Archive for category bethlehem city council

Take a fly over the West Bethlehem armory project (VIDEO)

The city planning commission approved Peron Development’s requests to vacate streets to support the property’s redevelopment.

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The city planning commission Thursday backed plans to narrow Second Avenue as part of the adaptive reuse of the West Bethlehem armory property into apartments and office space.

The commission unanimously voted to recommend Bethlehem City Council vacate portions of Second Avenue and Filbert Street to support the project’s 99 on-site parking spots. And it also voted to support the various parking and site coverage variances the developer is seeking from the zoning hearing board Oct. 25.

The approvals are all conditioned on complying with city feedback.

Peron Development is planning up to 78 apartments on the site at 301 Prospect Ave. by reusing two existing garages and then building a four-story, L-shaped addition off the back of the property. A courtyard will serve as a buffer between the apartments and the neighborhood’s existing residents, many of whom attended the meeting Thursday.

“We are going to build a product that does not currently exist in West Bethlehem,” said former Mayor John Callahan, who is director of business development for Peron.

Rents are expected to be about $1,300 to $1,650 a month, targeting millennials and empty nesters eager to be within walking distance of Bethlehem’s downtowns and many festivals, Callahan said.

“We are awfully excited about this particular neighborhood,” he said.

The armory itself, which has no tenant currently, will likely be redeveloped into office space. The historic elements of the Floyd Simmons Armory will be preserved while bringing the space to code in hopes of attracting a tech or maker tenant, Callahan said. 

Bethlehem armoryThis rendering shows the corner of Prospect and Second avenues in West Bethlehem. Plans call for narrowing Second Avenue to add parking and make the road safer.Courtesy USA Architects 

Resident Jeff Pooley praised Peron for working closely with residents and being responsive to concerns.

Everyone is excited that the armory is going to be redeveloped, but worries remain about the height of the apartment building, he said. Pooley asked Peron to consider a three-story building that could preserve neighbor’s views while also solving the parking issue.

“It strikes me that is it out of scale for the historical neighborhood,” he said. “It is just too tall.”

The property has a steep grade with an almost 30-foot difference in elevation, which is requiring some variances. Peron is also seeking parking variances because it does not have the 123 parking spots required in city zoning.

The developer scaled back a 23-spot parking lot on Rauch Street to 13 parking spaces in response to resident concerns, Callahan said, which tightened the parking situation. On-site parking for the apartments would be divided amongst three lots.

By narrowing Second Avenue — a boulevard dating back to the days when the road had a 378 on-ramp — Peron will be able to add 42-spaces in front of the building. Then a 44-space lot will be built on Filbert Street once the developer tears down the shuttered adjacent vacant sign company it bought.

Planning Commission member Tom Barker, a West Side resident himself, got Peron to commit to carrying historic acorn lighting along Broad Street onto Second Avenue.

Second Avenue is an important pedestrian road for residents and visitors heading to the city’s many festivals at the foot of Spring Street, Callahan said. The lighting will make it a safer and more attractive walk, he said.

Peron is looking to make Second Avenue an overall safer road while improving the existing street parking, Callahan said.  

Bethlehem Armory south viewThis rendering shows the view of the apartment building from the south end of the property.Courtesy USA Architects 

“It is little bit of a wild west on Second Avenue (in terms of parking now),” Callahan said, noting many residents now park in between the center median.

The developer worked with the city Public Works Department to redesign the road, realign the intersection with Prospect Avenue and then modeled its plans off of that, he said. Callahan noted that drivers often become confused at the intersection of Second and Prospect and end up driving the wrong way down the road.

“It’s amazing there hasn’t been a terrible accident there,” said Charlene Donchez Mowers, a lifelong neighboring resident, who is also president of Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites.

Mowers praised the safety improvements and reuse of the armory, but said she is worried about the parking needs of existing residents. She also has concerns about trucks and buses being able to turn onto a narrower Second Avenue. 

Plans call for adding 17 on-street, public parking spots along Second Avenue in front of the apartment’s lot and then 11 on-street, perpendicular spots at the bottom of Second where it intersects with Spring Street. Currently, there are no spots at the top of Second by the armory and only parallel parking spots at the bottom.

The parking on the other side of Second Avenue will not change. Peron plans to also paint 42 public parking spaces on the closed 378 on-ramp off of Second Avenue.

Many residents expressed concerns about losing on-street parking, noting it can already be tough to find spots when many don’t have driveways or parking pads. But residents were grateful that Peron has listened closely to their concerns and modified the parking along Rauch Street.

Project engineer Laura Eberly, of Penonni Associates, said plans currently call for 50 one-bedroom apartments and 20 two-bedroom apartments. While the one-bedroom units fall short of city zoning requirements, Peron is confident its sufficient parking, she said.

Peron was selected in July 2016 by the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority to tackle the rehab of the armory.

