Committee of the Whole Summary 04/05/21
April 5, 2021
COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:
J. Cepeda-Freytiz, M. Goodman-Hinnershitz, D. Reed, L. Sihelnik, (all electronically), S. Marmarou (via dial-in)
L. Kelleher, W. Stoudt, A. LaMano, F. Lachat, R. Tornielli, S. Smith, M. Rodriguez, F. Denbowski, S. Rugis, C. Jones, J. Abodalo, J. Kelly, J. Long, D. Peris, C. Crespo, N. Rivera
The meeting was called to order at approximately 5:06 pm by Ms. Sihelnik. She noted that Mr. Waltman will be joining the meeting late and Ms. Ventura is excused from the meeting due to scheduling conflicts. Due to the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting. The meeting is convened via virtual app.
- Zoning 101
Mr. Peris displayed a PowerPoint and the Zoning Map via the screen share feature. He explained that zoning began in the 1800s when it was used to reduce inappropriate uses that negatively impact neighborhoods. At this point in time zoning was not widely accepted and a series of court cases occurred. One of the first was heard by the Supreme Court who decided that municipalities had the police powers to adopt and enforce zoning regulations.
New York City started zoning in the 1880s. The Reading City Council adopted legislation to create a Planning Commission in 1914 and enacted the first zoning ordinance in 1957. He stressed the need to remember that Reading was founded in 1748, 200 years before the start of zoning. He explained that for that reason there is a mix of areas that have uses that have nonconforming uses. The City’s first SALDO ordinance was enacted in 1961.
Mr. Peris stated that zoning is not only about restrictions, as zoning/planning work to implement the City’s vision and protect neighborhoods. He noted that the PA MPC (Municipalities Planning Code) requires that municipal comprehensive plans be updated every 10 years, which triggers a zoning update. He compared the original zoning districts to those currently in place, noting that the current zoning districts help allow mixed uses.
Mr. Peris explained that zoning regulations cover use, dimension, etc. with approvals by right through the Zoning Administrator, by Special Exception and Appeal through the Zoning Hearing Board and Conditional Use through City Council. He noted that uses that existed prior to zoning or uses in existence prior to a change in the zoning ordinance are nonconforming uses which cannot expand without approval of the Zoning Hearing Board. He stated that the municipalities must allow for all types of uses within the municipality; however, the municipality does not need to allow all uses in each zoning district.
Mr. Rivera disconnected from the meeting at this time.
Mr. Peris highlighted the Parking section of the zoning ordinance noting that the number of off-street parking spaces required are calculated on the number of dwelling units at a property, the square footage of the property or the number of employees employed at the property. The use of satellite lots within a certain distance from the property are permitted and only the Zoning Hearing Board can reduce the number of required off-street parking spaces.
Mr. Peris explained the process used to review and approve projects, beginning with a One Stop meeting and concluding with Zoning and Planning Commission approvals and the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy signed by the Building/Trades inspectors, the Fire Marshal, and the Zoning Administrator. He noted the time it takes to go through the approval process varies due to the size and scope of the project. Most projects get through the process within 90 days, which is standard in other municipalities.
Mr. Waltman connected to the meeting at this time.
Mr. Marmarou inquired about how often the zoning ordinance is amended. Mr. Peris stated that on average once per year.
Mr. Marmarou noted that his family owned a restaurant in the 7th and Penn area and they lost the property when the Redevelopment Authority took the property via eminent domain.
Ms. Reed noted the importance zoning plays to protect all City neighborhoods.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed noting that many residents do not understand the need to obtain zoning approval. Mr. Peris described the various types of public education that occurred prior to the pandemic.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz questioned how Council can assure that the current preservation zones are never developed. Mr. Peris stated that continued preservation can be mandated through the zoning ordinance and comp plan. (Deed restrictions can also be added to the deeds)
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned the status of the comp plan. Mr. Peris stated that CD is currently exploring various avenues along with the Parking Study and the Downtown Plus Study.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz questioned why the zoning ordinance allows the same types of businesses in the same blocks.
Mr. Peris noted that only a limited number of business types need to be separated such as child care centers, group homes, etc.
