DOWNTOWN:  I would have done it differently but…

By Robert Field, Editor and Publisher

A lot of improvements have taken place in downtown Lancaster, some spurred by greed, politics and OPM  (Other People’s Money).

I had the extraordinary good fortune as a successful real estate developer early in my career. Everything with a single exception was done with conventional financing or our own funds.  The exception was when our newly built apartment complex in the Wilkes-Barre area was flooded to the roof tops in Hurricane Agnes (1972) and we received a low interest loan from the Small Business Administration to rebuild, all of which we repaid in full long ahead of schedule.

So my ideas for dealing with the problems and opportunities of downtown Lancaster were largely predicated upon favorable market conditions and private investments, not tax payer handouts.

  • The Watt and Shand Building now the Convention Center and Marriott Hotel:

            Commercial and offices on first floor level on King Street. Parking at street level and below to the rear along East Vine Street, made possible by the slope to the south.  Office floors above the commercial and then upscale condominiums on the upper floors, serve by a private foyer and elevators.   (This was the stated concept by Penn Square Partners when the purchased the site.)    Not only was this the prime residential downtown site but such a development would have led to development of Queen Street and its neighborhood to the south. 

            Both the Convention Center and Marriott Hotel were built largely with tax payers money. The Marriott  and its recent Tower expansion were made possible by a very one sided deal with the adjoining Convention Center, exemption to real estate taxes for the City and the School District of Lancaster, other ongoing subsidies, and the option to purchase the hotel, currently leased from RACL, for a small fraction of its likely value once the mortgage is paid off.  The City will be stuck with funding the Convention Center for a couple of decades. 

            Had development taken place as initially envisioned by Penn Square Partners and myself, the City and the School District would have had a large and much neeed stream of real estate tax revenue. 

            2)  HILTON / RAMADA/ BRUNWICK HOTEL>     

            The original study by a national authority for the placement of a convention center recommend the restoration of the then Ramada to its original four star hotel status and enlarging the already very large conference / banquet areas for a convention center, sized to serve local needs. The cost would have been about 20% of the subsequent of the Lancaster Convention Center.

            The Ramada and later Brunswick hotel was recently  converted to a Holiday Inn, aided by CRIZ grants but largely with private money.   The banquet area along with the one story portion of the sit including the movie theater have been demolished to be put to create more downtown parking and as a new home for the downtown library..    

  • HESS DEPARTMENT STORE / BULOVA BUILDING

            I had proposed tearing down all but the parking garage at Duke and Orange Streets and selling the land to developers for mix use residential development. I had had reason to believe that the by then Brunswick Hotel and its adjoining buildings including the theater could have been purchased for a fraction of what was eventually paid for them.  I felt the Bulova building, vacant for years, could have been purchased out of bankruptcy at a moderate price.  I believed that proceeds from the sale of the leveled site would likely cover all acquisition and demolition costs.     

Thanks to public funding including CRIZ money, the more expensive route has been followed of renovating the hapless Hess / Bulova Building rather than tearing it down and building anew.

4) LANCASTER DOWNTOWN PUBLIC LIBRARY 

Three times  I devoted efforts along with others to develop practical plans  to double the library’s size and to renovate the existing portion.  The first time the project was not in my hands.  The second time we were stymied by an inexperienced board that panicked during the outset of the Great Recession.   The last time was when ‘powers that be’ reneged on an arrangement to provide a third party estimate of costs on the earlier plans.  Initially funding would have largely been from private donations, including a major commitment on hand.  After the outset of the Great Recession, large  funds likely have come from the nearly trillion dollar in federal funds provided for “shovel ready” projects. 

Nevertheless, I am optimistic and gratified about the plan to build a 40,000 sq. ft. new library as part of a largely CRIZ financed parking garage project in Lancaster Square East.   Knowledge of this plan takes the sting out of past set backs.  I tip my hat to those who brought about what I believe is an even better solution. 

5)  COMBINED SANITARY SEWER / STORM WATER SYSTEM IN DOWNTOWN LANCASTER.

The State Environmental Protection Agency insisted that the overflow of raw sewage at the sewere treatment plants along the Conestoga Creek (River) from the combined sanitary and storm sewer during heavy rainfalls be prevented. 

At a meeting called by Mayor Rick Gray,  I offered to have engineers study for  economical ways to eliminate economical approaches for improvements so as to negotiate a multi-year program with the EPA.   (I had assisted a sewer authority elsewhere to successfully deal  with EPA elsewhere by such an approach.)  Instead the Gray administration simply ‘kicked the can down the road’ and ran the risk of so frustrating EPA that only a crushingly expensive project, all at one time, will likely satisfy it.  Meanwhile there is periodic flooding of  lower levels of buildings in the downtown area.

6)  PENNSYLVANIA ACADEMY OF MUSIC:

This was a classic case of artists being allowed without restraint to make foolish business decisions.  In the end, the artists were fired, ostracized and left with nothing for their years of efforts while the board chair who loaned PAM multi-millions  dollars was bailed out by Millersville University purchasing the building at a high price.    

Rather than build the super expensive theater complex, PAM might have rented the vacant banquet / office space adjoining the then Brunswick Hotel for its operations, modified the vacant movie theater for performances, and leased a floor and later more floors as dormitories for their foreign, tuition paying students.  But I was not by choice involved in the planning stage so such an approach is ‘Monday morning quarterbacking.’

 (There is a lot of foreign, especially Asian, money from wealthy families that would like to have their high school age children study in the USA in what they perceive as safe and bucolic Lancaster.)

Looking back from the vantage point of old age (82), perhaps I was naïve to have thought that powerful people and those they had put in power would seek ways to accomplish goals in inexpensive, altruistic ways.   This probably has rarely been the case although Charlie Smithgall may have pulled it off with Clipper Stadium.

Much of politics is for the purpose of using other people’s money (tax money) for private gain and to finance political parties.

And the tricksters who pulled off the CRIZ sleight of hands can justify their actions by saying every other part of the state benefits from the public trough and this was Lancaster’s turn.

So let’s hear it for “greed, politics and OPM”.

In any case, charming and convenient downtown Lancaster was in the path of the gentrification that is taking place across the country as young people move back into the downtown areas.    How long this demographic trend will last is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, the School District of Lancaster and the City have been deprived of millions of dollars in real estate taxes and city dwellers must suffer the costs and risks of the giveaways for decades to come.

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Updated: November 5, 2019 — 8:31 am