Committee of the Whole Summary 05/03/21
COMMITTEE of the WHOLE
May 3, 2021
COUNCIL MEMBERS PRESENT:
J. Cepeda-Freytiz, M. Goodman-Hinnershitz, D. Reed, L. Sihelnik, (all electronically), M. Ventura, S. Marmarou (via dial-in)
L. Kelleher, W. Stoudt, F. Lachat, R. Tornielli, M. Fegely, S. Smith, F. Denbowski, S. Rugis, C. Jones, J. Abodalo, J. Kelly, J. Long, A. Amoros, D. Peris, A. Shuman, L. Pepen
The meeting was called to order at approximately 5:04 pm by Ms. Sihelnik. She noted that Mr. Waltman will be joining the meeting late due to a work conflict. Due to the COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, the public is prohibited from physically attending the meeting. The meeting is convened via virtual app.
- Zoning Map Amendment Public Hearing
Ms. Sihelnik opened the hearing and invited Planning Manager Dave Peris to make a presentation on the proposed amendments.
1. Testimony from City Staff (No more than 10 minutes)
Mr. Peris stated that both zoning map amendments involve the consolidation of parcels for economic development projects and will place all the parcels into the same zoning district.
Mr. Peris displayed the current zoning map showing the Medical Arts building located in the 200 block of North 5th Street on the western side of the street showing that the Medical Arts building currently sits in the CR (Commercial Residential) zoning district and the adjoining property is located within the CC (Commercial Core) zoning district. It is unknown why the zoning map was composed in this way.
Mr. Peris, in response to a question, stated that the property will be a mix of commercial and residential uses. The CR and CC district uses are similar with the main difference being the CR does not permit high-rise buildings. The zoning definition of high-rise is:
HIGH-RISE APARTMENTS — A building or group of buildings containing therein three or more multifamily dwellings designed as an integrated development, exceeding a height of 60 feet and with the dwellings therein, leased to the occupants for a definite period of time of 30 days or more.
Mr. Waltman connected to the meeting at this time.
In response to a question, Mr. Peris stated that the CC allows high-rise structures and residential uses provided that the ground floor is used for commercial purposes. He added that the Medical Arts building is located within the Callowhill historic district and the developer has been in contact with the Historic Preservation Specialist about the appearance of the structures on this property. He noted that parking at this building will be a mix between nine (9) spaces on the attached parking lot and the 16 spaces in a parking garage in close proximity to the property.
Mr. Peris displayed the renderings of the property, showing front and rear elevations.
Mr. Peris displayed the current zoning map showing the properties in the 600 block of Schuylkill Avenue near West Oley Street. He noted that one of the properties is the former 15th Ward Democratic Club building. This too will be a mix of commercial and residential. He noted that there is strong existing commercial presence in this block. These parcels are split between the CN and R3 zoning districts. He noted that some of the existing commercial uses are not permitted and exist as nonconformities as the uses preexisted the zoning currently in place. The zoning amendment will end the nonconformity and bring the uses into compliance.
Mr. Peris stated that the Planning Commission recommended the consolidation of parcels for both projects and the zoning map amendment to place the consolidated parcels into the same zoning district.
Ms. Reed expressed the belief that the proposed map amendment for the 600 block of Schuylkill Avenue will provide cohesion in this area. She stated that this area is very congested and the change in parking will provide much needed relief.
Mr. Peris stated that the Planning Commission has adopted resolutions recommending the approval of both amendments.
2. Other Testimony and Evidence
3. Public Comment (No More than 3 minutes per speaker)
Alan Shuman, of North 5th Street, stated that the Medical Arts building is a 12 story art deco building with an adjoining parking lot. This building has been vacant for approximately 50 years and this development project will change that. He noted that the uses planned for this property are all permitted uses as per the zoning ordinance. He stated that the Planning Commission recommended the rezoning and consolidation of the parcels. He noted that the Medical Arts building is the only high-rise property not located within the CC zoning district and he stated that no one knows why this property was placed in the CR zoning district. He stated that he obtained photographs from the 1970s from the Historic Preservation Specialist and used those photos to design the new facades of the new building planned for the adjoining lot. He explained that this project has received approval for a Historic Tax Credit project which will have a high amount of oversight by the Federal Department of the Interior. He added that this project will reduce the number of street-cuts in the curbing and increase the amount of public parking in the block.
In response to a question, Mr. Shuman stated that he plans to complete the various approvals required by the end of 2021, start construction in early 2022 and complete construction by the end of 2022.