Mr. Peris explained the differences between CN (Commercial Neighborhood) and CR (Commercial Residential), noting that each allows different uses. CR allows R-3 use types and has no off-street parking requirements, like the CC (Commercial Core). CN is used in pockets where neighborhood hubs exist.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired about how the City can stay ahead of various trends. Mr. Peris stated that that can occur through frequent internal and external conversations.
Ms. Sihelnik noted the need to ensure the City is prepared for the start of passenger rail by making zoning amendments that will support surrounding uses and development. She also questioned how incentives like the Enterprise Zone work to incentivize economic development.
Ms. Sihelnik turned the meeting over to Mr. Waltman.
Ms. Reed questioned if the zoning ordinance can drive the de-conversion of multi-unit properties to single family properties. Mr. Peris stated that the current zoning ordinance prohibits conversion of single family properties to multi-unit properties. Applicants can appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with the need to de-convert multi-unit properties as the City was not built to handle this intense density.
Mr. Peris noted that when illegally converted units are discovered Zoning, Property Maintenance and Building/Trades work together to address the matter.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz and Ms. Reed noted the need to develop a program that provides an incentive to de-convert properties.
There were no further questions about Zoning 101.
- Real Estate Value Analysis
Ms. Reed requested this topic due to the reports from the City Auditor on the marked increase in the real estate transfer tax revenue caused by the significant jump in the sales prices of properties in the City.
Mr. Abodalo stated that the City is currently working on the comp plan by identifying certain parts of the existing but un-adopted plan that can still be used. He stated that there is a bilingual document on the website about how to open a business.
Mr. Abodalo reviewed various demographic information about the City population, noting that the male/female population is close to equal and the median age of the City population is 30. He stated that 25% of the City population falls between 18-24 years of age and 60-75 years of age. He noted that 66% of the population are dependents requiring some level of care – youth and seniors.
Mr. Abodalo stated that 2/3 of the City’s housing stock is rental units, 19,000 properties, and 1/3 of the housing is owner occupied. The majority of the rental units have monthly rates between $500-900 per unit. The average mortgage is less than $100K, as there are no properties with an appraised value of $350K-$1M. There were 19,000 property sales in 2020 and 600 property sales since the beginning of 2021.
Mr. Abodalo stated that there are 21,000 people who commute to Reading to work and 26,000 Reading residents leave the City to work. He then described the various mixed use projects that will be mostly rental housing that are slated for Reading such as the Buttonwood Gateway, College Towne, the Madison building, the Medical Arts building, etc. He described the various incentives for development projects such as the LERTA and ReTAP, noting the need to revise the ReTAP so it can be more broadly applied for projects at the Medical Arts building, the Madison Building, etc.
Mr. Abodalo offered to share his PowerPoint presentation.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz stated that the focus on housing projects, including converting office buildings to rental housing, could impact the number of students in the Reading School District (RSD) and she inquired if the City is including the RSD in discussions about increasing the amount rental housing in Reading.
Mr. Abodalo expressed the belief that these housing projects will not impact the RSD as the majority of the rental units will be one and two bedroom units. He noted that families with children would not be attracted to this type of rental housing.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired about how the City will market the available real estate to attract developers. Mr. Abodalo stated that he and his team take a broad approach through various groups and they develop incentives to increase interest in the projects.
Ms. Reed inquired about an update on the RFP or marketing of the City owned properties such as Dana South, the Callowhill properties and Letisse. Mr. Abodalo stated that nothing further will occur for the Callowhill properties until the Downtown Plus study is prepared as that will provide direction for the reuse of the property. He explained that the study was delayed for various reasons beyond his control and that the study should be submitted for Council review sometime between the end of July and the end of August.
Ms. Reed expressed concern with the delay, as originally the study was to be prepared by April of this year. Mr. Abodalo stated that he is in charge of the Downtown Plus process and the delay was caused by a variety of things. Ms. Reed noted that the City purchased the Callowhill properties many years ago and forward movement needs to occur.
Ms. Sihelnik stated that it is difficult to digest the data provided in this presentation and where this fits in overall – blighted property remediation, market rate housing, etc. She noted her agreement with Ms. Reed’s comments and the amount of time that has passed and caused various priorities to stall out. She expressed the belief that while the administration is laser focused on the downtown, they are losing focus on other areas and issues. She questioned if the integration of the Redevelopment Authority with the CD office has merged too many priorities on one department, creating a scattered approach and a stand-still in some areas rather than a unified vision.
Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that the Downtown Plus will move forward and provide the guidance required. He noted that various hurdles always appear and cause delays. He stated that he knows the administration is working on various projects such as a housing strategy, etc. and Council needs to provide the administration with the ability to set their own pace but he agreed with the need to ask questions.
Ms. Reed expressed the belief that it is time to move forward and end the stagnation. She stated that the City has wasted many opportunities, leaving it behind other cities and area municipalities. She expressed the belief that squandering these past and present funding opportunities puts Reading behind where it should be.
Mr. Waltman suggested that Council members schedule meetings to discuss these issues with the mayor and managing director.
Ms. Reed objected to private meetings and instead suggested a public discussion about this topic when all officials are present.
Mr. Waltman stated that Council should allow the administration to take the lead and bring priority items for Council review.
Ms. Reed argued that Council has a fiduciary responsibility to Reading residents to make sure economic development and other revenue generating activities occur. She agreed with the need to work cooperatively with the administration but at times a more assertive stance is required. She suggested a meeting on economic development with the administration within the upcoming weeks.
Mr. Waltman expressed the belief that Council can make requests but should avoid mandates. He promised to make the meeting arrangements for Ms. Reed. Ms. Reed again noted the need for a public meeting about economic development with all officials present, even if a special meeting is required to accommodate various schedules.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed that economic development drives revenue and Council has the fiduciary responsibility to make sure that occurs. She suggested requesting dialogue with this administration that is open to working together. She noted the need to avoid looking at past practice and moving forward. She expressed the belief that there have been too many discussions and meetings where the same conversations occur without any forward movement or progress. She noted the importance of using the upcoming meetings to drive decisions that will benefit the City’s budget. She noted that many on Council have full-time jobs but make arrangements to attend all Monday meetings. She suggested that the mayor and managing director do the same.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz suggested revisiting the results of last year’s retreat and creating timelines for priority projects. She expressed the belief that the pandemic caused some of the delays. Mr. Waltman stated that he asked the mayor and managing director to make retreat arrangements a few weeks ago.
Mr. Denbowski assured Council that there are many issues moving forward. He stated that there were 28 responses to the Downtown Plus RFP and the need to review the responses caused some of the delay, along with various extension requests from interested companies due to the pandemic. He stated that the administration is keeping to the adjusted timeline. He agreed with the need for the meeting requested by Ms. Reed.
- Gun Buyback
Chief Tornielli stated that the date for the buyback was moved to April 24th, due to a community celebration scheduled for the RHS basketball team and other previously scheduled events on the 17th. Two locations will be selected - one in northeast and one in southwest Reading. Those locations will be announced this week. He thanked Mr. Kelly for assisting by setting up the mechanism that will allow this program to be supported through donations, rather than through the General Fund. He explained how the program will work to get weapons off the street and destroyed.
Mr. Cepeda-Freytiz made some marketing and location suggestions. She also suggested speaking with State Rep Guzman as he has offered grant funding for similar programs through his office.
Mr. Marmarou questioned how the department would respond if illegally owned weapons were presented. The Chief stated that the point of the program is to get weapons off the street, rather than charge those who participate voluntarily.
Ms. Sihelnik suggested making this an ongoing program. Mr. Kelly stated that that can happen if there are sufficient donations.
Mr. McLaughlin connected with the meeting at 7:04 pm.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz suggested exploring legislative options that support this program.
Mr. Waltman noted the uptick in the use of illegal ATVs and dirt bikes on Reading streets.
Ms. Reed expressed concern with the existing State law allowing the sale of fireworks in Pennsylvania and the upcoming summer holidays.
Chief Tornielli suggested that reporting the location of fireworks, ATV’s and dirt bikes in private homes so officers can be proactive.
Council went into executive session about litigation and a personnel matters as per PA Sunshine Act Title 65 § 708. Executive Sessions (a) 1 and 4 at 7:14 pm. The six members of Council present, Mr. McLaughlin, Mr. Lachat, Ms. LaMano, Mr. Denbowski, Chief Stoudt, Chief Tornielli, Ms. Kelleher and Ms. Smith attended. Chief Tornielli and Chief Stoudt disconnected during discussion about the personnel matter. The session concluded at approximately 8:10 pm and the meeting adjourned.
Respectfully Submitted by
Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk