On Aug. 2, Bethlehem City Council approved ArtsQuest’s plan to demolish the Banana Factory Arts and Education Center and replace it with a new arts facility for the South Side community.
ArtsQuest is a nonprofit organization that provides arts and education to the Lehigh Valley community through their facilities at the Steelstacks and the Banana Factory.
The council voted 5-2 in favor of the demolition and rebuilding project.
The Banana Factory, which is made up of six buildings, contains studios, classrooms and galleries. Council member Kiera Wilhelm said the arts center also hosts a variety of programs and camps related to visual arts.
ArtsQuest has planned to rebuild the Banana Factory since 2018, but originally wanted to preserve the two most historical buildings, Wilhelm said. This past summer, they decided to demolish the entirety of the Banana Factory.
“They did look at reorganizing the structures from within and the buildings were obsolete for what they wanted to do,” said Darlene Heller, Bethlehem director of planning and zoning. “It also became economically infeasible for them to continue to look at reusing those buildings.”
One of the criteria for demolition is economic hardship, Heller said, which is what ArtsQuest presented to the city council when pitching the project.
Wilhelm said the Banana Factory lives within the historic district of South Side Bethlehem. Therefore the project requires a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Bethlehem Historic Conservation Committee (HCC). This certificate indicates the HCC has reviewed and approved changes to a property in the historic district.
“The HCC, which is a body of experts related to historic conservation, makes a recommendation to city council, so it was understood that it would be coming to council next,” Wilhelm said. “The HCC’s recommendation was one factor that we needed to take into consideration among many others.”
The HCC voted 3-2 against issuing the certificate.
The city council meeting following the recommendation from the HCC was several hours long, Wilhelm said. Members of the council researched and prepared before the meeting, and spent the first hour listening to public comments on the project.
Rachel Leon, the only member of Bethlehem City Council from the South Side, voted in line with the HCC against the demolition.
“I think that something that has such a benefit to the community is extremely important, but I also look at how many contributing structures have already been demolished to this point,” Leon said at the city council meeting. “And I look at the hesitation that’s coming to the community that I live in, and I think that that needs to register as a vote in order for me to have peace at the end of the night.”
Wilhelm, along with four other council members, voted in favor of the ArtsQuest demolition project.
“In our votes, we must decide what outweighs what,” Wilhelm said. “In this case, the use of the building and what expanded space meant for the community — lots of free programming, summer camps, partnerships with the Bethlehem public schools — were some of the good reasons to support the project.”
ArtsQuest resubmitted construction plans for review and will meet with the HCC again about general design principles, Heller said.
ArtsQuest responded to a request to comment, saying there are no further plans to discuss.