BETHLEHEM COUNCIL-2 West Market; 4-3 vote seen as failure of council members to protect city’s integrity
After a long evening of testimony on both sides of the issue Dec. 4, Bethlehem City Council voted 4-3 to approve a revision of the zoning code that approves the existing office and residence complex at 2 West Market St. to allow the owners – Quadrant Private Wealth owned by the Herman Rij family – to continue using the property for commercial purposes. They converted a residential home to an office space after receiving previous approval from the city – approval that had since been challenged by neighbors and in court.
Council’s vote was for what is termed a first reading of the proposed ordinance, a final vote is slated for the next regular meeting in two weeks when it is likely the vote will remain the same which will codify the ordinance into law. Such a vote may bring to a close a lengthy legal battle over whether a property with a long-established history of use as a business and residence can remain in operation in high density residential (RT) and medium density residential (RG) zoning districts.
Bill Fitzpatrick, chief of the Zoning Hearing Board, said, “We are all citizens of Bethlehem. I recused myself from the decision, but I do support the ZHB’s decision [to allow commercial use of the property].”
Center Street resident Steve Diamond said, “A ‘yes’ vote will open the floodgates to hearing for anyone who desires to change their residential property to be commercial by ordinance manipulation.”
Barbara Diamond saw approval as being about failure of the council to protect the city’s integrity. “Protect the integrity of our neighborhood to be free from commercial encroachment; the integrity of our existing zoning goals and regulations that were the product of considerable deliberation by community stakeholders; the integrity of the city’s planning goals and processes that should adhere to professional standards; and the integrity of you, our representatives, and the administration to respect established practices, procedures and objectives governing zoning.
“Please act in the interest of Bethlehem’s neighborhoods and reject this change,” she said.
Resident Beall Fowler said, “The amendment should be rejected. It is bad policy that erodes the fundamental character of Bethlehem. Even a 10-year old would see through it. There will be people who will line up to take advantage of it.”
Quadrant Private Wealth Founding Partner Kori Lannon spoke for Herman Rij. “To portray him as a cold, miserly, self-serving mogul could not be more inaccurate or misguided. He is a completely self-made, patriotic, dutiful man who has worked very hard to earn all that he has accomplished ... and with resources of any kind, he is extraordinarily generous.
“He engaged in this costly labor of love to do good for the city and for the historic district. Even his profession, his life’s work for five decades, is one of service to families to aid them in achieving their life goals and dreams for themselves and the ones they love. That is the kind of man and neighbor that I want as an ally in my neighborhood, looking out for and supporting the health, vibrance [sic], and sustenance of my community.
“There is a saying about looking a gift-horse in the mouth that I think applies here. The restoration and preservation of this property and others like it is something to be grateful for.”
An unidentified neighbor testified, “As a resident, I love what they have done over there.”
Southside resident Stephen Antalics likened approval to changing the zoning ordinance to the change that defined a family as including five students who live together, which allowed the expansion of student housing on the Southside. “This a cancer and could spread across the bridge to [Bethlehem].”
Darrell Phillips, who described himself as having been a Bethlehem resident for the past 27 years, but has been homeless for the past five years, lauded the Ridge family and their company. “They have changed my life … I feel better about myself. I’m working now in landscaping. They gave me gift certificates to eat at places like The Brick and Louie’s. They kept bringing them to me.”
Will Carpenter of East Wall Street objected to approving the amendment. “What I object to is it is against the law if you pass this. Investors don’t invest in countries with shaky laws.”
Victoria Ackerman was against the idea of zoning boundaries at all. “Remove the boundaries; we don’t need a law in place that creates boundaries.
Attorney James Preston with the Broughal & DeVito law firm who represents the Rij family business, Quadrant Wealth, said, “There are no dominoes getting ready to fall; there is no camel, there is no tent.”
Herman Rij said, “This has been quite an ordeal. We were only able to buy this property by mortgaging other properties.”
Rij said changes that he has made to the property have all been legal, done only after approval from appropriate city agencies. He said the property has not been destroyed, but restored. “Buildings don’t make neighborhoods – people make neighborhoods. We are people who are willing to help.”
Rij contrasted his family’s contributions and values to some negative aspects of the neighborhood by pointing out, “there are four sexual predators” listed as living within a quarter of mile of his address and 10 within one-half mile. “There are none at 2 West Market St.”
Rij also said he pays $100,000 in taxes to Bethlehem and spends another $25,000 supporting local restaurants.
Rij also noted that “37 businesses, 78 neighbors and 53 others” have registered support for his family and business located in several buildings on West Market Street.
The Rij family also raised money for the Bethlehem Police Department’s horse stable.
Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez said he is in favor of the changes to the amendment, telling council, “I support the text amendment and encourage you to vote for it.”
Councilman Michael Colon who said, “This is my hardest vote,” voted against the amendment, as did Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt and Councilwoman Olga Negron. Councilmen Callahan, Martel, Waldron, and Reynolds voted for it.
Dr. Van Wirt said, “Precedence is important.” She described the amendment as encouraging “commercial creep.” She said, “the risks outweigh the benefits.”
Martel said, “This is difficult issue.”