman, the majority of police calls are 911 hang ups and false alarms, with little evidence of drug activity.

During February's hearing, Jessica McAndrew told Supervisors that people in homes near the Madison Farms apartment complex in Bethlehem Township are now experiencing more vandalism, thefts and scams from "out of state people." Christman asked Bethlehem Township Police Chief Dan Pancoast whether this is true and he responded that there was one incident of vandalism. During construction, there was some theft of material. Hhe noted three retail thefts at the nearby Shop-Rite and said the crime rate at the apartments is "extremely low."

Property Values - In reaction to those who complained their property values would deteriorate, Christman cited a study from the Delaware Valley Planning Commission, indicating that there is actually a slight appreciation in the property value of single homes. This was confirmed by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Christman also spoke to a realtor who sells homes in the Woodridge Falls housing development, located near Woodmont. He was told sellers are getting 92% of their asking prices, and that properties are on the market an average of 58 days.

Taxes - The total taxes currently paid at the ITT site is $42,435.16. But once Palmer Points is in business, the estimated total real estate taxes (school,county and township) will be $534,959.50.

"I feel this Board has to deal with the facts," stated Colver.

Tom Comitta, deer in the headlights
Height Increase from 2.5 to 3.5 stories

In February, Jim Preston attempted to establish "excellence in architectural design," which would justify an increase in the size of the buildings from 2.5 (35') to 3.5 stories (48'). He called Easton architect Jeff Martison, the same guy who was overseeing a project in Easton in which the building would collapse later that week.

Among other things, Martison was clueless when asked to define what constitutes a story.

Gary Asteak tore poor Jeff apart. He admitted that he himself was not the architect who designed these buildings, and was 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.

Preston decided he better try again, so last night, he had a new witness who would establish "excellence in architectural design." After all, he couldn't possibly be worse than Martison, right?

Sign at library, where meeting took place
Wrong. Thomas Comitta, a certified planner from near Philly who presented a 15,000 page curriculum vitae, was a disaster. Unfortunately, he's a consultant in Bethlehem Township and is helping them prepare their updated comprehensive plan.

Comitta is actually a landscape architect. He's never designed an apartment building or any residence. But there he was, horn rimmed glasses and all, providing thirty-minute answers to five second questions. Among other things, he let it be known that he could help Palmer write their own design guidelines.

He went to Harvard, you know.

Things got so bad that Chuck Bruno had to step in and tell him to just answer the damn questions.

Comitta said he wouldn't call the design "ugly" or "repugnant" or "awkward."

When Asteak finally had him in his clutches, Comitta was soon ready to be committed. Asked to provide examples of other designs in this area that are "a cut above," he was unable to do so. He actually at one point likened the design to a Moravian building. That was likely news to Pektor, who graduated from Moravian.

Asteak had Comitta simultaneously saying that the architecture is "excellent" and "normative."

Yes, normative is a word. It means normal, not excellent. .

Because the zoning ordinance mentions pitched roofs, and this design is a pitched roof with gables and dormers, he hung his hat on clause in the ordinance.

So did Supervisors, when it was time to vote. But this was clearly the weakest part of the plan.

Gary also tangled with Supervisors at times. He thought he and others should have been allowed to cross-examine Christman's "study." but Bruno refused to allow it.

Asteak began suggesting that this was a "done deal and we're wasting our breath." Bruno responded that Asteak was essentially making an "accusation of corruption, and you better back that up."

He then explained there is no need to go back and forth with "point and counter-point."

"If you don't let me speak, I'm going to raise Hell," said a man behind me in the audience. "Every one of you has spoken ten times," replied an exasperated Dave Colver  He also claimed that the information provided by Christman was no study, but just a response to questions he had after listening to residents express their concerns.

"There was no Watergate report," he said. . .

Though Supervisors gave Pektor all the relief sought, and did so unanimously, they want the traffic signal in operation before he gets a CO for any of his 13 buildings."You need the signal now," advised Township Engineer Brian Dillman.

That in turn will require a Highway Occupancy Permit from PennDOT, and Diillman predicted that will take "at least" a year.

Colver suggested that Pektor might want to return with phases, so that he might be able to build one or two buildings to generate the revenue needed to pay for the traffic signal and other infrastructure improvements.


Anonymous said...

You mentioned Angle. Why was he there?

Anonymous said...

While the concerns regarding increased traffic hold legitimacy, some of these complaints about construction of this project are veiled in classism / racism. Lower economic minority families and single parents will have increased access to the area. While I applaud the practical debunking of such "concerns" via performance of due diligence, I can't imagine wanting to relocate anywhere that offers so little in the way of jobs. And who wants to move somewhere they know they are not welcome?

