Saturday, January 16, 2016

Op-Ed on Bethlehem CIty Development

Ted Morgan: Limit retail opportunities in Martin Tower rezoning plan

Opinion: Why Martin Tower rezoning should limit retail opportunities

Bill White's recent column on the Bethlehem rezoning of the Martin Tower site ended with Yogi Berra's quip, "If you don't know where you are going, you might end up someplace else."
That seems appropriate, given City Council's decision to vote for stealth rezoning: Rezone now and trust us; we'll restrict retail use on the huge Martin Tower property later on. That may prove to be impossible.

It's no wonder downtown merchants worry about the impact the development will have on Bethlehem's two downtowns. What's more, folks in west Bethlehem have no way of assuring that the new development won't create an impossible traffic snarl on the Eighth Avenue corridor because traffic impact is not even under consideration.

Which is why another Yogi-ism comes to mind: "It's déjà vu all over again."

For starters, it's highly doubtful that this is the first time deep-pocketed developers have been able to benefit from their political contributions to city officials. Perhaps it's time for Bethlehem to follow Allentown's lead and adopt an anti-pay-to-play resolution.

But to this former organizer from the west Bethlehem group, NoMall (Neighborhood Organizations to Assure Local Livability), there is much about the current rezoning that harks back to issues we raised in the early 2000s. Much of what NoMall predicted would happen after the Lowe's rezoning vote has, in fact, come true.

Traffic has become significantly more congested on the Eighth Avenue corridor, despite many traffic-controlling changes — including four additional traffic lights. Traffic concerns have led to the installation of huge electronic "Slow Down" signs around Nitschmann Middle School.

The Lowe's/Price Right development has also triggered the spreading commercial development of Eighth Avenue, and it has had a tangible effect on West Broad Street. Businesses that were within walking distance of neighborhood residents moved up Eighth Avenue so they now require car travel to get there. Many other businesses on West Broad have been vacant for a significant amount of time; yet West Broad hasn't been included in Bethlehem's City Revitalization and Improvement Zone.

I recognize that the Lowe's/Price Right development, which is across Eighth Avenue from Martin Tower, is here to stay, and some west Bethlehem residents are happy to have the Lowe's big-box store in proximity. That's a done deal; the Martin Tower rezoning shouldn't be.

For City Council to vote through the rezoning would be a huge mistake. First, without substantial restrictions on the amount of retail allowed in the mixed-use zone, a developer could then present a land development plan that maxed out the retail portion; at that point, it would be impossible for council to reduce the retail portion of that plan.

Nor would our elected representatives have any further say on that plan. Instead, the city Planning Commission would be charged with making sure the developer's plans met the technical and engineering requirements under the zoning ordinance and relevant subdivision and land use ordinance.

That's why now is the time to constrain the potential impact of maxed-out retail development of the Martin Tower site on Bethlehem's two downtowns and on West Broad Street. And, given the fact that traffic-controlling measures have already been created for Eighth Avenue and that traffic is especially congested during rush hours, members of City Council should also consider the potentially disastrous traffic impact of the current rezoning plan.

The rezoning plan should not go forward without sharply limiting the potential retail development.

Ted Morgan, a resident of west Bethlehem, is professor of political science at Lehigh University and was an organizer in the grass-roots group, NoMall.

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