Twenty years ago, the nonprofit ArtsQuest opened the Banana Factory, a visual arts center on the site of a former banana distribution warehouse in a complex of historic buildings.
Today, the organization is looking to build a cultural center that would keep that historic character while rejuvenating the arts district with new buildings that incorporate more programs and offerings to meet growing demand. In order to achieve that goal, the nonprofit said it wants to demolish the aging buildings and create the new center on the existing footprint.
On Monday, ArtsQuest showed its plan to the South Bethlehem Historic Conservation Commission and discussed the project.
The plan involves demolishing some of the buildings and keeping the one-story Crayola Gallery and extending it along Third Street, connecting it to a new building where the parking lot is, said Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of ArtsQuest. The new building where the parking lot is would be four stories, which would be a story higher than the current buildings. The plan calls for connecting the center and creating an L-shape, with the new parking lot facing the back corner on Second Street across from the Riverport Parking Garage.
When the Banana Factory opened in 1998, it was six different buildings grouped together, she said.
“Now as we are sitting where we are, the maintenance requirements for those buildings are not sustainable,” Hilgert said. “Now we are faced with dilapidated buildings coupled with new demand for new space and expanding our existing programs. Our education and outreach programs are growing.”
The organization has a waiting list for artist studios and saw the need to fill some programming gaps. While the nearby ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks hosts many big-name comedy acts, there is also the need for a smaller space for shows from local comics, a need that the new cultural center would fulfill.
“What has also been growing is comedy improv, they need a permanent space,” Hilgert said. “We want to blend cultural events and include artist maker space, performing arts.”
The current Banana Factory is primarily a visual arts center, she said.
Plans also call for putting in a pre-K art school and offering classes for senior citizens, covering a full spectrum of ages.
“We are getting neck deep in education in a way we haven’t before,” Hilgert said. “This is getting to the very basic level of community-building.”
ArtsQuest wants to provide more opportunities for the arts district and Hilgert views the cultural center as a way to capitalize on what it can offer, noting that the new center would closely align with ArtsQuest mission and put it in within walking distance of the neighborhoods it would serve.
“This project and that location in particular, is very important to the city and to us…you can access that location on foot,” Hilgert said. “It is a critical part of the arts district.”
Successful arts districts are ones that have anchors spread out, not clustered in one area of the community, according to Hilgert.
The project, tentatively titled ArtsQuest Cultural Center, still requires city approvals and Hilgert estimated it could cost between $15 million and $18 million. Construction would not start at the earliest until 2020.
The organization has some public sector dollars allocated for the project already from both the city and state, she said. She is looking to acquire private sector funding to go toward building the center.
MKSD architects of South Whitehall Township is the architect.