Bethlehem Historical Commission narrowly denies plan to demolish and rebuild banana factory; ArtsQuest ‘exploring the options’ – The Morning Call
The Bethlehem Historic Preservation Commission on Monday narrowly denied recommending Bethlehem’s ArtsQuest nonprofit’s request to demolish the banana factory to build a new cultural arts center.
Commission members and Bethlehem residents who spoke at Monday’s meeting were divided over the proposal, which would demolish the six banana factory buildings to make way for a new cultural arts center. The Banana Factory is ArtsQuest’s visual arts programming hub.
Proponents of the new project said the new center would help ArtsQuest expand vital arts programming to meet community needs, but those who opposed said the new building didn’t fit the historic South Side neighborhood. .
The vote was 3-2, with commission members Roger Hudak and Michael Simonson in favor of the project; President Gary Lader and members Craig Evans and Kenneth Loush voted against. The commission is responsible for making recommendations to the city council, which has the final say on approved projects in the historic district.
ArtsQuest CEO Kassie Hilgert said Tuesday she was “disappointed but not surprised” by the decision, and that the nonprofit would “explore [its] options” to get the project approved. The city council could overrule the commission’s decision.
ArtsQuest first won approval to revamp the banana factory in 2018, and its original plan was to preserve two of the six buildings and demolish the others. But with rising construction costs, retaining two of the buildings is no longer economically feasible for ArtsQuest, Hilgert said. ArtsQuest has so far raised $14 million in public and private donations to fund the new center.
The proposed five-story cultural center would include an outdoor arts plaza, expanded classrooms, rooms for summer camps and a 100-seat comedy center. The facade of the building facing Third Street would feature a window motif that spells out “Art For All” in binary code. The facade at the corner of 3rd and Northampton Streets would be entirely glazed, bringing in the natural light that the current building lacks and giving passers-by a glimpse inside.
Hilgert called the new center an “equity issue” because it would allow ArtsQuest to expand its much-requested arts programming. The organization faces a waiting list for its artist studios and a need for more classroom and teaching space.
“Building a new structure at the current location is the most effective way to serve the growing and changing community of Bethlehem,” Hilgert said.
Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds supports plans for a new center.
“I think the design of the new building is beautiful and would be an amazing addition to South Bethlehem,” Reynolds said Tuesday.
Top local stories delivered weekday mornings
But Bethlehem Historic Officer Jeffrey Long said ArtsQuest’s proposal was not appropriate for the Historic Preservation District because of several design elements, including its windows, height and building materials. Some committee members agreed.
“By demolishing all these buildings, not only are you taking away part of the history of the communities, but you are actually reducing the [historic] district,” Lader said. “I’m a little troubled by that.”
Several members of the public have said that the banana factory buildings are unattractive and without historical significance, and that demolishing them could make way for something better.
“These buildings have no historical value,” said former ArtsQuest board chairman Greg Feinberg. “These buildings are just old and I think something you have to consider is the distinction between what’s historic and what’s just old.”
Lader encouraged ArtsQuest representatives to come back with updated plans that addressed some members’ concerns.
“I think there’s a way forward here,” Lader said. “We are certainly available to discuss it.”
Morning Call reporter Lindsay Weber can be reached at 610-820-6681 and [email protected].