Bucks County Herald

Frenchtown panel hears plan for theater-gallery

$10 million facility would replace existing ArtYard


The ArtYard theater and gallery, shown in this architects’ rendering, would replace a disused chicken hatchery that currently occupies the site.

Plans for a $10 million theater with art gallery on the site of a defunct chicken hatchery have been revealed to the Frenchtown Planning Board. It would replace ArtYard’s existing facility on Trenton Avenue.

With ArtYard Director Jill Kearney asking the board for 14 variances from borough zoning regulations, the hearing began Feb. 28, with testimony from an architect, a landscape architect and an engineer. It will resume March 28.

Kearney explained to the board that ArtYard’s mission is to be “an incubator for creative expression and a catalyst for collaborations that reveal the transformational power of art.” Contrasting the new site to the Trenton Avenue site, she said, “The hatchery space will allow townspeople to walk instead of drive, and revive a derelict area in the flood plain and connect more directly to the central life of the town.”

The proposed 20,900-square-foot building where Front Street curves into Lott Street would contain an art gallery; ArtYard offices; and a 162-seat theater with stadium-style seating. Its footprint would be 30 percent smaller than the structures there now. The site is a few feet below the 100-year-flood level, so the ground floor would be elevated.

On the other side of Lott Street, a 29-space parking lot would replace a former Thai restaurant. Nineteen more spaces are planned along the Kerr Street side of the theater/gallery. Still 32 spaces short of the required off-street parking, ArtYard is hoping for a variance partly because the building is near the 61-space riverside municipal lot, which gets little evening use, and partly because some patrons would walk there.

The building, designed by architects William Welch and Edward Robinson, would be made largely of salvaged brick, with its main entrance facing the river across a terrace. Robinson said the building reflects Frenchtown’s industrial past. “ARTYARD” would be wall-painted in large letters, rotating banners would announce particular shows, and a smaller neon “THEATER” sign would face north – away from residences on Front Street and toward the shopping district.

Robinson said the signage takes its cues from Frenchtown’s signage of yesteryear, such as the neon Gem Theatre sign of 1932 and the facade-painted “KERR CHICKERIES” that had identified the previous building that burned down in 1973.

The 45-foot-tall building would require a height variance, although it is about the same height as the first Kerr Chickeries building, and, according to an ArtYard presentation booklet, has “massing in keeping with significant buildings in town,” citing the Gem Building’s 43 feet, the Frenchtown Inn’s 31 feet, the Early Bird building’s 37.5 feet and the Odd Fellows building’s 47 feet.” Robinson said that ArtYard will have a “similar presence” to these structures.

ArtYard is also seeking use variances for both lots, and waivers for narrow landscaped buffers, front-yard parking, an illuminated sign, a tall wall, and a canopy that uses metal and glass.

Landscaping, designed by Charles Cunion, would feature tall ginko and sycamore trees, and shorter hornbeams, hawthorns and witch hazels, plus climbing vines and planters of ornamental grasses along the back of the building.

Because chimney swifts nest in soon-to-be-razed chimney, ArtYard wants to build them a new home on the property – a 20-foot tower clad in charred cedar. It will be 27 inches wide at the bottom and taper to 15 inches at the top.

Neighbors had been briefed at a previous presentation, and when the public was invited to comment at the hearing, only Jerry and Kathy Becker voiced a concern. They live just south of the site on a section of Front Street that is, in effect, a cul-de-sac. Mr. Becker is afraid visitors will find their way into that section and take up the few existing parking spaces. The Beckers asked for signs reserving those spaces for residents. That would be a matter for borough council to consider.

Speaking from the audience, Borough Councilwoman Caroline Scutt thanked the ArtYard people for being here and being so “over-the-top patient” with the approval process. “What you’ve done is outstanding,” adding that they have made other towns jealous of Frenchtown.

Later on, Kandy Ferree, ArtYard’s director for strategy, partnerships and operations, said she expects demolition in late spring. “However, we will need to complete the planning board, DEP and permitting processes before we begin new construction. We would love to have groundbreaking on the new construction this summer if all goes well.” After that, she estimated, it would take 18-24 months to complete the project.

According to county records, ArtYard acquired both properties in 2016 – the hatchery property for $630,000 and the old restaurant for $190,000.

ArtYard’s current facility at 62A Trenton Ave. showed that a gallery and theater “have a wonderful synergy,” said Kearney, but that building is not really configured for a theater.” It had been completed in 1980 for Aries Electronics as a light manufacturing space, and was later purchased by author Liz Gilbert for use as an Asian imports store.

The future of the Trenton Avenue property will be evaluated “after we have settled into the new space,” said Ferree. “If we can afford to maintain both spaces, 62A Trenton Ave. will likely become artists’ work spaces for the residency program.”

She noted that ArtYard is a nonprofit organization that “is fortunate to have Jill’s vision and generous financial support from Jill Kearney and Stephen McDonnell. The balance of the funds needed for the redevelopment project and future programming will come from foundation grants, creative public-private partnerships and individual donors.” McDonnell, who is Kearney’s husband, is the founder of Applegate Farms, the organic and natural meats company.



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