ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Cheers and thunderous applause were received by the Allentown Zoning Hearing Board Monday night, after it unanimously approved allowing a performance space to continue operating in a building known as the Cigar Factory in the 700 block of North Fourth Street in the city.
Forty people raised their hands as interested parties in the Alternative Gallery case and several more walked in after that count was taken.
No one at the meeting opposed the continued use of the 2,750-square-foot gallery space for performance art as well as artwork hanging on the walls.
The space is used for theater, poetry readings, film screenings, musical recitals, interpretative dance, art displays, art auctions, art education programs for children and small fund-raising events by non-profit organizations – as well as a venue for bands, dances and even burlesque shows.
Gene DiPalma, who manages the property just north of 4th and Tilghman streets for Allentown Heights Associates, LLC, the building's owners, said he voluntarily limits audience size in the gallery space to 175 people, although it could hold as many as 550.
DiPalma testified that 45 events -- "all forms of art" --have been held in that space on the building first's floor since January 2013.
The city determined using the space as a theater violated its zoning law and that the place lacks sufficient parking. So the building's owners appealed to the zoning hearing board.
Brandon Wunder, founder and director of the Alternative Gallery, said the city has prohibited it from using the performance space for the last three-and-a-half months. He said the city's zoning office threatened the non-profit group with $1,000-per-event fines, more than the revenue that would be generated by those events.
"There has never been a parking complaint," said DiPalma. "There has never been a police complaint. None of the neighbors has ever complained.
"We are very conscious of the neighborhood. We try to makes sure that bands play at reasonable levels. We attempt to do everything we can to be a good neighbor."
Also during the meeting, the zoning board:
• Unanimously approved erection of a digital advertising sign on the
recently-completed 11-story office building on the northeast corner of Seventh and Hamilton streets. The case for the sign was heard by the board at its July 21 meeting.
• Voted 2-1 to allow Adams Advertising to erect a digital billboard along Union Boulevard at the east end of the Tilghman Street Bridge over the Lehigh River, even though will be less than the required 1,000 feet minimum distance from the site of another approved but not-yet-erected digital billboard.
• Unanimously approved a nail salon on the first floor of 602-604 N. Second St. It will be owned by Trung Ho of Slatington and operated by himself, his wife and their two daughters. Ho testified he operated a nail salon at 11 American Parkway for 13 years.
Alternative Art Gallery
Zoning board members Michael Engle, Dan McCarthy and Scott Unger approved the continued use of Alternative Art Gallery for performances.
McCarthy said the many uses of the gallery initially seem "an extensive, even excessive use of the building." But he added those uses appear to be significantly regulated by the building manager.
He intends to include language in the board's written order of approval that ensures those restrictions remain even if ownership of the building changes, by requiring an on-site manager.
Wunder said Alternative Gallery considers things forms of art that other groups, institutions and galleries might not. "Everything we do ties into what our name is. Our idea of art is very different than what people consider art."
"Live music is a form of art," he said, adding there are no good venues in Allentown for traveling bands. "The type of bands we have, they're not going to play the arena. Croc' Rock is pretty much gone; the Sterling is pretty much gone. There is a need and a calling for this and no one's filling it."
When McCarthy questioned how much money those bands can earn if no more than 175 people are admitted, Wunder replied: "It's better than no one coming to see them play."
Wunder said even bands playing as loud as they can inside the gallery can't be heard at the nearest house in that neighborhood. "Traffic is by far louder than anything we ever have done or ever will do in that building."
In addition to a theater being prohibited in that location, the city's zoning office determined the place lacks sufficient off-street parking – it has only four spaces, but should have 35 more.
But DiPalma said 10 parking spaces, not four, are available behind the building. He also has made overflow parking arrangements with the C-Town grocery store across the street and a nearby private club called Cross Keys.
DiPalma said those attending events at the gallery also are encouraged to car pool.
When McCarthy noted the venue still will have to meet all other city ordinances, including fire regulations, DiPalma said the city requires two sirens and strobes in the gallery but "we have three." He also said two fire extinguishers are in that room, when it is not required to have any. "If anything, we are over-protective of the building," he said.
DiPalma said the property's owners, who were not identified, spent more than $1.5-million to take a building that had been "an eyesore and turned it into something that everybody can enjoy,."
In addition to the Alternative Art Gallery, the building houses a T-shirt/sign printing shop and has three other first-floor retail spaces. He said the building's second and third floors are occupied by apparel manufacturers. The building also houses 45 artists' studios, including many on the fourth floor.
DiPalma said not being able to use the Alternative Gallery has been devastating to non-profits that were using it for fund-raising events.
He said it also been difficult for the building's owners because they have not been able to bring in new tenants for its art studios. "One of the selling points of the building to an artist is the fact that they have that gallery available to them. I haven't signed a new lease in seven weeks."
