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2004-01-10
Bethlehem, PA. Lowe's Plan Defeated, But Resurrected, and Sent to Court.

On May 23, 2002 Newsflash reported that Lowe's home improvement store had lost a two year battle in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when the city council voted 5-2 against rezoning land for Lowe's. But like a cancer, retail sprawl sometimes reoccurs, and our latest report from Ted Morgan suggests that a year and half after defeat, Lowe's is back. Morgan's report: "The immediate aftermath of the city council's vote against Lowe's should have been a warning. The developer-friendly Allentown Morning Call newspaper was filled with letters (and the paper's editorial) from angry residents who were surprised and felt betrayed by the Council vote -- suddenly deprived of the alluring possibility of shopping in Lowe's. Then-Mayor Don Cunningham, and the two council members who voted for the Lowe's plan, John Callahan (now mayor) and Jim Gregory, warned about the disastrous developments that might find their way to this site: truck transfer stations, a used-car auction lot, etc. Shortly after this, a new developer, James Petrucci (of New Jersey), bought the Durkee spice site for $3 million -- $2 million less than the sale price the earlier developer had agreed to before, a price pitched to only one possible use: retail commerce, and one that kept the site from being sold & developed under its existing light-industrial zoning. Petrucci immediately began a public relations campaign -- visiting each of the city councilors, pledging to come up with an appropriate development, paying for traffic improvements, marshalling the participation of a network of residents who wanted a Lowe's, supporters of the Mayor, etc. Petrucci announced he was going to build a development identical to the first round in the front 17 acres of the lot -- a Lowe's, a bank, and a restaurant -- but then add a residential apartment complex on the back acreage. The momentum had turned. Petrucci brought in Woodmont associates, a New Jersey developer who had been a potential residential-development alternative explored by city councilman Mike Schweder in Round One, as the developer of the residential portion of the planned development (and, we heard, as a financial investor). Petrucci assured residents that no residential-only or light-industrial development could be economically-feasible on the site. He also bought them all yellow shirts that said "Vote Yes" in large black print. From that point on, the "yellow shirts" were a highly visible and audible presence at all subsequent public meetings. Now, aided by over 3000 petition-signatures on a widely circulated petition than our previous one (which garnered 1000 signatures from West Bethlehem residents), it was made to seem as if "majority" sentiment favored the Lowe's development. Our group, called NoMall (Neighborhoods Organizations Mobilized to Assure Local Livability) continued to make a strong empirical case. We consulted developers who assured us the site would be a prime opportunity for an empty-nest residential (condominium) development, if not light-industrial (both were greatly desirable, compared to retail). We argued that the residential "compromise" was a ruse -- an effort to make the proposed development seem different when in fact it wasn't, since such a residential development would never fly in its proposed location. We were abandoned by four of the five people who voted against rezoning the first time, and it passed 6-1 il). The Council rezoned the commercial portion of the site I/R , Industrial Redevelopment, to allow maximum breadth of potential uses. I/R was, by municipal code, expressly for "underutilized heavy industrial" sites -- on the fact of it not applicable to the light-industrial Durkee site that had been over-priced by 40% for the 7 years it had been empty. NoMall has now turned to supporting the efforts of residents who lived adjacent to the Durkee site to challenge the rezoning in the courts. Three separate civil actions have been filed: one focusing on violations of the process for rezoning as established in municipal code, one focusing on violations in the developer's development plan, and one focusing on the substance of the rezoning (i.e., as "spot zoning" and "contract zoning"). The preliminary court appearances have just begun and promise, with appeals, to continue for at least a year."

What you can do: This story illustrates how a monied developer, using tactics stolen from grassroots organizing, with city collusion, can revitalize a dead proposal. Citizens groups fight against great odds to keep sprawl out, and even a vote against big boxes can come back years later in new clothing. For more information on Bethlehem's multi-year battle, contact: Ted Morgan at (610) 866-7527. NoMall could use some financial support in their battle.










 
 
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