State funds further Northside and Southside development projects

(Latest post in a series about Neighborhoods)

Gadfly has been snarky about certain aspects of development lately — like on the Southside and around Lehigh University — but this development news feels like very good news — financial support for apartments in the Northside downtown, a public market on the Southside, and expanding the Banana Factory.

Gadfly is facing the downsizing decision, and the idea of an apartment in center city has its appeal. The question is will he be able to afford one there. Or are we talking totally “luxury” apartments out of reach? Let’s hear it for housing affordable in his middle range bracket. And huzza for finally some activity on a key downtown section. Do we know anything about developer Jefferson — has he done work in the City before?

Gadfly hasn’t heard any details about the public market yet, but his first impulse is to think that’s a good use for that space and a good idea for the City.

And we’ve reported extensively here (see the Banana Factory thread on the sidebar) on the ArtsQuest project as it moved through City committees. There was some disagreement about demolishing a house on the property, but ArtsQuest seems to have worked with committee suggestions well, and their plans seemed to have met with generally high approval. See pictures and plans on previous posts on the Banana Factory thread.

Nicole Radzievich, “Storied Bethlehem projects just got a $2 million jump start.” Morning Call, August 2, 2019.

Bethlehem has landed $2 million in state grants to jump start a trio of key economic development projects: The redevelopment of the shuttered Boyd Theatre, a new public market at Lehigh Riverport and the expansion of the Banana Factory, according to state Sen. Lisa Boscola.

Boyd Theater:

Project details: The long-shuttered Boyd Theatre, once a beloved 98-year-old vaudeville and movie house in Center City Bethlehem, will be demolished to make way for a $22 million apartment and retail project under a proposal owner Charles Jefferson plans to submit to the city. The 120-apartment project would bring residents to a sleepy block just around the corner from historic Main Street, injecting more vibrancy into a downtown that grew up around the city’s original Moravian settlement. The first-floor retail would augment a stretch known as Restaurant Row.

Public Market at Lehigh Riverport:

Project details: A $3 million public market, building on the success of others like the one that Easton debuted in 2016, would replace the former Starters Riverport, where the Lehigh Valley’s largest restaurant once operated. The space would be home to 30 vendors and businesses.

ArtsQuest Community Cultural Center (Banana Factory)

Details: ArtsQuest, the nonprofit behind Musikfest, is planning an expansion to the Banana Factory, an arts and education center it launched in 1999 in south Bethlehem. The 80,000-square-foot expansion will include an arts-based preschool program, more classes for people of all ages, a black box theater and more.

Gadfly is interested to hear if followers see any pitfalls surrounding these developments.

the second configuration a big improvement but still concern about parking (7)

(7th 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.


By expanding the new facility’s footprint, the profile of the new building appears to have been lowered dramatically. This was a major concern of mine at the first meeting at which ArtsQuest appeared in September. At over 70′ tall, I felt the initial proposal would obstruct the historic vista from the Wyandotte/West 3rd Street area, including the blast furnaces at SteelStacks. I’d still like to see a virtual representation with the second proposal so the HCC and community determine what if any interference the lower profile would present, but I think the second configuration is a big improvement.

I’m still concerned about any need by ArtsQuest to provide onsite parking given the close proximity of both the Riverport and New Street parking garages.

I understand the need to have an area for drop-off and pick-up but don’t believe demolition should take place for anything more than that when it comes to parking.


Banana Factory: Round 2 (6)

(6th in a series of posts on Banana Factory Expansion)

Nicole Radzievich, “Here are the newest plans for the Banana Factory expansion.” December 18, 2018.

Gadfly is aware of much interest in plans for the Banana Factory.

ArtsQuest came the second time to the Historic Conservation Commission last Monday December 17. The meeting sounded quite positive to Gadfly. Still a bit uncertain seemed the question of demolition of the house that is part of the site and some concerns about the plaza.

Here are a few bullets from Nicole’s above article:

  • preserved: the one-story gallery on W. 3rd St.
  • demolition: 1950s warehouse expansion in disrepair; non-historic garage, 19thc. home
  • smaller scale than last time
  • more of an industrial feel than last time
  • demolition of the house at issue: lost historical character, too much to renovate and move
  • need more info on plazas
  • possible return in January, possible break ground in 2020

The new complex will be called the South Bethlehem Cultural Arts Center. The question of retaining the “Banana Factory” name was raised but Gadfly couldn’t catch the answer. He did hear that the Fowler name will still be visible.

Gadfly video’d the meeting, but since Historical officer Jeff Long was the only one using a microphone consistently, Gadfly is only including here his opening 20-minute presentation, which concerned the new plan ArtsQuest brought and should answer some of your questions about the nature of the current plan. You will probably still have to strain to hear.

HCC Banana Factory 12/17/18 part 1

HCC Banana Factory 12/17/18 part 2

Gadfly invites comments by those better versed in things architectural than he and better attuned to possible historical district liabilities.

Here are my photos of the handout ArtsQuest brought.









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.