Historic preservationist David Schneider has spent his career trying to save noteworthy old buildings.
But sometimes the circumstances justify their demolition, he told the city Historical Commission at its meeting Monday.
And the case of three historic buildings on the former Lancaster Family YMCA site, which is being eyed for apartments and medical offices by Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and its Chester County partner, is such an instance, Schneider said.
“As a preservationist for the past 40 years, I never like to advocate for buildings coming down,” said Schneider, who was hired by the developers to evaluate the historic merits of the buildings.
“We also know in districts like this we have to accommodate appropriate growth. And this just seems like the only really reasonable location (LG Health) can go to,” he said.
However, a city official warned that razing the most significant of the buildings -- a two-story former tavern at North Prince and West Frederick streets built shortly after the Civil War – plus an adjoining two-story carriage house would create a jarring visual contrast.
That would be the consequences of having existing two-story rowhouses on the north side of West Frederick and just the new five-story apartment buildings planned for the south side, said Suzanne Stallings, the city’s historic preservation specialist.
But leaving the long vacant tavern and carriage house to anchor the corner would soften the juxtaposition of the rowhouses and new mid-rise apartments, while saving two worthy buildings, she said.
“If you wanted to incorporate that tavern (and carriage house), it could be done, creatively,” Stallings said.
Case against preservation
Schneider, though, didn’t embrace the suggestion. Nor did any of the LG Health and Hankin Group representatives at the meeting.
“Sadly, if you’re going to build a building of this magnitude, and you deny it having a major street corner, the result is you have a small building next to a large building, and it looks like a fishing boat next to an aircraft carrier,” the consultant said.
Nonetheless, Stallings’ comments prompted commission members to ask the developers to prepare a rendering that would depict the view down West Frederick Street, showing both the existing rowhouses and the proposed apartment building, but not the tavern or carriage house.
The commission won’t vote on the developers’ razing request until they return in a month or two with the West Frederick Street rendering and additional renderings showing the appearance of the proposed new buildings. The vote will be advisory; City Council has final say.
Plan for the site
LG Health and Exton-based Hankin Group, a real estate developer, want to turn the vacant 3.5-acre site into a mix of uses, LNP | LancasterOnline reported in June. They include a medical office building for LG Health of 30,000 square feet, 230 to 250 apartments, a parking structure of undetermined size, restaurants and small stores. Hankin hopes to start construction in late 2021. Construction would take 18 months to two years.
In August, City Council approved the rezoning to mixed use from hospital complex and high-density residential.
Hankin Group, which is leading the redevelopment effort, has declined to disclose the approximate cost of the venture until it files a land development plan sometime in the future. But judging from the cost of other apartment, office and parking projects in the county, the total cost appears to be about $60 million.
Schneider, who was executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County from 1990-1995 and now lives in Alabama, said that the three historic buildings on former YMCA site have been devalued by the removal of neighboring historic structures.
This was done in the 1960s to make way for the YMCA, which had been at North Queen and West Orange streets, according to LNP | LancasterOnline files. (That’s where Wells Fargo and other businesses now operate in a different building.)
“This block has been sort of picked away over the last 50 or 60 years to the point where the (buildings) that are still on this site have lost their contextual relationship to streetscapes and or have had (substantial) alterations,” Schneider said.
Schneider added that for LG Health to grow from its health-care facilities in the 500 block of North Duke Street and parking garage in the 500 block of North Queen Street onto a contiguous tract, expanding across North Queen to the former YMCA property is the only choice available.
The site has been vacant since 2009, when the YMCA moved to Harrisburg Avenue. The YMCA's deteriorating modern structures were razed in 2018 and replaced with green space.
“To go in any other direction, it has to take out very well, densely developed historic blocks,” Schneider said.
History of remaining buildings
The 561 N. Prince St. tavern last operated as Bob’s Café, which was there for 33 years, following other establishments in that space including Mickey’s Tavern and Mug & Jug, according to LNP | LancasterOnline records.
Bob’s Café closed when LG Health bought the building and the tract next door in 2003 for $320,000. The tavern, which includes four apartments, was constructed in 1868 as the Reading & Columbia Railroad Depot Hotel, Schneider's research found.
The two-story carriage house next door at 38-40 W. Frederick St., built in 1917, was converted long ago to two apartments and two garages.
After LG Health acquired it, the building was used to house Lancaster General Hospital nurses for some years but has been vacant in recent years, said Pat Troyan, co-owner of Bob’s Café.
Also slated for demolition are 530 N. Queen St., built in 1880 but substantially modified since, and a rowhouse next door at 536 N. Queen St., built in 1850. The former is used by Owl Hill Learning Center; the latter used to be. Owl Hill is moving Nov. 4 to Liberty Place.
All but the 530 N. Queen St. building are deemed historic since they're listed as contributors to the city’s Heritage Conservation District.
Among the factors the commission weighs when pondering demolition are the significance of the buildings to be razed, their contribution to the streetscape and neighborhood, and the impact of the incoming development.
Everyone at the meeting concurred that the redevelopment's economic impact would be potent, generating $2 million in property tax revenue annually, adding sorely needed housing in the city and giving LG Health a place to expand.
There was no accord on the merit of the historic buildings, though.
“It’s always sad to see historic buildings coming down,” said commission member Steve Funk. “But if you look at the three (contributing) buildings that we’re talking about, there isn’t any one of them that really has unique architectural characteristics that you can’t find in a hundred other buildings in the city….”
Funk continued: “We’ve used that argument in the past when we approved demolition – it’s not a unique building. There are others like it. When you have to weigh that against such a large economic development opportunity, the historic structures may lose. That’s just something we have to wrestle with in a city that is economically vibrant and will continue to grow, as much as we dig our heels in.
“I think we need to be realistic and pragmatic about this project, and not become intransigent trying to save three buildings that may not have overwhelming economic value, compared to the proposal,” he said.
Stallings countered, “That tavern – you’re saying it’s not unique. Well, it is unique, because every building is unique. It’s an 1860s building. We don’t have a whole lot of them left there.”