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.