Banana Factory Architects can “perfectly preserve the historic character of what they propose to demolish” (5)

(5th in a series of posts on Banana Factory Expansion)

Steve Melnick has had a career in economic development for over 35 years in several states, with the last 20 years here in Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley.

Gadfly, there is some degree of truth in the old adage that “everything old is new again.” I have several neckties to prove it. However, when it comes to buildings, it is common knowledge that architects have long recognized that in dealing with infill projects, it is quite possible and even desirable to design new buildings that fit into the existing urban landscape. There is absolutely no reason that the newly proposed ArtsQuest building cannot draw upon its creative mission and have someone design a building that will perfectly preserve the historic character of what they propose to demolish. As far as parking is concerned, perhaps the BPA can find it in their best interest to offer some accommodation for ArtsQuest patrons to park there. I’m not positive, but I imagine that the new facility would fall within the 300-foot threshold used to justify the new garage.


The Banana Factory Expansion: “It’s not a Sophie’s Choice” (4)

(4th in a series of posts on Banana Factory Expansion )

Kim Carrell-Smith is a Professor of Practice in Public History at Lehigh University and Director of the Community Fellows Graduate Program, who has lived on the Southside for thirty years, and is a tireless booster for south Bethlehem’s vibrant, eclectic, diverse neighborhoods and businesses. She is an evidence-based believer in the economic and social benefits of historic preservation.

Dear Gadfly:

The Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission (HCC) is faced with a difficult choice, and it’s a doozy. Monday night (9/17) they were presented with an amazing expansion plan by ArtsQuest, which has terrific new ideas for a newer, larger facility on the site of the Banana Factory. I’m particularly excited about the arts-based preschool that could be life-changing for many Southside families, as well as others around town (really, no overstatement for an underserved community!). But the project comes with a significant cost, and I’m not just talking about the amount of money required to develop it. Rather, it includes significant changes to the streetscape and demolition of several historical structures — all of this within the Historic Conservation District (HCD) in south Bethlehem.

So my excitement is tempered by serious concern. I am keenly aware that the Historic Conservation District (which covers most of the Third Street and Fourth Street commercial corridors, and some additional historic structures) is living on the edge these days. They have faced some pretty significant and continuous challenges in the past few years, as development ramps up with tax incentives provided by the state. A few years back, as the tax incentive district rolled into town, a contentious development project, the HCC bowed to pressure, in the name of “economic revitalization,” to excuse a local developer from HCD guidelines. They have publicly reflected on that since, as they strengthened their resolve to stay out of the revitalization arena and stick to their charge of considering the historic impact of demolition, alteration, and other potential destruction of the conservation district landscape and buildings.

As a result, a few recent building projects have gone through significant alterations in response to the HCC digging in their heels about maintaining scale and height rules in particular, and they have pushed developers hard to blend their structures in to the streetscapes of South Bethlehem. This effort has been fairly successful; residents and business owners look forward to seeing the new four-story building — designed with appropriate building materials and architectural elements — go up soon on W. Morton Street across from Lehigh’s Farrington Square. HCC members are already using the Morton Street decision as a precedent for sticking to their guidelines when it comes to appropriate building height for structures proposed within the conservation district. And plans are well underway (in negotiation with the HCC) for a new, historically appropriate restoration of, and addition to, the Goodman Building on E. Third St.

But what to do about this ArtsQuest proposal, for a great new facility? The difficult questions emerge: what kind of precedent could this set for the Historic Conservation District if it is passed by the HCC? Would this be something other developers could cite, to push for their own demolition of historical structures or proposed changes to the streetscape of South Bethlehem commercial corridors?  As a city we want to encourage the arts, and this is something that “brands” the Southside. Would an HCC denial chase such development out of the Southside?  But if the HCC gives a bye to this project, what is the next “essential revitalization project” that may come along, seeking a reprieve from the HCC guidelines?  And what would that mean for the future of Bethlehem’s historical Southside vibe?

I am grateful for the thoughtfulness and endless patience of the Historic Conservation Commission members. I thank them for taking on this difficult work. What’s great about the committed, extremely knowledgeable volunteers on the HCC is that they are tirelessly willing to negotiate, advise, and otherwise work with developers and their architects till they come up with something that suits the HCD charge and complements our city’s “brand,” history! I have confidence in their ability to work this through. It’s not a “Sophie’s Choice”; it’s Bethlehem’s future.


Banana Factory Expansion: “It’ll bear watching” (3)

(3rd in a series of posts on Banana Factory Expansion )

Dana Grubb is a lifelong resident of the City of Bethlehem who worked 27 years for the City of Bethlehem in the department of community and economic development, as sealer of weights and measures, housing rehabilitation finance specialist, grants administrator, acting director of community and economic development and deputy director of community development.

Dear Gadfly:

Attending the Historic Conservation Commission (HCC) in town hall this evening, I was struck by the fact that two issues before the HCC involved the demolition of structures in the SS Conservation District, which is a national register historic district under local ordinance review and protection.

The organizations requesting a Certificate of Appropriateness were the Hispanic Center and ArtsQuest, both important community non-profits who benefit residents with services and programming.

The HCC approved the Hispanic Center’s request to demolish a former residence fronting West Fourth Street in the 500 block. A certificate of appropriateness will now go to City Council for their vote of approval. It is a very worthwhile project.

