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Bethlehem zoners OK converting office building into new wine bar

By Len Righi, WFMZ.com Reporter
Published On: Jan 30 2013 03:42:08 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 24 2013 04:42:28 AM CST
Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board
BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

Two veteran Lehigh Valley area restaurateurs were ready to pop the cork Wednesday night after a favorable ruling by the Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board that will help them convert an office building into a wine bar.

But an entrepreneur trying to expand his indoor self-storage business wasn't as lucky. The zoners unanimously slammed the door on his plan to refurbish and enlarge a blighted vacant building on Bethlehem's west side.

Restaurateurs Steve DiDonato, of Harleysville, Montgomery Co., and Vince Randazzo, of Quakertown, Bucks Co., were granted both a special exception to continue a non-conforming use in the building at 55 West Lehigh St. and a variance that will allow DiDonato and Randazzo to have only 19 off-street parking spaces instead of the required 21.

The building that will be home to the wine bar, as well as an upscale deli and artisan cheese shop, will dovetail geographically with a business DiDonato and Randazzo took over about two-and-a-half weeks ago: the Wooden Match cigar bar and restaurant at 61 West Lehigh St.

DiDonato said the wine bar, which will have room for 70 to 75 patrons, would be open evenings from Wednesday to Sunday. The deli and cheese shop will operate during the day, he added.

DiDonato said he plans to use the wine bar to educate people about wine, as he did with special Wednesday Night Wine School programs during the nine-and-a-half years when he operated Abruzzi's on Main in Coopersburg, Lehigh Co.

Randazzo, who ran Domenik's Pizza and the Pregame Sports Bar and Grille, both in Quakertown, said the wine bar could be open in two or three months. DiDonato said it might take a bit longer, "as early as May, but I doubt it."

DiDonato and Randazzo's wine bar is the second such venue being planned on Bethlehem's North Side. Last October, city council approved a liquor license transfer for the Corked Wine Bar. The people behind the project said at the time that the wine bar planned at 515 Main St., in the space that until 2008 was the home of the Morning Call newspaper's Bethlehem bureau, could open in February or March.

The plan for converting a vacant building at 1122-1130 West Broad St. that was once a car dealership into an indoor self-storage business was proposed by Vincent Fantozzi of Bellante Properties, Center Valley, Lehigh Co.

Fantozzi wanted to put an addition onto the building, and have it be four stories in the front and five stories in the back. To do so would require a special exception and a variance.

Dick Adams, owner of Dick Adams Realtors, of Bethlehem, said the building had been vacant for two-and-a-half years, and that Fantozzi's plan would turn an eyesore into a "neat, professional operation."

Parking for users of the facility would be provided at a lot behind the building at 1124 West Raspberry St., Fantozzi said.

City officials were opposed to the plan, however. Darlene Heller, Bethlehem's director of planning and zoning, noted self-storage is not a permitted use in that area, and said the project would expand a non-conforming use by 162 percent -- more than three times the 50 percent that is allowed by the zoning code. She also criticized the height of the proposed building, saying it "would not be harmonious" with the surrounding neighborhood.

A few residents raised similar objections, including Evelyn Beckman, who owns the Ambre Studio art gallery at 310 West Broad St. She called the size of Fantozzi's proposed project "overwhelming," and said, "This is not the right project for this building."

However, another entrepreneur with a business along West Broad St., carpet dealer Bob Young, strongly endorsed Fantozzi's plan.

"In 1995, I bought an old car dealership and opened Bethlehem Gallery of Floors [at 529 West Broad St.]," Young told the zoners, noting that then-Mayor Ken Smith was at his opening and promised great things were going to happen along the city's western artery.

"For years I was the lone puppy out there," Young said. "It was nothing like what Ken Smith envisioned." But when he saw Fantozzi's renderings of what could be a few weeks ago, "I thought, 'Oh God, this is what we need to get going again.' "

Young called Fantozzi "an honorable businessman," and said his businesses are "clean [and] impeccably kept."

After the zoners turned down the plan, Fantozzi said he was not going to appeal the decision.