The Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission heard a presentation by ArtsQuest to demolish parts of the Banana Factory and replace it with a community cultural arts center at its Monday meeting in City Hall.
MKSD Architects and ArtsQuest, a non-profit organization which runs Musikfest and SteelStacks, submitted an application to commissioners detailing the plans for the proposed new center.
The current Banana Factory Arts & Education Center, a group of buildings located on 25 W. Third St., "is no longer adequate to serve the arts programming needs of ArtsQuest and therefore must be replaced," the application said.
ArtsQuest had done several feasibility studies looking at different options for modernizing the building. It concluded the best option is to replace the building with a new arts center.
The company proposes a building which could be anywhere from one to four stories on the western edge of the site, preserving the one-story art gallery at Third and Northampton streets.
The company proposed building an arts plaza in the interior of the site, across from the steelworkers' memorial park. The programming for the plaza includes arts festivals, outdoor art classes and outdoor space for a proposed art-oriented pre-K program.
A parking lot for resident artists and staff would be built behind the arts plaza at the corner of Second and Northampton streets.
Projected costs for the demolition and renovation project would be around $16 million, the application said.
A new cultural center would include 2,300 new classes and workshops, including 50 free programs and 35 exhibitions per year.
The company is looking to demolish the buildings that make up the current center, including the Banana Warehouse which fronts Northampton Street. In its application, the company said the building has no value as a warehouse and distribution facility.
The former auto parts store building along Third Street will be integrated into the new center.
ArtsQuest plans to demolish portions of the complex along Third Street. While the new center is being built over areas of the parking lot and along the newly cleared space along Third Street, the existing three-story sections of the existing complex will remain occupied.
The existing complex will be demolished once the new building is complete.
Most of the current buildings have little or no historical significance, the company said in its application.
The proposed new facility is an "important step for the city," ArtsQuest President and CEO Kassie Hilgert said.
The company found it important to find the "right programming in the right location for the right cost," she said.
An expansion of the arts program cannot be done with the existing buildings, she said.
Commissioner Beth Starbuck said she did not want to see the Banana Warehouse torn down. She said the building helps maintain the industrial character of the city and is a reminder of the industrial businesses that helped build the city.
The warehouse is "worth preserving," she said, acknowledging the difficulty of balancing the need to promote new visual arts programs with the board's task of preserving potentially historic buildings.
The new proposed building looks too modern and should conform more to the style of older industrial buildings, she said.
Members of the public shared their thoughts on the proposed cultural center, with many showing enthusiasm for the project.
Victor Schmidt, who lives next to the current center, said ArtsQuest has been "a tremendous neighbor."
The new center would be a "game changer" for the city which would have greater visual appeal than the current complex, he said.
Vicki Doule, the vice chair of ArtsQuest's board of trustees, said the new center would help revitalize the city's south side.
William Woodruff, a member of the company board of trustees, said the center was "living in an incredibly exciting time," noting the increase in visual arts programs. The programs have outgrown the existing buildings, he said.
Trustees board member Alicia Hayden said she would "very strongly plead" the board to approve the project. The new facility would be more economically efficient and provide an "inviting and safe environment" for children, she said.
Trustees secretary Fred Stellato said the company had looked at options for renovating the old buildings and found them all to be too costly.
Not all residents showed unqualified support for the project. Resident Kim Smith said while she thought the overall plan for the new center was great, she was concerned demolishing new buildings in the area would endanger the historic nature of the district.
The commission did not vote on the project at Monday's meeting.
Hilgert said after the meeting that ArtsQuest would appear before the commission again next month to discuss the project further. She said there would likely be several meetings on the plans before the commission votes.
The company will wait and see if the board approves the project before starting fundraising for the new center, she said.
The company will meet with educators, artists and other members of the public to get their input on the project. This process would be similar to what ArtsQuest did in the planning stages of the SteelStacks project, she said.