Council members thanked Mr. Shuman for consulting with the Historic Preservation Specialist about the design of the facade for the new building and his effort to create a façade that matches the prior buildings.
Dr. Pepen, of South 5th Street, stated that his project combines commercial and residential uses and will consolidate three (3) parcels. In response to a question, he stated that he is currently going through the Zoning approval process. He noted that parking for the property is provided in the rear area.
There was no other public comment and the comment period was closed.
4. Announcement of Expected Date of Decision
Ms. Sihelnik thanked both developers for their work on both projects and for their contribution to economic development in Reading. She stated that City Council will render a decision by adopting ordinances at either the May 10th or May 24th Regular Meeting of Council.
Ms. Sihelnik closed the Public Hearing
Mr. Abodalo introduced Mr. Sidella from PROCHAMP, a registration company for bank-owned properties that are in the foreclosure process.
Mr. Sidella stated that Reading has contracted with PROCHAMPS since 2014 to register bank-owned properties. He stated that there is no charge to the City for these services and the current fee of $200 per registration is charged to the bank that owns the property. This fee is then split equally with the City. There are approximately 4,000 properties in some stage of the foreclosure process and the registration requirement generated $392K for the City. He stated that the contract expires in August and the administration is interested in continuing the relationship. He noted that the current moratorium on foreclosures is expected to expire in June, although he added that it is unknown if the terms of the moratorium will be extended.
Mr. Sidella stated that the majority of municipalities charge $300 per registration and require registration two times per year; however, Reading charges only $200 and requires registration only one time per year. He explained the problems associated with once per year registration.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted her experience with foreclosed bank-owned properties in her neighborhood and she inquired about how the City can prevent blight. Mr. Sidella explained that banks are required to employ property managers for properties and reporting problems with maintenance, etc. at bank owned properties to PROCHAMP allows the PROCHAMP to step in to make the bank hire a more responsible property manager. He noted that PROCHAMP staff follows the foreclosure process through the Berks Court system.
In response to a question, Mr. Sidella stated that the company has no qualms about going through the RFP process for various municipalities; however, he expressed the belief that PROCHAMP is a sole-source operation.
Mr. Amoros expressed the belief that this a win-win opportunity that can help prevent quality of life issues at bank owned properties. He noted his agreement with increasing the registration fee and requiring registration two times per year.
- Public Art Amendment
Ms. Reed stated that the conversation on this issue began when the Reading Pride organization approached her about installing rainbow crosswalks at an intersection on Centre Avenue. A work group was formed and the conversation grew to include other forms of public art such as murals, banners and sidewalk art that could occur in any neighborhood city-wide.
Mr. Marmarou disconnected from the meeting at this time.
Ms. Reed explained that Ms. Kelleher was asked to research the issue and draft a policy that would allow the consideration of public art projects city-wide in a variety of mediums. That policy was derived from creative crosswalk and sidewalk art programs in Clearwater, Austin and Memphis and mural programs in Dayton, Clearwater and Portland (Oregon). The policy places the financial and maintenance responsibility on the party that applies and provides limits on where the project can be and prohibits colors associated with traffic markings/signals and prohibits logos and advertising.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz encouraged Council members to review the draft ordinance and policy and to provide input. She stated that the policy works to streamline the application process in the manner similar to the Memorial Review process, and creates a fair and equal process for all applications.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz noted that she supports the arts and she suggested including the Berks Arts Council in the process. Ms. Reed stated that she has consulted with the Executive Director on several occasions. (Note – Berks Arts Council was not considered as a member of the committee, as they will at some point become an applicant)
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz inquired if the time is right to reenact the Fine Arts Board. Ms. Reed stated that that can be considered moving forward and she noted the various works of art that were created under that Board.
Ms. Sihelnik stated that she is pleased to see this initiative moving forward.
Mr. Waltman disconnected from the meeting at this time.
Ms. Kelleher explained that the policy was drafted based on the process used by the Memorial Review Committee, which is a group of internal staff from different offices and divisions. She stated that an ordinance was drafted to add a new chapter to the City Code.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired if the City could provide funding through the American Recovery Act. Ms. Kelleher stated that City funding is not required as the applicant is required to fund the project. She noted that some communities have a matching grant to program to assist with project funding.
Ms. Reed inquired about the status of the new City logo. Mr. Amoros stated that the administration will release information at the end of May.
