A glass garage door on the front of an old firehouse that’s been turned into a new restaurant spurred a big debate on Bethlehem City Council Tuesday night.
The restaurant, named Broadway Social, is at 217 Broadway, between a CVS and a Hess gas station in south Bethlehem.
People passing the restaurant can get an inviting look through the glass panes in the door to see patrons sitting at the bar and tables inside. On warm nights like Tuesday night, the owners raise the garage door so the front of the building is open to the outdoors.
The issue is that it’s the wrong door, according to south Bethlehem’s Historic Conservation Commission.
But council’s debate went beyond the number of panels that should be on the door to the role of the city’s advisory commissions. The conversation also was unusual because council often quickly and unanimously votes on issues with no discussion.
The Historic Conservation Commission recommended that City Council deny a certificate of appropriateness to the restaurant, which just had its soft opening a few days ago.
On Sept. 16, the commission voted 5-3 against the garage door because it is “too modern in character for this historically intact firehouse designed by A.W. Leh.”
According to the commission, the approved door for the building was supposed to be black, five panels high and six panels wide.
The door on the building is six window panels high but only four window panels wide. Those panels are in black aluminum frames.
“I think the door looks great,” said council member David DiGiacinto. He doesn’t understand what difference it makes if the door is four, five or six panels wide “in the big picture of life.”
“It is not a minor thing,” said council member Karen Dolan. “Having those wide panels looks instantly like the suburbs.
“It might not seem like a big difference to people who don’t appreciate the importance of upholding historical standards, but why do we have this commission if it’s not to do just that?”
Dolan said at stake is Bethlehem’s reputation “as an historic city that respects its history.”
Mayor John Callahan said Broadway Social “is a pretty spectacular project. This gentleman certainly put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the restoration of both the exterior and the interior. He has spared no expense on this building.”
Callahan said it was a defunct building, then a nightclub that became a nuisance bar, but now had been transformed into a high-end lounge and restaurant.
“It’s a huge investment in an area of the South Side where we struggled to see similar investments,” said the mayor. “I wouldn’t want to discourage this particular individual.”
Dolan said for City Council to say “you get a pass because we like your business” sends a very bad message to the Historic Conservation Commission that “we don’t respect what you do.”
After the council meeting, Broadway Social owner Greg Salamoni said the door now on the front of the restaurant is the third one he’s installed.
“It’s a $10,000 door,” he said. “They want me to take it out and spend another 10 grand? Right now, I’m empty. Everything that’s here is coming out of my pocket, to make this happen. If I don’t survive, it isn’t going to matter what door’s over there.”
Salamoni said he’s taken a big risk to try to improve that neighborhood by opening the restaurant. “I’m opening up a business not on Main Street but outside of Main Street, where it’s hard. I’m rolling the dice here.”
Council member Michael Recchiuti said the historic commission was nitpicking – “they may have been hung up on the fact that it was an A.W. Leh building rather than working with the owner.”
Dolan said she would never use the word nitpicking, but “that’s exactly what the historic commissions are there to do. They’re there to uphold standards. What about the next person who puts up something that’s inappropriate?”
Dolan also said the city keeps knocking down and “mistreating” A.W. Leh buildings. She said the late 19th-century building designer “was the single most important architect who did his best work in Bethlehem.”
Said DiGiacinto: “There’s no way you’re gong to recreate that Leh building because it’s not a firehouse any more. You need a different door to have that restaurant effect.”