Anonymous said...

Bernie, I don't trust Lou Pektor (he's beyond slimy), so I would have looked at this sideways from the start just because of him. To me this should work in similar fashion to Bethlehem Fields (as you cited) and The Meadows in Emmaus. Both are fine additions to the area.

Glad that Chuck Bruno called out Gary Asteak's corruption comment. I like Gary, but that kind of comment, unless he can back it up, is pointless and fosters the negativity that's surrounding us these days. A disagreement does not mean corruption.

I don't see the classism/racism claim that 750am cites. That seems to me to be a comment looking for a place to be made as opposed to something relevant to yesterday's meeting.

The Banker

Bernie O'Hare said...

"You mentioned Angle. Why was he there?"

Only in spirit. It was a typo on my part and has been corrected. Thank you for letting me know.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"I don't see the classism/racism claim that 750am cites. That seems to me to be a comment looking for a place to be made as opposed to something relevant to yesterday's meeting."

Unfortunately, it was very much a part of the discussion over three meetings. Since last night's hearing was focused on height, concerns about crime and property values and drugs were not mentioned as much as they were in the previous two hearings. But that was very much part of the discussion. perhaps the better word is fear. The people who spoke against this project are afraid. They don't want to see their homes and their quality of life destroyed. They certainly do believe that this will result in higher crime from a lower element. I believe these fears are unfounded, and I think Colver had Christman address that last night.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification Bernie. I agree, I think they're unfounded as well. Poor minorities aren't moving into $1,500/month apartments.

The Banker

Ron Beitler said...

If I'm understanding this correctly a density increase was given away in exchange for short sighted traffic "improvements". First, there is some nimbyism here. No doubt. And nimbyism is NEVER smart growth.

However, the Valley has real concerns relating to increasing our net density. Well documented. So even though targeted density is a part of a better growth strategy, it's been my opinion that density shouldn't be just handed out.

One way to avoid that could have been doing this within the framework of a transfer of density program. Otherwise known as transfer of development rights. That means you take the density from one area of the township and transfer it another. This usually involved setting up a market for buyers an sellers. It's a free market approach to smart growth and preservation.

We are doing something like this in Lower Mac. The strategy keeps the net density of the township neutral. Keeps the net traffic and school impact neutral. But still allow us and developers higher density in appropriate locations in exchange for farmland preservation in another less appropriate location. It's fair and it's win/win.

I will say Pektor does seem to do higher quality projects than most developers. Part of making density work is quality assurances.

Anonymous said...

Lawyers are such whores as they defend one township on development issues yet fight a neighboring township and all employed at the same law firm!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Ron, I get and appreciate your point about density transfers.. I like it very much actually. But I would retain a bonus for infrastructure improvements. In this case, Pektor has agreed to address several. This does make it easier for the public.to accept.

Anonymous said...

The Rodney Dangerfield comment was in response to how Palmer Township appears to treat our company (Acopian Technical Co), a company that has been part of this community for over 50 years. Township personnel, as well as the developer's representatives, entered our company property numerous times, in the initial design phase of their project. And yet, when notices were sent to neighbors about Township meetings concerning this project, no notices were ever sent to Acopian Technical Co.

Last night, to substantiate their case, the Township presented their 'findings' comparing the 'advantages' of having this large 312 apartment development versus not having this project. Had the township truly been interested in something other than trying to justify their decision to approve this project, they should have done further analysis. One of the main issues was whether or not they were going to change the zoning from Light Industrial to High Density Residential. They should also have looked SERIOUSLY at the advantages of having businesses on that site. But they didn't bother to do that. Instead, they did what they accused all the residents of the area of doing; making judgements without facts.

Jeff Acopian

Anonymous said...

Lou Pektor was Johnny Calhan's spiritual advisor for years. Look at Bethlehem. His Riverfront project was a real bust for everyone but him.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, you biggest worry now is where will all the rain runoff go? Looks like it will go through your parking lot.

Anonymous said...

The five Palmer Township Supervisors, together as one simpleton-unit, approved 312 apartments. What's anyone going to do now to reverse this lousy decision? Nothing! And they know that. Their action is akin to defecating in a public place and after the deed is done, the results are still there for everyone to see, but no one is really concerned with who did the deed.

Peter J.Cochran said...

Well, one way or other we are all going to be stranded in 25th Street traffic until fuel prices go back to 4 dollars a gallon again . Think about 300 more apartments next time you sit in traffic.