- Elimination of College Bonus Points from the Police Civil Service Promotion Process
Mr. Amoros stated that the analysis prepared and submitted by Chief Tornielli is outstanding and thoroughly explains the need to eliminate this outdated practice as a best practice.
The Chief again explained his review of various departmental policies and practices after being appointed Chief with the assistance of Command Staff. Policies that permitted assignment through favoritism rather than merit have now been replaced for all non-Civil service governed areas. Command staff were then asked to explore the Civil Service practices employed by other 3rd Class cities and they found that the application of bonus points for college credits was eliminated. (Note the bonus points for college credits in Reading was adopted by Bill No. 13-1992 on March 11, 1992.)
Command staff then reviewed their research with the Civil Service Board and the Board agreed that the elimination of the bonus points leveled the playing field and would end the somewhat discriminatory practice. They also agreed to modify the experience requirements for the rank of Captain – eliminating a Sergeant’s ability to skip the Lieutenant position and jump immediately to Captain and to require a Lieutenant to serve a minimum of two years in Patrol to become eligible for Captain. The Civil Service Board forwarded those ordinance amendment recommendations.
The Chief agreed with applying one bonus point for Reading residents for tie-breaking situations.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz disagreed with eliminating college credit bonus points. She noted that since a person is ineligible to enter the Academy until they are 20 ½ years old, the average person has the ability to attend college and get an Associates Degree. She expressed her belief in the value of a college education for all professionals. She also expressed the belief that bonus points should also be applied for those who take continuing education courses.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz agreed with the benefits of an education that is in a field that compliments the duties of a police officer.
The Chief agreed but noted that as police work is ever changing the police operational issues he learned in college no longer apply. He noted that using the college credit bonus points leaves the majority of eligible officers at a disadvantage and he noted the demographic information included at the end of his report showing the percentage of various groups within the Department that currently have a college degree:
Current RPD Demographic Report
Total Sworn Officers: 163 Male: 148 Female: 15 African American: 8 - 8 Male & 0 Female Asian: 1 - 1 Male & 0 Female Hispanic: 27 - 23 Male & 4 Female Pacific Islander: 1 - 1 Male & 0 Female White: 126 - 115 Male & 11 Female
College Degrees by Demographic
African American: 44.5% College Degree Asian: 0% College Degree Hispanic: 33.3 % College Degree Pacific Islander: 100% College Degree White: 56.8% College Degree
The Chief noted that while the value of police focused continuing education certificate classes are beneficial for officers, they would be difficult for the Civil Service Board to assign a value to. He stated that in addition to standard recruitment efforts the department developed a Youth Academy with the goal that high school grads will apply to work in dispatch until they reach 20 ½ and are eligible to enter the Academy.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz inquired about the status of the current promotion lists. The Chief stated that the promotion lists for Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain are all current, which is why the changes are being proposed now. The review of the current ordinance and research has been underway since last year, in what has been a very careful and thoughtful review of the facts. Everyone involved with the process, including the Civil Service Board, believe the recommended changes are in the best interest of the entire RPD and the City. He noted that there has been a fair amount of misinformation disseminated and discussed, specifically surrounding the college credit bonus points. The recommended changes are designed to level the playing field for the department overall and eliminating the crutch that benefits one group over others.
Ms. Cepeda-Freytiz noted that changing the requirements can play both ways and affect an officer’s decision to move on to serve in another department. The Chief noted that an officer’s decision to stay or move on is based on more than his ability to get promoted. He noted that the City offers so many types of police operation opportunities apart from promotions – bomb squad, auto theft task force, investigation, vice, evidence, etc. These options are not provided by smaller municipal departments where officers only respond to minor complaints day in and out.
Ms. Sihelnik thanked the Chief for his input and his report on this issue.
Ms. Sihelnik noted that Fightin Phils opening day is tomorrow evening at First Energy Stadium.
Ms. Reed announced that Mike’s Tavern is reopening tomorrow.
Ms. Goodman-Hinnershitz invited everyone to visit the outdoor sale at the Pagoda this Saturday – CDC guidelines will be followed.
Ms. Sihelnik stated that the Youth Commission meets this Wednesday the 5th at 6 pm. The main topic will be Civics 101. She added that the Oakbrook Garden is seeking volunteers. Those wanting additional information or interested in volunteering should contact the Reading Housing Authority.
The session concluded at approximately 7:20 pm and the meeting adjourned.
Respectfully Submitted by
Linda A. Kelleher, CMC, City Clerk