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Thursday, May 26, 2016

ZHB Rejects Lehigh's 15-Unit Apartment Building Plan on Southside

302 W Packer Ave
Lehigh University suffered a setback on May 25 when Bethlehem's Zoning Hearing Board voted 4-0, following a lengthy hearing, to deny dimensional variances needed to create housing for professors, staff and grad students at 302 W. Packer Street, located at the southwest intersection of packer and Montclair Avenues. Bill Fitzpatrick acted as Chair because Gus Loupos was unavailable. But Lehigh has threatened to come back with a bigger, five-story, building that needs no variances at all.

Lehigh purchased 302 W Packer Avenue, a 2 1/2-story single-family home, on December 21, 2015, for $152,000. Though assessment records rate the property as a C+, Lehigh Director of Real Estate Services Erin Kintzer gives it a failing grade. She described it as "uninhabitable," and told zoners she would raze everything except for the stone wall along the perimeter. In place of the single family home, the University planned to build a tasteful, three-story brick building, containing 15 single bedroom apartments, with five on each floor.

Kintzer was unsure what the monthly rental rates would be, saying that would depend on construction costs.

Since each apartment could include two people, this would add as many as 30 people to the neighborhood.

"You're pretty dramatically increasing the density," observed Fitzpatrick.

Each apartment, estimated at about 600 sq ft, would have its own living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom and living room. Kintzer, the sole witness presented by Lehigh University Attorney Catherine Durso, explained that the apartments would be made available to.professors, staff and grad students.

Unlike many other colleges, Lehigh has no housing for professors or staff.  

Kintzer added that the University would consider renting to the general public if unable to generate interest among professors, staff and grad students. She estimated that grad students could live there from two to seven years, while the staff and professors would spend from one to five years at the apartment building..

She ran into difficulty when she discussed parking. There would only be six on-site parking places. Remaining tenants would be required to purchase a permit to park in one of the University lots. Not only does this cost $400 per year, but the closest lot is 370' away.

This puzzled Linda Shay Gardner, who asked about a tenant on the third floor, who would have to walk 370' to a parking lot, and then possible another 1000' to find a spot in the lot.

Linda Shay Gardner was far from alone. About 15 people in the neighborhood, and several of them argued that the temptation will be too great for tenants to simply park along Packer Street.

"Parking has always been a nightmare," said Jane Gaughran. She added that forcing women to walk 370'  alone, in the dark, is asking for trouble. She indicated that one of her friends, a Lehigh professor, was accosted while walking to her Montclair Street home from the labs.

Craig Evans noted that there were four requests to "grossly ignore" the zoning ordinance, and that the only appropriate answer is No. "This will congest an already taxed neighborhood," he insisted.

Evans wife, Anne, noted the irony in the arguments for a public parking garage at Third and New Streets, where it was claimed that Lehigh staff were unable to walk for than 200'.

"I don't think it's our job as neighbors to support Lehigh's investments," she said.

Krintzer had earlier stated that Lehigh regarded this as an investment property and would seek no tax exemption.

Fritz United Methodist Church
Reverend Barbara Lee, a Lehigh alumna, is Pastor at Fritz Memorial United Methodist Church, located directly across the street from the planned apartment building. While she likes the idea of housing faculty and staff close to campus,. "I'm really disappointed that the church wasn't considered."

Noting that the apartment building will bring an additional 30 cars to her front door. Rev. Lee stated that "we really struggle as an urban church to get our folks in and out of church.".

She indicated that right now, traffic on Packer Avenue is a "nightmare" when parents come to pick up elementary school students who participate in a daily homework club with Lehigh volunteers.

Lehigh student Bailey Falk told zoners that tenants might be walking more than 370' because the closest parking lot is often full during the day. She indicated that the $400 annual cost of parking permits is too expensive for many students, who will instead park on the street. She added that several years ago, Lehigh offered professors a place to live on campus. Only one took on-campus housing.

Attorney Durso argued that there is a "definite need" for this kind of housing, and there is no real difference between a one and three minute walk.

Zoners only deliberated about five minutes before voting 4-0 to deny the zoning appeal.

During the hearing, Kintzer admitted she was taking a risk when she bought the property, and said she would sell it at a slight loss if her variances were denied. But after it was over, she and Attorney Durso began to discuss building a five-story apartment building at the same location, with no need for dimensional variances.


Anonymous said...

Parking is always a huge issue. Neighbors are to believe residents with groceries are going to park a block away? Also, what about visitor parking?

Bernie O'Hare said...