Peron plans to pay the authority $322,000 for the property. The city has a deal with the state to buy the 1930 Art Deco armory, which is on the National Historic Register, for $272,000. The authority must notify the state by December that it plans to purchase the armory, but it has six months to close, Hanna explained. 

The authority and Peron want all of the land development approvals in place before finalizing the simultaneous sale.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

What’s next for Bethlehem’s municipal golf course

A meeting on the course’s future drew a crowd Tuesday night.

It was a packed house Tuesday night to discuss the future of Bethlehem’s public golf course.

The Bethlehem Municipal Golf Course has lost almost $1 million since 2009 causing council to schedule the committee meeting to discuss how to reverse the losses.

More than 75 residents and golfers turned out to hear council lay out five options for the 18-hole and 9-hole courses and the driving range on Illick’s Mill Road.

Parks and Recreation Committee Chairman Eric Evans favors the city putting out a request-for-proposal to privatize the course and requiring the leasee to make needed improvements.

After about an hour-and-a-half of debate and public comment, the informational meeting ended without council taking any action.

Mayor Bob Donchez and his administration are expected to review the options and return with an update at the Nov. 16 parks and rec budget meeting. Evans hopes there will be a plan in motion by the first quarter of next year, he said.

But Council President J. William Reynolds, an avid golfer, argued for a much slower approach, developing a five to 10 year plan for the course. Nothing is going to happen to the golf course in the short term, he said.

Witha $74 million general fund budget, losing $50,000 a year on the golf course is  not a budget breaker, Reynolds said. That may be the cost of the asset, he said.

“There’s very few things in our city that make money,” he said.

Council Vice President Adam Waldron said he thinks the course is a great city asset. But the course must get its expenses under control or the city must weigh privatization, he said. He’s open to either option.

“I don’t think it is acceptable to lose money every year,” Waldron said.

City financial documents show the course has operated from $35,105 in the red in 2009 to a high of $203,913 in 2014. It lost $122,064 in 2016 and is on track for a similar 2017.

Should Bethlehem privatize its money-losing golf course?

City Business Manager David Brong said the losses at this point are an “irritant,” not a “boat anchor” for the city. The course’s losses are getting more attention now because the city has dug itself out of a major deficit and improved its finances, he said.

The course is supposed to pay the city about $150,000 annually for various services, like attorneys and human resources, determined via an third-party cost study. Since 2011, the course has paid about $171,000 and $700,000 is outstanding, Brong said.

Evans laid out five options: sell the course, maintain the status quo, create an independent authority to operate it, close the 9-hole course or lease it.

None of the solutions are easy and there may not be the political will to enact them, Reynolds said.

“I have serious concerns about privatization,” he said, adding if someone invests hundreds of thousands into the course they’ll want a long term lease.

Golfers who spoke Tuesday night were mixed on whether privatization is the answer. The majority praised the course conditions and offered suggestions to make the course more attractive to play on.

Resident Al Bernotas said one of the reasons he moved to Bethlehem in 1983 was for the course and privatization is the way to go.

Others questioned why the city can’t find a way to make money if a private operator could make the course profitable.

An outside operator would likely be able to slash the courses labor costs. Currently, the course employs eight full-time workers and spends about $919,000 on salaries for its full-time and seasonal employees. 

Bethlehem’s municipal course is one of the busiest in the region with 34,000 to 36,000 rounds played annually. But nationally interest in golf is down and so is revenue, Evans said. 

Golfing is weather dependent and a soggy summer can quickly sink operations.

Its budget holes make it impossible to take on needed infrastructures repairs, like its sand traps, bathrooms, cartpaths and parking lots, Evans said.

Golfer Bruce Gardener shared ways his brother-in-law helped turn around the municipal golf course he operates in Conneticut. The course now has an $850,000 surplus and is willing to share what its done, he said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

Should Bethlehem privatize its money-losing golf course?

Bethlehem City Council is holding at 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday to discuss the future of the courses.

How Bethlehem finished 2016 $3.2M in the black

The city’s draft 2016 audit tells the story of Bethlehem’s financial turn around.

The city of Bethlehem finished 2016 with a $3.2 million surplus, completing a financial turn around that’s been years in the works.

That’s according to its draft audit, which was presented to city council on Tuesday night. 

The strong financial year helped push the city’s unassigned fund balance — a key indicator of a government’s fiscal health — to $12.5 million or about 18 percent of the $74 million general fund. That’s just slightly higher than the 17 percent recommended. 

“I think we have turned the fiscal ship in the right direction,” Mayor Bob Donchez said.

It’s a pivotal point for a city that seven years ago ended 2010 with a $14.2 million deficit, prompting officials to enact a financial turnaround plan that included staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures. 

“From a financial standpoint, it is nothing short of a turn around and I think it needed to be,” said David Brong, city business administrator.

