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2002-05-23
Bethlehem, PA. No Room At the Inn:Lowe's Loses Two Year Battle!

As a follow up to our March 6, 2002 story regarding the town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Ted Morgan of the group NoMall filed this report of the Lowe's loss in their town: "After a two year battle, Bethlehem City Council voted 5-2 against rezoning a light industrial site in West Bethlehem to commercial zoning -- a step that would have brought a Lowe's Home Improvement Center and other stores to the largely residential west side of Bethlehem. The rezoning had the full backing of Bethlehem's popular Mayor, Don Cunningham, and the city's Department of Economic and Community Development.However, the light-industrial site is located along a crucial corridor in the largely residential west side of the city, a few blocks from one of the city's middle schools. The group, NoMall (Neighborhood Organizations Mobilized to Assure Local Livability), was organized among West Bethlehem residents (with the support of some locally-owned businesses) back in 2000. With a dozen or so regularly-active members and 30-40 active supporters, and with over 1000 signatures from West Bethlehem residents, NoMall launched a drive against the rezoning in the fall of 2000, with a press conference and an appearance at the City Planning Commission's first public hearing on the rezoning request. NoMall engaged in a publicity campaign (yard signs, press coverage, etc.), drew on the expert testimony of a traffic engineer, researched tax and economic implications of various development alternatives at the site, built a coalition with other politically-active people in the city (including elected state representatives), created a variety of colorful and effective posters for public presentations, lobbied members of city council, and generally became a publicly visible "citizens group" over the following year and a half (see early sprawl-busters\' NewsFlashes). Given public opposition, the developers (J. Loew & Associates from the Philadelphia area) attempted a "down-sizing" of their proposed development (non-binding on a rezoning decision, in any case). The city repeatedly claimed that the L-I site had remained vacant since 1995 (when the Durkee spice plant was closed) and that the shopping center was the city's 'only hope' for property tax revenues -- an argument that, however misleading, was fairly persuasive given the closing of the local Bethlehem Steel plant (and the recent bankrupty protection). The vacant site issue is highly relevant given today's globalization of capital, since B-P (the owner) had bought Durkee Spice in 1992 in an effort to compete globally with McCormick), had decided to downsize Durkee -- closing the Bethlehem plant after asking the Steelworkers for concessions, despite a $37m after-tax profit (on $312m in sales) the previous year -- then eventually sold the spice business to the remaining Iowa plant managers. B-P held on to the lease for the Bethlehem land and bought it out in 1998 for $1.56m, in conjunction with working out a purchase agreemeng with J. Loew for a reported $5 m. The property is valued at $3.5m at its 'highest & best' use, L-I. The rezoning battle passed through a second Planning Commission hearing in the fall, 2001, and the Commission voted 4-1 to recommend rezoning 23 of the 35 acres (to "limit the build-out potential" of the downsized development plan). In December, 2001, the City Council held its first public hearing (on the full 35-acre rezoning -- the Planning Commission recommendation was ignored by the City and developer), at which NoMall made a formal 90-minute presentation. That presentation was crucial to turning around 1-2 Council votes (at the time only one Council member has publicly supported NoMall). Between the hearing and the scheduled voting meeting in January, one Councilor began to explore the possibility of other developments for the Durkee site (focusing largely on residential development). By the time of the January meeting, one of the local newspapers reported a 4-3 majority against rezoning. However, some last-minute maneuvering changed that outcome. The developers sought to amend their proposal to fit the smaller 23-acre zoning recommendation of the Planning Commission, and mindful of one opponent's concern for construction jobs for the local carpenters union, they made a verbal promise to hire local labor -- all on the day of the vote. At that meeting, after a round of public commentary, Council voted to amend the proposal and then tabled it pending another round of Planning Commission hearings (arguing that the proposal had been substantially changed, despite the fact that it conformed 100% to what the PC had recommended). The March Planning Commission hearing went the same way as the first, despite another round of NoMall arguments & presentations, and on April 2nd, City Council's decisive meeting was held.Noting that Councilor Mike Schweder and State Representative T.J.Rooney had located a developer willing to acquire the site & build a residential development, NoMall members were hopeful that a fourth vote might emerge at the Council meeting. However, we were warned in advance that the prospects were up in the air until the meeting itself. At the meeting, NoMall reiterated some of the more compelling arguments -- including addressing the labor question (the fact that the Carpenter's Union had bucked the rest of the Building Trades and was backing a commercial development that would provide non-labor, minimum-wage types of jobs, as opposed to the family-supporting light-industrial jobs). As members of council made their statements and announced how they would be voting, the tension in the conflict-filled room was high. The three known opponents of rezoning announced their opposition and one supporter, an ally of the Mayor's, announced his support. They were followed by two veteran members of Council, each of whom declared this the most difficult vote of their careers, and each of whom said they would vote No. That capped the two-year struggle."

What you can do: NoMall hopes to continue to network with other anti-sprawl, anti-Big Box Mall groups in the region (which is already maxed-out with malls). To contact Ted Morgan, call 610-866-7527. Congratulations to everyone at NoMall for making Lowe's a loser in Bethlehem!










 
 
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