Posted by Lehigh Valley Ramblings.

Darlene Heller prepares presentation. Behind
her are City Council members
Eric Evans and Michael Colon

Mary Toulouse teaches French at Lafayette College. But last night, as President of Bethlehem’s Mount Airy Neighborhood Association (MANA), she gave a history lesson to the City’s Zoning Hearing Board. It concerned the Armory, a National Historic Landmark located at 345 Second Avenue. Peron Armory is seeking a special exception and 11 dimensional variances for a four-story, 70-unit apartment complex at the 2.57 acre site. There will be 50 1-BR and 20 2-BR units without sufficient on-site parking and no plan in place for the Armory. Bethlehem’s Zoning Hearing Board will reconvene on December 12, 6 pm, to announce its decision.

This proposal is backed by some City heavyweights. Peron’s principal is Michael Perrucci, an attorney with prominent law firm Florio Perrucci. In addition to Perrucci, members of this firm include a former New Jersey Governor, former President Judge of Northampton County and the son of Bethlehem’s current Mayor. It also employs Bethlehem’s former Mayor, John Callahan, as a pitchman. Firm lawyer Seth Tipton is representing Peron. This project has the imprimatur of Bethlehem’s Redevelopment Authority as the best of 10 proposals. It has also received a thumbs up from the City’s Planning Commission. And just in case all this clout fell short, Planning Director Darlene Heller testified in support of this apartment complex, summarily dismissing complaints by neighbors.

“I underestimated the forces arrayed against my client and the community,” said Bethlehem Attorney Michael Shay, representing MANA. His firm includes no former governors, judges or mayors.

Only lawyers.

As a lawyer, Shay was particularly irked that the City’s Planning Director would essentially act as a witness for the zoning applicant. “I believe it is improper,” he argued. She does supervise the zoning officer who denied the application from which an appeal was filed.

“You are the gatekeepers,” he reminded Zoning Hearing Board members Bill Fitzpatrick, Mike Santanasto and Jim Schantz. 

Against all this clout were about 35 people who live in West Bethlehem. MANA’s Toulouse was the sole witness called by Bethlehem Attorney Michael Shay. Of 13 people who testified, 11 opposed the Armory plans. Tamara Nisic observed, “No one who is not getting paid by the developer has been here to say, “This is a great idea.'”

Engineer Laura Eberly testified on behalf of Peron in support of the project. She claimed that only 99 parking spots could be placed on site instead of the required 123 because of  “physical constraints” caused by a steep slope as well as the adaptive reuse. She insisted several times that Peron is only seeking the minimum amount of relief needed for this project.

But neighbor Jefferson Pooley and Attorney Shay disputed this contention. By simply reducing the number of apartments to 54 instead of 70, there would be no need at all for a parking variance. Eberly was never asked to come up with a plan that minimized the variances, she admitted.

Another point made by Shay is that adaptive reuse is permitted for a primary residential building, but not other structures. “How can you have an adaptive reuse of a building when you ignore the building that necessitates the reuse?” he asked. The Peron plan makes no adaptive reuse of the Armory itself, which will continue to sit vacant.  West side resident Bill Scheier would later complain that this is “demolition by neglect.”

Attorney Tipton and Heller countered Shay by arguing that the Armory is connected to two other buildings and this can be considered one building.

An attempt to create additional parking spots with 90-degree parking in Second Avenue was criticized by several residents as unsafe.

A proposal to stripe the ramp leading to the Hill-to-Hill bridge to provide even more parking was slammed because no one is sure that the ramp will even be there once PennDot starts work on that bridge.

Rauch Street resident Scott Arnold was concerned about a parking lot that ends four feet from his house, where he has children. John San Filipo said he will open his front door to a loading dock. Darlene Heller would later testify that there should be “tighter density” in the urban core, but she authored a zoning ordinance that would make this illegal without a variance. 

In an atmosphere that smacked of classism, Professor Toulouse testified to the very real classism that existed in 1930. That’s when Bethlehem Steel President Eugene Grace built the Armory. “It served as a protection for the homes of the top executives from the angry workers,” she said. She added that the Armory is in front of the home of West Bethlehem’s burgher, and along the same route upon which a wagon carried the Liberty Bell to hide it from the British. She called the Armory an “integral part of the West Side’s path through history” that links the burial grounds of the Revolutionary soldiers, one street east on 1st Avenue, to the Mount Airy Historic District and Steel executive mansions that extend from 8th to 16th Avenues.

Toulouse testified that she sent several emails and written requests to meet with Peron to develop the Armory in a “historically sensitive way,” but received no response.

She castigated developers for renaming this complex the Peron Armory.

“This is the Floyd Simmons Armory, named for Floyd Simmons by comrades who survived him. Floyd Simmons was the first Bethlehem soldier to be killed in World War I. … It would be a tremendous dishonor for the City of Bethlehem, a City that prides itself on its history, if this Board, in the year 2017, 100 years after the entrance of the US in World War I, votes to allow this proposal to pass and put this national historic landmark in danger of the wrecking ball.”

Residents opposed to this plan all agreed they would like to see it developed  and have no problem with residential use, but on a smaller scale in conformity with the community. MANA member Christine Roysdon did a survey of the perimeter around the Armory and said that at 6 am, both blocks had 29 cars parked overnight. She complained that unleashing an additional 24 cars into the neighborhood would have negative consequences.

An angry Amy Zanelli, recently elected to Lehigh County’s Board of Commissioners, complained that West Bethlehem has been “overlooked and ignored.”  She argued that seeking 11 zoning variances shows a “blatant disregard of our community.”  She inveighed the lack of a plan for the Armory as “preposterous.”

Tony Hanna, Executive Director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, counters that this is a “good project for Bethlehem and the neighborhood.” He notes zoning is RT and does permit the development by right. What is at issue is a special exception for reducing the Zoning requirement for parking. The Planning Commission has recommended that the special exception be granted – they believe the project meets the tests for that in the Zoning Ordinance – walkability, close to bus routes, mix of units (mostly one BR), etc. He stated that the variances are minor and are needed because of the lot configurations and other site issues.

Updated 3:50 pm: After reading this story, Hanna had the following observations.

First, the Armory is not a Historic Landmark, but is on the National Register of Historic Places. A big difference.

Second, the Armory’s name will always be the Floyd Simons Armory. Peron Armory is the partnership’s name that is doing the development.

Third, the building is being purchased from the RDA and the Commonwealth subject to a Historic Preservation covenant and easement that will stay on the historic armory property. It can’t be demolished and any future work on the Armory will require it to be done subject to the covenants and easement and deed restrictions. All work must comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards that are the same as if the property is in a historic district.