How flooding concerns could affect plans to replace the Banana Factory in south Bethlehem

How flooding concerns could affect plans to replace the Banana Factory in south Bethlehem

The proposed replacement of the Banana Factory in south Bethlehem drew a few concerns from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Planning Committee.

During Tuesday’s virtual meeting, LVPC community planners presented a draft letter in which they pointed out that the proposed ArtsQuest Southside Bethlehem Cultural Arts Center at 25 W. Third St. sits in the Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated 100-year flood plain.

“Building in the flood plain is not recommended due to the density of these areas to experience flooding loss,” said Bambi Griffin Rivera, senior community and regional planner. “Considering the impact of changing weather patterns on flooding as a result of climate change, the project should be built to withstand forces associated with floodwaters.”

However, Darlene Heller, planning director for Bethlehem and LVPC member, said the site is actually in the city’s 500-year flood plain.

“This is something that we did look at during our land development review as well,” Heller said. “And it does show that the elevation of the site is higher than the floodplain elevation. We didn’t have concerns with that issue because it was something that we had already looked at and you can see from the site plan that there’s quite a bit between this site and the 100-year flood plain.”

Heller added that the area has “not really ever flooded.”

“To my knowledge, there’s some infrastructure along the south side of the river to protect that area,” she said. “I think that was actually built by Bethlehem Steel way back when.”

Steve Repasch, executive director of the Bethlehem Authority and LVPC member, said Bethlehem Steel and the state reinforced the riverbanks years ago and that has prevented flooding on the South Side.

LVPC Executive Director Becky Bradley said she’s confident enough in the city’s findings to remove the 100-year floodplain language.

The $22 million cultural center is about 1,000 feet from the Lehigh River. The five-story building would feature an outdoor arts plaza, expanded classroom space, rooms for summer camps and a 100-seat comedy center. The building facade facing Third Street would feature a window pattern that spells out “Art For All” in binary code.

Bethlehem City Council approved the project in August, overriding a negative vote from the historic conservation commission.

In another matter, committee Chair Stephen Melnick wondered why there was no mention of green technology in the construction of the arts center.

“That runs counter to everybody’s best practices,” he said. “I like to have something included. We recommend some form of green environmental technology in the construction of the facility.”

Kassie Hilgert, president, and CEO of ArtsQuest, said the organization is looking into using green materials, but it could be pricey.

“We are finalizing the building design, especially the interior,” Hilgert said. “Being within a historic district, there are certain materials that you need to use, and we will certainly be looking at whatever we can do from an environmental standpoint.

“I’m sure I’m not sharing any news with you all that those can be extraordinarily expensive,” she said. “And we have to be mindful in asking for private and public donations to keep the cost of the project within a range that we think that we can raise. We would certainly look at that and we’ll be investigating it.”

The full commission will review and approve the letter at its meeting Thursday.


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