The second demolition proposal comes from ArtsQuest, a request to demolish most of the Banana Factory structure and replace it with a four story 70′ tall structure in what is now the Banana Factory parking lot. Programming demand has outstripped their facility and analysis has determined that this is the best way to go for ArtsQuest. It’s a great project, but it’s also another demolition request. Analysis of the project by the city’s historic officer determined that much of the proposal is inappropriate based on the US Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which must be applied under both state law and the local ordinance.

Many ArtsQuest supporters spoke in support of the project due to its programming benefit. I spoke about demolition concerns, why ArtsQuest needs parking on site with two parking garages within a half block, and the scale of the proposed new building compared to the existing Banana Factory. After reviewing the ArtsQuest submission on the city’s website, I noted that it failed to address its impact on the viewscape of the SS Conservation District.

The bigger issue is demolition. Each project that asks for it in the SS Conservation District makes it seem fine on its own with minimal impact. The problem becomes the sum of various demolitions that are required to advance projects and their cumulative impact on this national register historic district.

Do we as a community want to promote and preserve our physical history, or do we want to compromise it? There are no easy answers and the political pressures that are brought to bear can make it difficult for the citizen volunteers on the HCC, who are strictly ordained to deal with historic appropriateness.

Fortunately tonight’s session with ArtsQuest representatives was more one of fact-finding, seeking feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their proposal.

It’ll bear watching by the public as further sessions happen, and Bethlehem decides just how important history is to a town where history is its most important and marketable asset.


Should the Banana Factory be (mostly) demolished? (2)

(2nd in a series of posts on Banana Factory Expansion)

Nicole Radzievich, “Here’s what could replace the Banana Factory in Bethlehem.” Morning Call, September 17, 2018.

The ArtsQuest proposal

Nicole tees up the Banana Factory question for us: “Should the Banana Factory, an arts and education center stitched out of old industrial buildings, be demolished to make way for a $16 million community cultural center that would provide arts-based pre-school, more classes for senior citizens, a black box theater and more? Or are those buildings, which evoke industrial memories of the D. Theodoredis Wholesale Banana Co., important to keep as the architectural backdrop for south Bethlehem?”

Nicole provides a sketch of the proposed structure (and see the link above for the entire ArtsQuest proposal) and a review of the way both “sides” see the existing buildings: fiscally unreasonable to repair, compromised structural integrity, and lost historical appearance on the one hand versus concern for the survival of the1920s-era “banana warehouse” and a 2 ½ story 19th century residence on the other. For commission members, “the warehouse echoes the city’s industrial roots — an emblem of the company built by a Greek immigrant who launched his business in Easton in 1921 and moved into Bethlehem by the 1940s.”

There you have it, my good Gadfly followers. ArtsQuest CEO Kassie Hilgert “welcomed the feedback as ArtsQuest continues to work on the design and concept to make sure it honors the past and builds a future as an anchor of the South Side Arts District.” Great words.

Let’s make feedback our business.

Banana Factory Expansion (1)

(first in a series)

Nicole Radzievich, “Banana Factory could be demolished, replaced with larger cultural arts center.” Morning Call, September 13, 2018: 1-2.

The Banana Factory

The Gadfly remembers Theodoredis. The Gadfly remembers “the” banana factory. But the banana factory became the Banana Factory in 1998, “home to ArtsQuest’s visual arts education programs,” including thirty studio artists, three galleries, multiple classrooms, the Pennsylvania Youth Theatre, the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, and Santa Bannon Fine Art. Amazingly, 35,000 to 40,000 people participate in Banana Factory programming each year. The Gadfly has never heard a word less than laudatory about the Banana Factory. It’s a unique asset to the city.

The Gadfly loves the feel of all that creative energy housed in that kind of nondescript complex of six old buildings seemingly wedged into that tight space between West 3rd and what I think of as the No-Name road to Nowhere. So cool. So charming. Such atmosphere. Young life embraced by old buildings. The present housed in the past. The Gadfly loves the idea of it all. Such a wonderful nod to our city’s history.

But the Banana Factory wants to grow, needs to grow, and, after considering various space renovation plans over the last five years, ArtsQuest brought forth a proposal tonight to our Historical Conservation Commission that includes demolition of virtually all of the existing buildings. Demolition, a dirty word. The City Historical Code does not like terminal cases! The property, remember, is in the Southside Historical District, and ArtsQuest needs approval by this Commission (and eventually City Council) whose job it is to conserve and preserve, though, and I may be wrong, but trying to read the tea leaves, it didn’t seem to this Gadfly that the Commission was leaning toward dropping the no-demo hammer.

No decision was made tonight nor was one expected. ArtsQuest was just asking the Commission to, as it were, dance for the first time. The interaction was cordial. Many spoke to support ArtsQuest. But we should put our thinking caps on. Can you imagine a spanking new modern building on that banana graveyard? The curiosity-generating name “Banana Factory” sort of fits the funky character of that block now. (More than one intrigued visitor has asked, “A what!?”) Will we lose the name and its funkiness with a spanking new modern building? Won’t it have to be called something else? The Gadfly sighs.

The Gadfly hopes that we’ll hear from others at the meeting, including ArtsQuest reps, to help us form some preliminary ideas of what to think. Given that two decades of admirable work have made the Banana Factory a respected City institution and given its geographical prominence at the western gateway to the City, the decision is important to all of us.