Archives for January 2013

Corbett Alcohol Reform Plan Barely Lays a Hand on the Cartels

I’m working on a Patriot News op-ed on alcohol reform for this weekend that will feature some of these same points, but I can’t resist quickly commenting on the Corbett alcohol reform plan.

The Good Stuff:

– Grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores will be able to get licenses to sell beer and wine. No more competition between supermarkets and bars/restaurants for tavern licenses, as has been the case since the Wegmans court decision

– You’ll be able to buy beer, wine and liquor all in one place at (some) beer distributors, and beer distributors will be able to sell six-packs. No more having to buy a whole case of just one brand for a party.

– ID scans for all alcohol purchases. A no-brainer. I haven’t seen anyone else mention this, but Corbett said this was happening during the press conference.

– Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement gets a 22% funding increase. PLCB would no longer be in the corrupting business of both selling and regulating alcohol

– $1 billion for education over four years. The people complaining that this is a gimmick are really just grumpy about selling the state stores. Obviously an extra billion dollars would be great for school districts and they know that.

The Bad Stuff

– It doesn’t really bust up any of the licensing cartels. The problem is not just the state monopoly, it’s the cartels too. Giving certain kinds of businesses monopoly control over certain products is just as objectionable. We get a little more managed competition, but it’s hardly the free market that pro-consumer liberals and libertarians were hoping for.

No gallonage tax. For all the noise the pro-monopoly side makes about public health there are only a few proven ways to reduce problem drinking. This is one of them (the other is advertising bans). A revenue-neutral gallonage tax would’ve raised the cost of the cheap swill that alcoholics buy. A tax on value sounds progressive to Democrats, and it is, but I think we really ought to care more about reducing the public harms of drinking than sticking it to rich guys. You could do both though, and slap a high luxury tax on alcohol purchases over $100 or so.

– It still caps tavern liquor licenses. This is the biggest problem with the bill in my view. It doesn’t touch the County Quota system, where each County gets 1 tavern license per 3000 people. This is a disaster for older core downtowns that ”want” to be nightlife clusters, but can’t because there aren’t enough liquor licenses. I am convinced that uncapping tavern licenses is the single most effective thing the state could do for distressed older cities.

– It caps liquor store licenses.  I don’t care as much about the cap on liquor store licenses, which this bill doubles from 620 to 1200, but this is still a kludgey way to go about preventing oversaturation, if that is the goal. My preference would be to not cap the number of stores, and fight oversaturation of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods through local zoning laws. It’s a local issue, not a state issue.

Fantasy Urbanist Agenda for Bethlehem’s 2014-2018 Mayoral Term

In no particular order:

– Implement all of Jeff Speck’s walkability report recommendations (some of which are in this list)

– Form-based zoning code to replace the new already-arcane zoning code

– Infill all the surface parking lots along 3rd Street, 4th Street and the Greenway with mixed-use retail and apartments

– New iconic buildings for the empty lot and gas station parcels at the bottom of the Fahy Bridge

More infill housing and retail in the Northside neighborhoods

– Scotch the anti-competitive mobile food vendor laws, create a revolving loan fund for new mobile vendor businesses

– Replace the Southside Conservation District with a more limited list of protected buildings, reduce obstacles to demolishing old-but-ugly buildings

– Single hauler trash collection

-Fahy Bridge bike-ped makeover

– Connect New St. to Fahy Bridge by building a huge staircase down the hill from City Hall Plaza

– Road diet for W. Broad Street

– Turn Center Street into a two-way street near downtown

– Free Bus Rapid Transit loop around Bethlehem, and between Bethlehem and Allentown along W. Broad

Performance parking

– End minimum parking requirements for all uses

Split-rate real estate tax, with lower tax on improvements and higher tax on land

– Hoover-Mason Trestle Park, funded with value capture

Cheap Infill Opportunities Abound

I forget which blog I read this on the other day, but somebody made an argument that Northside Bethlehem is all built up. Not true! Go take a drive around Fairview and Goepp Streets, west of Main. That is a beautiful leafy neighborhood. But it also has a lot of underused surface parking lots that someone could build some new apartments or smaller single-family homes on. There are still a lot of infill opportunities.

For example, right next to the huge loft building at the end of Fairview there is a monster surface lot that takes up about the equivalent of a city block:


Somebody could build a building the same size on that lot, maybe with a shared parking garage in it for the neighborhood. The problem is that even under the new zoning code, you’d need to provide 2 off-street parking spaces per unit. If somebody wanted to build 300 apartments here, blocks away from the best part of Bethlehem, instead of out in some field near the Palmer Wal-mart, they’d need to also build a 600-space parking garage!

This neighborhood would also be an ideal place for the city to try to add more affordable rental housing, since lots of Moravian College students live around there, and keep the rents a little cheaper with their annoying parties.

Down on Union Blvd, you’ve got the Old Brewery Tavern, and next door is that cool long red brick building that could probably house some more shops and apartments. To the other side of the OBT is a large surface lot. Across the street there’s another massive street-facing surface parking lot for the senior tower that could be developed into some more mixed-use buildings.

That neighborhood could have a nice little strip of retail to walk to on Union Blvd, and if the city allowed some higher density structures like another loft-size buiding on some of those surface lots, there would definitely be a market large enough to support some neighborhood businesses like a coffee shop or a corner grocery. But the parking minimums are making infill housing and retail development more expensive than they have to be, and they’re also preventing you from getting enough residents living within sufficient walking distance to support neighborhood retail.

The Dumbest Place For Apartments

This is just about the stupidest place somebody could want to put 300 apartments. You’re ensuring that every single one of these tenants will own a car, creating a potentially huge traffic issue.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of good places in downtown Easton to build a few hundred apartments. Right across from the river on the surface parking lots, or further up Northampton in the West Ward. Who the hell wants to rent an apartment with zero amenities within walking distance?

The lesson, as ever, is that the demand for rental housing is there, but it’s not getting built in the cores cities because their zoning regulations absurdly rule something like this out. So people are building the apartments on greenfield land and locations where it makes no sense.

Bethlehem’s Main Street Wins Smart Growth America Accolades


Main Street in Bethlehem has a new reason to celebrate. Smart Growth America has chosen Main Street as one of its favorite streets in the country. Smart Growth advocates for people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods.

Everybody loves Bethlehem’s Main Street, but sadly it would be totally illegal to build that same kind of streetscape again today. People would lose their minds about the lack of parking, zoners would shoot down the Hotel Bethlehem even with the parking garage because of traffic fears. It’s no coincidence that all the most beautiful streets were built before government-mandated auto-oriented design regulations.

People who wish the rest of Bethlehem looked more like Main Street need to get behind rolling back parking minimums, minimum lot sizes and setbacks. The Mayor and City Council races are a great opening to start getting politicians on the record against all that nonsense.

Let’s Play Name a Bob Donchez Initiative

What is a law that wouldn’t be on the books if Bob Donchez hadn’t proposed it, sold it, and got it through Bethlehem City Council?

Can somebody name one?

Let Them All In

Ezra Klein on immigration as an economic policy:

The truth is, the most important piece of economic policy we pass — or don’t pass — in 2013 may be something we don’t think of as economic policy at all: immigration reform.

Congress certainly doesn’t consider it economic policy, at least not officially. Immigration laws go through the House and Senate judiciary committees. But consider a few facts about immigrants in the American economy: About a tenth of the U.S. population is foreign-born. More than a quarter of U.S. technology and engineering businesses started from 1995 to 2005 had a foreign-born owner. In Silicon Valley, half of all tech startups had a foreign-born founder.

Immigrants begin businesses and file patents at a much higher rate than their native-born counterparts, and while there are disputes about the effect immigrants have on the wages of low-income Americans, there’s little dispute about their effect on wages overall: They lift them.

Here are 5 things economists knowabout immigration that should be the backbone of the political debate but aren’t.