The groceries argument was made during the hearing. The visitor argument was missed. Good point.

This case is an illustration that people can make a difference. The ZHB would have in all likelihood granted this appeal if not for the points made by the people who came.They were not NIMBYs, but had very legitimate concerns about parking. To their credit, the ZHB listened and took those points to then ask their own questions.

LU made a mistake when it failed to sit down with people like Pastor Lee, who buried them.

Kintner admitted that this was essentially a self-imposed hardship. She said she knew she'd need varainces when she bought the property, and took a risk. She said she would sell at a loss. if unsccessful.

Anonymous said...

15 units, 30 people!
Lehigh Un. continues its history of abusive arrogance.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think it's our job as neighbors to support Lehigh's investments," she said.

Lehigh is the one thing standing between your "neighborhood" and a free fire zone.

Patriot2 said...

The magic 300 foot rule implemented by the city to justify the massive Parking garage on Southside for Benner buildings comes back to bite Lehigh. Rightfully so & hats off to the resident that raised that point to ZHB.

Bernie O'Hare said...

It's not a magic rule. It is a matter of zoning law that the maximum walking distance to a residence should be no more than 200'. The rule is in play at Third and new, and is in play here. It's called consistency.

Anonymous said...

They finally got something right in their decision.

Patriot2 said...

The 3rd & New situation does not involve residential Bernie. The parking study the city did was based upon parking within about 2 blocks of the new building. When that showed plenty of parking available they decided to use 300 feet which was an arbitrary number to justify their garage. It is not a zoning rule.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I will dig it out bc it was mentioned at yesterday's hearing. You are correct when you observe that this 200' zoning rule may be inapplicable to the Benner building.

Anonymous said...

"Im surprised the church wasn't considered?"

Why would it? Its an entity that does pay a stickin dime in taxes- step up to the collection plate and pay your fair share then you get a share- till then keep supporting your own deal-

That non profit NON TAXpayin church is in the same suck off the taxpayer and use services as Lehigh is-

Anonymous said...

Deed searchers needed no experiance needed?
Re:publican redd

Anonymous said...

anon 6:05,
Why so serious?

Bernie O'Hare said...

I have confirmed that parking distances are a matter of zoning law in Bethlehem, and are as follows:

200' for residential
300' for patrons of a business and
500' for employees.

The 300' is not an arbitrary number used to justify the garage. It is the zoning law.

Bernie O'Hare said...

6:05, Contrary to what you think, a church has just as much right to weigh in on a zoning issue as anyone else who has standing. All good developers know that you should always reach out to the people impacted by what you are planning. In many cases, they have ideas that make it better and it becomes a stronger project. Had Lehigh done that here, it would know how strongly neighbors felt about parking. It would have stipulated that a parking permit will be part of the rental agreement. It might have even offered to make some apartments available to nondrivers. It would have explored the possibility of more on-site parking, Lehigh is doing a better job of reaching out, but appears to have dropped the ball here. It paid the price.

Patriot2 said...

Interesting parking footage numbers in the zoning law. The 300 foot rule for patrons rather than the 500 foot rule for employees got used for the Benner project despite all the discussion around employees of Lehigh & St Lukes insisting on 300 feet. At 500 feet there was ample employee parking available but that didn't meet the storyline to build this garage for Benner's tenants & future residents in the big building for student housing on 4th St which is what this garage is really designed to facilitate. The 12 story building on 4 th St will now have to be approved in order to fill the garage. It is one big master plan taken in smaller steps in an attempt to deceive. It's called chrony capitalism that is bigger in Bethlehem than Allentown.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about those silly zoning rules for walking distance but the South Side desperately needs a garage. Parking sucks.

Bernie O'Hare said...

8:02, Yesterday, you were saying 300'. Now you are saying 500'. Do you really know anything?

Anonymous said...

The discussion after the hearing about a 5-story building was clearly designed to strike fear into people. Scumbags.

We fought a variance once, and the attorney afterwards immediately asked about the appeal procedure. We never saw them again.

Anonymous said...

"It's called chrony capitalism"

No, no it isn't. Nothing is called "chrony" capitalism.

Anonymous said...

Excellent write-up, Bernie. It sounds like they listened to evidence, and made a fair ruling. Zoning isn't a popularity contest. There are strict guidelines - it is a matter of whether a board follows them.

Patriot2 said...

I was consistent Bernie saying that the city used 300 feet to justify the garage for Lehigh employees. But by your numbers they should have been using 500 feet which would not have justified the garage.