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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, April 04, 2016

South Bethlehem's Historic District Zoning Snobs

Bethlehem's South Side Historic District
Bethlehem has three historic districts. Ostensibly, they exist so that a community can preserve its historic integrity. I get it, and there's certainly good reason to preserve Bethlehem's rich Moravian heritage on the north side. But why the south and west sides?  All too often, these supposed Gardens of Eden amount to little more than snob zoning with onerous requirements that actually encourage blight instead of eliminating it. It's snob zoning in which residents can't fart without first obtaining a "Certificate of Appropriateness" from some goofy review board and City Council.

The absurdity of the South Side historic district came to light last week, during City Council discussions about a 626-car parking deck proposed by the Parking Authority. which will connect to developer Dennis Benner's 6-story Greenway Park Building, located at the intersection of Third and South New.

The argument advanced by the Parking Authority, essentially, is "If we build it, they will come." Opponents dispute this, and one of them is William Seixas, a New York transplant who lives on South Graham and will be directly impacted by the development.

His wife, Mary Lou, said she was unable to fix a broken window and broken garage door at her property because of ridiculous requirements imposed by the Historic Commission. "I'm sitting with my window still broken six years later because I can't afford a thousand-some window." While the Historic Commission has thrown up roadblocks for her, it has given a green light to a six-story building across the street. "I feel like I don't matter because I don't have the million dollar wallet to change my window," she observes.

William Seixas provided a little more detail. A week after buying his home, he learned it was "historic" and that the Historic Commission would have to sign off on repairs to his garage door and window.

According to Seixas, who is himself an artist, the Historic Commission told him he needed an architect. So he hired Artefact, a Bethlehem architectural firm, which told him he needed before and after renderings. He claims they charged him $8,000 "and took all my money for renderings the City 'was supposed to have' of my house."

After Artefact allegedly took his money, Seixas decided to do his own renderings for the replacement of one of his three garage doors. The middle door is metal, and the other two are plywood, not even 3/4" inches thick. In its infinite wisdom, the Historic Commission told Seixas he'd have to replace the only secure door he had, the metal one, with wood.

"They don't care about the residents, but are giving Mr. Benner the ability to build this massive building on the corner of my block."

In fairness to the Bethlehem Historic Commission and Artefact, they were not at this meeting and might have something to say in response to Seixas. But Olga Negron-Dipini, who lives on the South Side, was upset by the way ordinary citizens are treated.
"To hear somebody say I couldn't even change my window because I wanted to follow the ordinance and don't have the money to change it, and we're going to allow somebody to break half of them? I find that disrespectful, to be honest. ... We might as well eliminate the ordinances. What are they there for? ... We talk about residents who own homes and can't change the window because of the ordinance? That's disrespectful."
Of course it is. But Dennis Benner did not deny the Seixas' their right to fix their window or garage door.

That would be the Historic Commission.

What Seixas claims happened to his family in Bethlehem has also happened to a local business. In December, Third Street Tae Kwon Do school owner Lee Arnold locked horns with the South Side's Historic Commission over an angled sign he placed in front of his business to attract attention. Arnold claimed his business was being frustrated by a group of unelected officials, and the meeting deteriorated into a shouting match.

This have also gone on in Easton, where Barber Shop Plus owner Linda Coghlan was told she'd have to shell out $10,000 to replace the door to her business. At some point, it becomes ridiculous.

Windows and doors are a matter of public safety, especially in an urban environment. Snob zoners should have no say in those decisions. Let them confine themselves to aluminum siding.

What I find most disturbing about Seixas story, which he relayed to a Committee meeting of City Council, is the involvement of Artefact.

Christime Ussler, wo founded Artefact, is the City's Preservation Officer for the South Side Historical District. If her firm accepted money from Seixas, that would be a conflict of interest.

Also, City Council can grant a Certificate of Appropriateness after it has been denied by the Historic Commission. They are a recommending body only. But do Seixas or other property owners know this?


Anonymous said...

Kind of off topic here, but has anyone asked the question of how much tax revenue Benner's building will bring to the city and school district? It seems 2 out of the 3 big non profits are once again expanding. If you look at all of the property LVHN, ST LUKES,and LEHIGH UNIVERSITY own I think many would be appalled they contribute nothing to our school district in property tax. Private office buildings and vacant property that was once owned by entities that actually paid taxes have been gobbled up at a very rapid pace all over the city. What has the loss in tax revenue been? If you added up the assessed value of all property owned by the big non profits what would that number be? It seems as though these nonprofits have money to buy up just about anything all the while homeowners and regular business's struggle to pay the bills.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Yeah, your comment is OT. This story is not about nonprofits or whether they need to pay taxes. It is about Historic Districts and what they require for modest improvements.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone asked the question if this building has five stories of nonprofits that have ample room to build on their own campuses why do Bethehem residents have to build them a parking garage too? If Bethlehem residents get nothing in return for a parking garage in the way of tax revenue besides one story of taxable building WHATS THE POINT?

Bernie O'Hare said...

You are off topic. This is about historic districts. I will have another story about the parking garage.

Anonymous said...

