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Allentown zoners hear appeal for halfway house

Published On: Jun 24 2014 06:36:53 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 24 2014 06:37:41 AM CDT
Allentown zoning board 6-23-14
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

A halfway house for people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction is proposed in the former Veterans Sanctuary at 24-32 S. 5th St. in downtown Allentown.

The Allentown Zoning Hearing Board took testimony on the case for about three hours Monday night, but did not make a decision.

Board chairman Daniel McCarthy said the zoners will notify all parties when they set a date to deliberate and decide the case.

The proposal faces some zoning hurdles and needs variances.

Treatment Trends Foundation, Inc., which would operate the halfway house, wants to house 40 people at a time, rather than 30, the maximum number permitted under the city’s zoning laws.

The proposed halfway home is less than the required 1,000 feet from another drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility –Treatment Trends’ own Keenan House, which is only a block away -- and from another halfway house for state prisoners preparing to re-enter society.

And the S. 5th Street property has insufficient on-site parking, but its operators testified that its clients will not be allowed to have cars while staying at the place.

Atty. Joel Wiener of Allentown was the only person who testified against the proposed new use, saying the zoning board should reject it.

Wiener suggested that drug and alcohol rehabilitation is not a good mix with the redevelopment of center-city, including professionals who will work in its new office buildings.

“To bring this many people in for drug and alcohol rehab is putting a tremendous burden on this downtown area,” argued Wiener. “They do alter the character of the neighborhood by increasing the drug and alcohol population that must be borne by this area.

“It is incompatible with the heavy investment that is going on and that has been made. We have no need to further burden this area to become a concentration of drug and alcohol rehab.”

“We should not lose sight of our humanity in this,” countered Robert Csandl, executive director of Treatment Trends, Inc. “Drug treatment is a health issue. It’s no different than having any other kind of health services in a community.”

Csandl said the people who would reside in the proposed halfway home are drug and alcohol free, adding: “You can’t say that about the rest of the community or anybody walking around the street.

“There’s a lot of value to having a drug treatment center, because they really help clean up a lot of problems in a community.”

Csandl said drug addiction is very prevalent, affecting one in four families. But he also said people who become addicted to drugs are stigmatized, adding: “I think that’s part of the problem here.”

One of the facilities within 1,000 feet of the proposed halfway house is Keenan House, a 95-bed drug and alcohol residential treatment facility at 18-24 S. 6th St.

Wiener said Keenan House’s residents routinely “march” through a parking lot and down the streets in the morning. He said that is not conducive to office people and anyone needing to use that parking lot.

The hearing was marked by testy exchanges between Wiener and Csandl.

At one point, Csandl complained: “He’s twisting everything.”

Wiener maintained that when questions are asked, Treatment Trends personnel were providing only theoretical answers and “items that are not well-defined.”

Convert it to an office?

Wiener repeatedly argued that Treatment Trend’s 80-year-old building on S. 5th Street could be turned into office space.

With all the office buildings being constructed in downtown Allentown right now, Csandl asked: “Why would someone want to use our old funky building for that, when you could have Class A office space?”

Csandl told Wiener: “You’re making a stretch.”

Atty. William Malkames, who represented Treatment Trends, made a point that turning that building into offices would create a need for additional parking.

The property never had its own on-site parking, according to Csandl.

Those testifying for Treatment Trends said nearly $2 million specifically was spent to convert the building for use as a residential treatment facility when it became the Veterans Sanctuary, which was not successful.

The proposed halfway home will have segregated accommodations, including showers, for men and women. In addition to bedrooms and bathrooms, the building has a gymnasium, an auditorium, an exercise room, an enclosed outdoor courtyard, an elevator, a kitchen and dining area.

McCarthy of the zoning board said that $2 million investment sent the building down an irreversible path, because it restricted other uses it could be put to –“not in a nefarious way, but simply because you chose that path. And now you’re kind of out on this ledge here.”

McCarthy added a lot of improvements were made to the building, but they are “not necessarily functional for other uses.”

“This building is capable of other uses,” maintained Wiener, who said bedrooms are merely rectangles with windows that can be turned into offices.

The opponent

As objector, Wiener represented Commonwealth Realty Company, LP, and Lehigh Land Holdings, Inc. He said both own adjacent properties along Hamilton Street and don’t think a drug and alcohol treatment halfway home is a good use for the S. 5th Street property.

In addition to questioning the Treatment Trends witnesses, Wiener also testified against their zoning appeal, but only as vice president and general partner of Commonwealth Realty Company, which owns the Commonwealth Building at 512 Hamilton Street, next to the federal courthouse at 5th and Hamilton streets.

Wiener said Maple Street, an alley between the proposed halfway home and the federal courthouse, essentially has become “a federal parking lot.”

He said at least two or three federal vehicles park on Maple Street, making it tough to get through, but they never get parking tickets. He said it would be next to impossible for a fire truck to get into that alley.

He testified the Lehigh Land Holdings properties are at 520-524 Hamilton Street, including Crocodile Rock and other businesses.

“That would be Mr. Joe Clark,” said Malkames.

“It’s a corporation,” replied Wiener. “The ownership of the corporation is a matter of private record.”

He also stressed he was not testifying for Lehigh Land Holdings. “I have questioned the witnesses for them while sitting down as counsel.”

Replacing a 36-year-old halfway house

Treatment Trends now operates a halfway home in three buildings along N. 8th Street, between Linden and Turner.

The non-profit drug and alcohol agency proposes relocating that halfway home to the S. 5th Street address. If the zoning board approves the Treatment Trends request, Csandl said the existing halfway home along N.8th Street will be closed.

The S. 5th Street location “is a much better facility,” said Csandl after the hearing, who added that the N. 8th Street buildings will be sold.

Csandl testified the halfway home is a licensed drug and alcohol treatment facility. He said those who reside there are further along in their recovery process, because they all first completed programs in residential treatment programs somewhere else.

“A person has to be drug and alcohol free in order to be admitted for treatment,” said Csandl.

He said the halfway home will be staffed round-the-clock.

Residents will stay 90 to 120 days and cannot have a vehicle on or near the halfway home, so it would not add to parking problems.

Participants in the program would have to sign out to leave the building.

“They don’t need supervision when they are out,” said Csandl. “By the time a person has those privileges, they have earned that status.”

He added the halfway home was existed for 36 years with no one ever being arrested there and no incidents of violence.

Csandl noted Veterans Sanctuary had been approved by zoning to ultimately contain 60 beds.

He wants 40 beds in the S. 5th Street location because Treatment Trends has 40 in the existing halfway home. He noted budgets are built around utilization of 40 beds.

Wiener stressed the zoning board should not grant variances on the basis of economics.

Wiener also argued that Treatment Trends’ proposal is not even close to complying with the city’s zoning laws.

Veterans Sanctuary

After Treatment Trends acquired the building from St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is directly across S. 5th Street, nearly $2 million was spent to convert the building into an “innovative” residential treatment facility that served military veterans, including those with drug and alcohol problems.

Veterans Sanctuary opened in January 2011. But it only operated for about 10 months, according to Csandl. In that time period, he testified, the operation lost $475,000.

Witnesses testified that Veterans Sanctuary did not get promised funding from local, state and federal sources.

“It was a terrible loss to the veteran community and our own community when we had to close Veterans Sanctuary,” said Csandl.

“We tried to restart it,” said Csandl. “We tried everything we could think of to keep this thing alive.”

Csandl said some veterans will be treated in the halfway home.

The Rev. George Grubb, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran, told the zoning board he was very pleased with the way the veterans treatment center had been operated by Treatment Trends and sad when it had to close.

“I saw it as an extension of our mission as a church,” said Grubb.

He told zoning hearing board that the halfway home should be approved “without a doubt. It’s a great use for the building. It is consistent with our mission as a church.”

The pastor testified that members of his congregation have concerns about center-city crime generated by drugs, but generally support programs that treat addiction, as a way to counter drug-related crime.

Other business

Also during the meeting, the three zoners unanimously approved a three-chair beauty salon in a ground level shop at Jefferson and Walnut Streets. It was a beauty salon in the past, but had been vacant for four years.

Erika Holman, the building owner, is seeking a new tenant. She testified it has been a beauty salon since 1960.

But, by a 2-1 vote, they rejected plans by Baffam Safi for a variance to open a 42-person capacity restaurant at the corner of 5th and Allen streets.

The zoning board heard testimony on that case earlier this month.

“It’s not desirable for the immediate area because of the parking,”
said zoner Michael Engle.

“The proposed application is an overuse of the property,” said zoner Scott Unger.

Only McCarthy supported giving that variance.

Engle said the place had been a taproom many years ago.