BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Plans to demolish the Bethlehem Banana Factory and build a new facility in its place are moving forward, whether the city’s historic preservation commission likes it or not.

In a 5-2 vote, Bethlehem City Council reversed the Bethlehem Historic Preservation Commission’s split decision to deny a request to demolish the six structures that make up the center because two buildings facing South Third Street are historical.

“With supply chain issues, with inflation that we’re looking at and other factors that are happening globally, this project has ballooned to almost $30 million. Being able to demolish the two additional buildings we saves approximately $7 million on this project and it also dramatically reduces construction time,” said ArtsQuest President Kassie Hilgert.

She says the new building increases studio space with welding and woodworking equipment and 3D printers, doubles the hot glass studio, and leaves room for more educational programs.

The Bethlehem Area School District supports the plan.

“What the banana factory has been able to do on the south side and south side of Bethlehem is provide opportunities for all kinds of our residents, and the fact that the school district was willing to come forward, I think, shows people how obvious it was,” says Bethlehem Mayor William Reynolds, who backs the decision.

“We have to preserve the things that are absolutely worth preserving, but also go ahead and respond to the market and respond to the things that people want to do,” he said.

At a four-hour meeting on Tuesday evening, members of the public spoke out for and against the issue, with some concern expressed that the South Side is losing its character.

Two council members voted to block the decision, with one suggesting it be built elsewhere.

“I hate to see buildings being demolished, but at the same time I realized when buildings have to be demolished because of the economic hardship it would cause,” Councilor Grace Crampsie Smith said. She was one of five members to vote for.

“It’ll be the gateway to the south side because we’re going to redo the Hill to Hill bridge and Second Street will become more of a busy street on the south side.”

Now that the demolition has been approved, the final design must be approved. The historical commission also votes on this, and then the city council again has the final say.

Once approved, ArtsQuest can finish raising the additional $9 million it needs.

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