City Councilman Eric Evans said the city had some very tough years financially, but things are changing.

“It’s a real nice trend,” he said Wednesday.

Why Bethlehem schools are owed almost $500K from the state

Then on Wednesday, Donchez announced that the city received the good news that Standard & Poor’s had again upgraded its credit rating from A to A+ with a stable outlook. Its the third rating increase in the last two years.

The administration had feared the uncertainty surrounding the city’s $9.8 million casino host fee might hurt its credit rating, but the 2016 audit actually helped it.

“The unprecedented improvement is an indication of my team’s focus on the task of improving the city’s financial stability,” Donchez said.

S&P pointed to the city’s healthy fund balance, strong budget performance and adoption of a long-term financial plan as reasons for the upgrade.

“The stable outlook reflects our opinion that the city will maintain its very strong budgetary flexibility and liquidity as well as sustain its strong budgetary performance,” according to the rating.

Donchez praised Brong and Mark Sivak, city director of budget and finance, and his department heads for their hard work. 

“We made some very difficult decisions with the cooperation and great working relationship of city council,” Donchez said.

In 2016, Bethlehem raised taxes by just over 2 percent to bring in $865,000 more in property tax, and raised the recycling fee by $10, generating an additional $292,070, Brong said the draft audit found.

The city saw more income and mercantile taxes coming in thanks to an improving economy and collecting more delinquent taxes, Bron said.

He noted 10 years ago the city collected at most $1.4 million a year in business privilege tax. Now, it is bringing in $2.5 million annually.

“The reason for that is we weren’t that good at it and we’ve been improved that,” Brong said. “People are not flying under the radar screen.”

In 2016 and prior years, Bethlehem’s focused on improving its revenues and cutting expenses everywhere it could, including an internal reorganization, Brong said.

“Our staffing has been consistently being driven down,” he said.

Employees have agreed to new medical plans that include higher premium cost sharing and added deductibles.

“Our bargaining units ratified packages where they’ve acknowledged the city has big financial challenges,” Brong said.

All of this contributed to the city’s improved financial health.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve done an awful lot,” Brong said. “We’ve asked an awful lot of all parties and at this point in time they have really responded to the challenge.”

The administration is working to craft the 2018 budget, which is sure to be complicated since Harrisburg has not solved the casino host fee legislation.

An upcoming refinancing will net the city substantial savings and the administration is working on major cuts to city energy costs, Brong said.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.

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Bethlehem Food Co-op’s hunt for a home marches on

The group looking to open a member-owned grocery store is facing the ‘Goldilocks’ challenge,’ chairwoman Colleen Marsh said.

As the 386-member strong Bethlehem Food Co-op hunts for a spot to open a grocery store in the city, it is starting to feel a lot like Goldilocks. 

Bethlehem food co-opThe Bethlehem Food Co-op gave Bethlehem City Council an update on its efforts to open a member-owned grocery store.Sara K. Satullo | For 

The volunteer-run nonprofit is searching for space large enough to allow the store to stock a full array of products and offers some parking, but that’s also not too big for the neighborhood or fledgling operation, co-op board Chairwoman Colleen Marsh explained during a Monday night Bethlehem City Council committee meeting. 

The co-op’s real estate committee is evaluating available spaces in parts of the city’s north side, which is considered a food desert.

The area is roughly bounded by Washington Avenue to the north, the Lehigh River to the south and extends from Stefko Boulevard to First or Second Avenue, Marsh said. Although, if the perfect opportunity presents itself outside those boundaries, the co-op would be open to it, she said.

Food co-ops are grocery stores owned by members who get to shop at a discounted rate and take classes. Members pay a one-time fee of $300, and the co-op offers an installment plan.

Anyone will be able to shop at the Bethlehem Food Co-op but they won’t share in the perks of membership.

Why you soon may not be able to grow this plant in Bethlehem

The co-op needs about 4,500 square feet of retail space and about 2,500 square feet of storage space. The real estate committee is evaluating five or six possible locations.

When that is narrowed down to one or two contenders, the committee will present to the full board. The co-op will then embark on a market study to determine the feasibility of the site and launch its capital campaign.

The update was enthusiastically received by members of city council, many of whom are members of the co-op themselves.

Councilman Bryan Callahan suggested the former Little Italy on Main restaurant on Main Street, as well as the vacant Starters Riverport, as possible locations. He questioned whether the co-op could received federal block grant funds, which it can.

Councilman Shawn Martell said while the idea of co-ops may be somewhat new to Bethlehem, they’re well-established across the country.

Weaver’s Way in Philadelphia is one of the nation’s most successful.

“They really become a pillar of the community,” Martell said. “…It can be and will be life-changing for many people.”

The Bethlehem Food Co-op incorporated in 2013. The typical co-op takes five to seven years to open from incorporation.

Sara K. Satullo may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @sarasatullo and Facebook. Find on Facebook.