Bethlehem historical commission narrowly denies plan to demolish and rebuild banana factory – The Morning Call
The Bethlehem Historic Preservation Commission on Monday narrowly rejected a request by Bethlehem nonprofit ArtsQuest 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 voting in favor of the project; President Gary Lader and Members Craig Evans and Kenneth Loush voted against.
ArtsQuest first won approval to revamp the banana factory in 2018, and their 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, CEO Kassie Hilgert said. ArtsQuest has so far raised $14 million in public and private donations to fund the new center.
The proposed new 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 will allow ArtsQuest to expand its high-demand 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.
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Jeffrey Long, Bethlehem’s historic official, said ArtsQuest’s proposal was not appropriate for the Historic Preservation District due to several design elements, including its windows, height and building materials. Some committee members agreed.
“By demolishing all these buildings, you not only take away part of the history of the communities, but you actually reduce the [historic] district,” said President Gary Lader. “I’m a little troubled by that.”
But several members of the public said the banana factory buildings are unattractive and unhistorical, 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].