DiPalma said Alternative Gallery hosted a block party a few weeks ago, closing part of Fourth Street between Tilghman and Green streets. He said 400-500 people attended, including Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
He said Pawlowski agreed "there is no larger art facility in Allentown" and that the Cigar Factory fits the mayor's desire to bring the arts community and businesses together.
"We bring art and culture to this neighborhood," said Alicia VanDerSluis, the third person who testified for Alternative Gallery.
She explained that includes low-cost art classes for children, which culminate in shows of their work in the gallery. "We do ask for three dollars, but we don't turn children away. We teach children how to make art out of anything."
"Everything done in that gallery is all art," said DiPalma. "It supports the neighborhood, it supports the community."
Digital sign for Two City Center
The approved digital sign will wrap around the corner of the new building, Two City Center, at 645 Hamilton St.
McCarthy, who is chairman of the zoning board, did not participate in the sign decision because he said he had a conflict of interest.
That decision was made by Unger, Engle and alternate board member Juan Camacho.
Camacho said erection of the sign constitutes a continuation of an existing and lawful non-conforming use, which he supported "with reasonable restrictions."
Those restrictions include no flashing or twinkling, the sign must be dimmed at night and it can't shine on adjoining properties.
Camacho said in 2007 the zoning hearing board authorized a 15-by-20-foot LED sign for that address. He said that sign displayed off-premises advertising.
He said the old First National Bank, which stood on the site, was demolished so the new building could be built, but the idea of using a sign on the new building had not been not abandoned.
Finally, he said an increased non-conformity will not be created. The new sign will be 15-by-12-feet, smaller than the old one that was on First National Bank. He said the new sign will have permanent on-premises advertising for the National Penn Bank, part of 35 percent of its on-premises advertising content.
Engle also supported continuation of the non-conforming use. He said putting a sign on that corner of the building "won't make any difference in that immediate area," which he noted is highly commercial and already has many signs.
Unger said the new sign will be less of an intrusion than the old one, because it will be smaller and considerably lower on the building.
But Unger did object to "a stock ticker" feature planned for the new sign, saying the law is very clear that "if you continue a non-conforming use you cannot create any new non-conformity." The stock ticker, said Unger, would add a non-conformity.
He said the city's zoning ordinance prohibits "flashing, sudden bursts of light, video motion, animation movement or flow of the message" and that said a stock ticker feature seems to be "right down the middle of that definition of flow of the message." He said it would not necessarily be a negative intrusion, but "there is no support for it legally."
Unger's two colleagues agreed with him to approve the application, but without the stock ticker.
Digital billboard for Union Boulevard
Adams Outdoor Advertising won 2-1 zoning board approval to replace two "static" double-sided billboards that stand next to each other and face both directions of Union Boulevard traffic in east Allentown, with one double-sided digital billboard.
Adams appealed to the zoning hearing board because the city's zoning law does not permit digital billboards to stand within 1,000 feet of each other.
Lois Arciszewski, corporate director of asset development at Adams, said its proposed billboard will be 902 feet from another digital sign that has been approved by the city but not yet erected.
She said that other sign will stand along Long Drive, which runs between Dauphin Street and Coca-Cola Park.
Atty. Andrew Ralston, who represented Adams, a hill, trees and a building will be between the billboards, so one won't be visible from the other.
McCarthy noted the other permitted digital billboard does not yet exist. Said Ralston: "Who knows if that sign will ever be constructed?"
Arciszewski said the new billboard will be only half as large as the two now standing at the end of the bridge. She explained the difference is two billboards with exterior lighting will be replaced by one digital board with interior lighting.
Unger liked the fact that the digital sign will be only half the size of the billboards now there.
The fact that the sign will be 98 feet closer to the already-approved sign than allowed by zoning was not considered significant by Unger, especially because the other sign has not been constructed and won't be visible from the Adams sign.
"Relief is warranted," he said.
Engle agreed, but McCarthy did not. He wanted to uphold the 1,000-foot separation requirement of the zoning ordinance and was concerned about the precedent being set by agreeing to a lesser distance between signs.
The vote for approval was 2-1.
Because of that change in illumination technology, Ralston argued it's not even a zoning issue, because it's just a conversion of existing billboards that already are non-conforming uses.
Arciszewski testified a billboard has stood at the east end of the Tilghman Street Bridge since at least 1950.
She testified that Adams has 1,087 billboards but only 26 of them are digital.
"It's a very strategic process to identify and determine which billboards should be digital," she said, adding it's based on several factors, including traffic counts and visibility from the road.
She said Adams Advertising has four other billboards along the Tilghman Street Bridge, but probably will lose three of them to the Waterfront development planned on both sides of that bridge, along the west bank of the Lehigh River.
She said that's one reason the company has decided to erect a digital billboard at the east end of the bridge.
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