A glass garage door on the front of an old firehouse that’s been turned into a new restaurant spurred a big debate on Bethlehem City Council Tuesday night.
The restaurant, named Broadway Social, is at 217 Broadway, between a CVS and a Hess gas station in south Bethlehem.
People passing the restaurant can get an inviting look through the glass panes in the door to see patrons sitting at the bar and tables inside. On warm nights like Tuesday night, the owners raise the garage door so the front of the building is open to the outdoors.
The issue is that it’s the wrong door, according to south Bethlehem’s Historic Conservation Commission.
But council’s debate went beyond the number of panels that should be on the door to the role of the city’s advisory commissions. The conversation also was unusual because council often quickly and unanimously votes on issues with no discussion.
The Historic Conservation Commission recommended that City Council deny a certificate of appropriateness to the restaurant, which just had its soft opening a few days ago.
On Sept. 16, the commission voted 5-3 against the garage door because it is “too modern in character for this historically intact firehouse designed by A.W. Leh.”
According to the commission, the approved door for the building was supposed to be black, five panels high and six panels wide.
The door on the building is six window panels high but only four window panels wide. Those panels are in black aluminum frames.
“I think the door looks great,” said council member David DiGiacinto. He doesn’t understand what difference it makes if the door is four, five or six panels wide “in the big picture of life.”
“It is not a minor thing,” said council member Karen Dolan. “Having those wide panels looks instantly like the suburbs.
“It might not seem like a big difference to people who don’t appreciate the importance of upholding historical standards, but why do we have this commission if it’s not to do just that?”
Dolan said at stake is Bethlehem’s reputation “as an historic city that respects its history.”
Mayor John Callahan said Broadway Social “is a pretty spectacular project. This gentleman certainly put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the restoration of both the exterior and the interior. He has spared no expense on this building.”
Callahan said it was a defunct building, then a nightclub that became a nuisance bar, but now had been transformed into a high-end lounge and restaurant.
“It’s a huge investment in an area of the South Side where we struggled to see similar investments,” said the mayor. “I wouldn’t want to discourage this particular individual.”
Dolan said for City Council to say “you get a pass because we like your business” sends a very bad message to the Historic Conservation Commission that “we don’t respect what you do.”
After the council meeting, Broadway Social owner Greg Salamoni said the door now on the front of the restaurant is the third one he’s installed.
“It’s a $10,000 door,” he said. “They want me to take it out and spend another 10 grand? Right now, I’m empty. Everything that’s here is coming out of my pocket, to make this happen. If I don’t survive, it isn’t going to matter what door’s over there.”
Salamoni said he’s taken a big risk to try to improve that neighborhood by opening the restaurant. “I’m opening up a business not on Main Street but outside of Main Street, where it’s hard. I’m rolling the dice here.”
Council member Michael Recchiuti said the historic commission was nitpicking – “they may have been hung up on the fact that it was an A.W. Leh building rather than working with the owner.”
Dolan said she would never use the word nitpicking, but “that’s exactly what the historic commissions are there to do. They’re there to uphold standards. What about the next person who puts up something that’s inappropriate?”
Dolan also said the city keeps knocking down and “mistreating” A.W. Leh buildings. She said the late 19th-century building designer “was the single most important architect who did his best work in Bethlehem.”
Said DiGiacinto: “There’s no way you’re gong to recreate that Leh building because it’s not a firehouse any more. You need a different door to have that restaurant effect.”
Said council member J. William Reynolds: “The door fits in with the rest of the structure and the rest of the neighborhood.”
The words “Lehigh No. 1” remain engraved in the brick wall above the door of the restored building.
Dolan said City Council said almost always respects the recommendations of its commissions.
She said council has never overruled the historic commissions on the grounds that someone already spent the money to do something.
But Recchiuti said in the past City Council has sent recommendations back to the historic commissions without voting on them because council didn’t agree with those recommendations. He agreed that council generally should follow recommendations from those commissions, “but not every time. They don’t get it right every time.”
Reynolds said 99 times out of 100, council agrees with recommendations from its commissions. But he said council also needs to remember that its commissions are only advisory: “The buck stops with City Council.”
Why the wrong garage door?
Reynolds said in May 2012, Salamoni got approval to replace the existing garage door on the building. He said when the new door arrived, Salamoni already had removed the old door. So he had to immediately install the new one, even though it was not the door the commission approved. Reynolds said Salamoni returned to the commission to seek its approval for the door. He and Callahan indicated the owner needed a door on the front of the building to protect it.
But Dolan doesn’t understand why Salamoni did not check to make sure he had the right door before he installed it.
“Once you put it up, you sometimes feel you can lean on the sympathies of the commission. We have seen that multiple times here on City Council.”
Dolan noted one reason for the recommendation to deny is because the restaurant’s owners said they had problems with a garage door supplier, but did not provide the commission with any information to document those problems. She said the owners should produce documents showing their attempts to resolve the problem.
She said if it was not the right door, the supplier had an obligation to supply the correct door –“unless these guys didn’t order the correct door.”
Dolan said denying the door is the hammer for City Council to get the correct door on that building. “If we back off on this why should they push to get the garage door they ordered? They’ll have the approval.”
Council delays action until November
Dolan made a motion that council should postpone a vote on the recommendation to deny until its Nov. 6 meeting, so it can get more information.
DiGiacinto seconded that motion, saying council doesn’t have all the information it needs to make a decision.
The motion passed 5-2, with Reynolds and Recchiuti voting no.
Mayor Callahan encouraged any council members contemplating voting for a denial to first visit the restaurant.
Salamoni also wants members of City Council to visit his restaurant before they make any decision about the door. “Let’s really look at what we’re talking about. Look around, what is there not to like? We’re bringing life to the area.”
Restaurant owner rude to historic commission?
During the meeting, resident Mary Pongracz told council she serves on the historic commission that reviewed the garage door issue.
She declared Salamoni “was most uncooperative with the conservation commission.
He was insulting to me. I do not think it is fair to stand up for one person. Mr. Salamoni has not been cooperative. Why am I giving my time and my knowledge to be insulated by someone who refuses to follow the rules?”
“I wasn’t trying to be insulting,” said Salamoni after the meeting. “I have to invite her down and apologize to her.”
As for the rest of the commission, Salamoni said: “I respect their opinion and what they say. They are trying to keep the charm of the South Side.” He indicated he was just getting frustrated after attending four or six meetings about his garage door.
A larger problem in the neighborhood?
Resident Stephen Antalics questioned why council was “making a mountain out of a mole hill” about one garage door when less than a block away, on the roof of the Flat Iron building, is what appears to be “an early warning system in case of a Martian attack.”
“Where are your priorities?” he asked.
He said council passed a resolution that stated the communications dish on the roof of that building would not be seen, but it is highly visible.
“I have to see the monstrosity every day,” said Antalics. “That is a major violation of City Council. Has anyone on council or the administration asked the owner of that building to take down that early warning system?”
That building, at 4th and Broadway, “is the focal point of that area,” said Antalics. He said the building is in the historic district, “but nothing’s been done. I hold you responsible… to correct that monstrosity.”