Yea subsects of the notorious hamilton street gang o thugs also infect bedlum¿¡ This is all part of there design to overtake historic ditricts by running single family as rooming houwses to destroy the astectics, integrity and build there circus acts throughout the entire triboro¿¡
I have much personal knowledge of this particular subsects life threatening games played¿¡ The wipe with there right hand claiming that the left has no knowledge of all the while there is a whole collective of these degenerates infecting every ASSpect of this local ordinance keeping there ill's all in house by creating more dysfunction than is nessasary, but not for there flipflopp slumlordian campain donors and that particular part of the bigtop circus sideshows collectivley¿¡
redd registered Republican
patent pending

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, the dreaded "hysterical commission". A religious zeal for a few, a necessary evil to some, reviled by everyone else.

Sadly, most folks don't remember some of the architectural crimes against humanity from the 1970's. Beautiful arched or stained glass windows forever lost thanks to being filled in by cement or "modern" fit outs. The problem here is that good historic preservation and renovation aint cheap. This easily gives way to the snob aspect of the rules/ ordinances.

I locked horns big time with my previous historic commission. Those ornate wood carvings that hold up your porch? They're called corbels. I didn't know that until I wanted to replace them because they were rotting out. We loved them, part of the reason we picked our house... Hated them after we were put up in front of the firing squad though. We offered to replaced them with HDU foam custom carved that would never ever rot away. We were met with the demand for real custom carved wood. It was the difference between a couple thousand dollars we could handle and thousands of dollars that were exorbitantly quoted by a custom "historic" wood worker.

I ended up begrudgingly slapping on coat after coat of paint to just make the problem go away. That was until a "neighborhood watchdog"- i.e., clearly one of the members of the commission I had words with thought the paint was a different color, which would have needed approval. Nope- same color, just not sun bleached.

Now we lived in a historic home NOT in a district, and its a beautiful thing. My recommendation is that these board start allowing like, similar or synthetic replacements and alternatives to demanding the real thing. I has worked with great success elsewhere.

Eventually, if you become too demanding and too onerous, the ordinance will be voted way and the baby will be lost with the bath water.

Anonymous said...

Chris has been the historical/hysterical officer for decades. Just more of the inbreeding the city is so well known for.

Anonymous said...

Bernie, if you ever want a good story, investigate the conflicts of interest with the City's historic review officers, Donovan and Ussler. Both have contracts with the city as review officers, but they both represent applicants before the boards, they just switch boards when they have a client going before the board they represent. Ussler is the South Bethlehem Review officer, and Donovan advises the HARB.
I know some developers have felt that hiring Artefact or Donovan would get them an advantage.

Anonymous said...

One of the standards of a historic preservation ordinance is that a property-owner is not required to change anything that legally exists. The city would not have authority to make someone replace an existing garage door for aesthetic reasons, but they can control the design of features that are replaced.

In any case, I personally don't believe features that are not visible from a major street should be regulated.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problems with historic boards occur when they refuse to accept use of modern materials that have a historic appearance. The standard is whether the building would look the same from the street. Particularly if a feature is painted or on an upper story, few people would be able to tell what material is used from looking at it.

Bernie O'Hare said...

""In any case, I personally don't believe features that are not visible from a major street should be regulated. "

I believe this garage door is visible from a public ROW. I think doors and windows are matters of public saftey, and there should be no interference with either from historical boards.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"Bernie, if you ever want a good story, investigate the conflicts of interest with the City's historic review officers, Donovan and Ussler. Both have contracts with the city as review officers, but they both represent applicants before the boards, they just switch boards when they have a client going before the board they represent. Ussler is the South Bethlehem Review officer, and Donovan advises the HARB.
I know some developers have felt that hiring Artefact or Donovan would get them an advantage."

I am looking into this as we speak. And if this is true, it is a conflict. Both Ussler and Donovan are founders and principlas of the same firm.

Anonymous said...

Bernie I agree with you. I can see the need for a historic board to protect the Moravian area on the North Side but this area in the South Side is a flat vacant property and condemned houses. These Historic Boards should be eliminated.

Anonymous said...

The city of Bethlehem, among others, are quick to kiss the butts of the sainted 'arts community" so why not elicit their support in helping homeowners whittle or otherwise craft their home improvements at a low cost. Just tell the politicos that it will be a 'public-private partnership' and they'll get a thrill up their legs.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone ever tell the slum landlords on the south side about special histric repairs? Most of the places look like shit. I guess of you are a landlord with big political contributions you can do what ever you want.

Get real!

Anonymous said...


dems love those contributions. as they count their dollars they ignore the citizens

Anonymous said...

So looking forward to your research on Ussler & Donovan...

Anonymous said...

Dems campaign contributions allmost, can get away with murder while committing other henious crimes colludedly dilluded by there low life counterpart clientel¿!)$
There is much circus sideshows available to see with the comming arena agenda of the browne hole nue nue nue ReView¿!)$

Bernie, no soiling of ones underwear that is soiled right up to but not limited to its taint familia¿¡
redd registered Republican
patent pending

Bernie O'Hare said...

It will take about a week or longer. I filed a RTK and began speaking to some of the players. I have every intention of being fair and , in the end, this could be a nonstory or a positive story.

Anonymous said...

The South Side District was intended to be eclectic and not be strict in regards to historic architectural design. One of the South Side District's first approvals was the McDonald's which was designed to be retro. The North Side district is very strict.

Anonymous said...

Chris has been doing this for years. First she votes against a project but if you go to her firm and she does the drawings and charges you it gets an OK vote at the next meeting.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Like I said, i am looking into this, and will know in a week or so whether there is cause for concern.