At the end of this month meetings will begin to capture a broad set of resident voices as Lancaster officials seek input in creating a new 20-year comprehensive plan that will shape, perhaps more than any other document, the city's future.
“In order to do that, we do need to go above and beyond and really meet people where they are at,” said Douglas Smith, Lancaster city’s chief planner.
City officials will hold meetings with focus groups made up of local leaders and residents to start the process. During that same time, they said they will also have outdoor events for residents to provide feedback on what they would like to see prioritized.
Those events also will happen as the city uses an online portal, Engage Lancaster, to collect more input and comments from the residents over the next year or more.
The comprehensive plan is a document that touches on almost every facet of the city - from what gets built where to what streets and parks look like and how people travel to get to work or school.
It’s a wide-ranging set of goals and standards on which future land-use rules and infrastructure projects will be based – today’s blueprint for what Lancaster city will look like in 2040.
The undertaking is long overdue, city officials said. The existing comprehensive plan is from 1993.
City staff have been preparing the comprehensive plan process for more than a year, and gathering public input and creating the plan will take place over the next 18 or so months, they said.
It will include forming advisory committees with different community stakeholders, a steering committee of 18 residents with varying backgrounds and perspectives, conducting online surveys, holding “pop-up engagement” events in various outdoor locations in the city and attending meetings of civic groups and local organizations to get feedback there.
The main steering committee, called the Comprehensive Planning Committee, includes a range of voices across race, ethnicity, class, age and geography. It’s a group meant to give city planners and staffers opinions and perspectives on the public engagement process and to help synthesize the feedback the city gets.
“When you look at some of the past plans, I think that may have been the one thing that was kind of overlooked,” said Mark Stoner, 62, a former advertising creative director who lives in Chestnut Hill and who serves as a Comprehensive Planning Committee member. “That it was more top-down, and I think the city now is trying as much as possible to reach out to all people.”
More than that, the city will have to be careful to make sure the input they do get from previously excluded residents are reflected in the final product, said Heidi Castillo, a northwest resident and account director of a local photography studio. Castillo is also a committee member and declined to confirm her age for the story.
“The community knows when you're authentic or you're honest,” Castillo said. “So, if you say that you're going to do these things, but it's performative, in the end we're all not going anywhere, because this is where we live. So, we'll know if you're a performer, or actually about change.”
What is a comprehensive plan?
Comprehensive plans are more than just recommendations. Such plans are set out in Pennsylvania’s municipal code, giving them the backing of state law. Because of that, courts would have to find clear and compelling reasons to allow developments that are not consistent with the plan.
The comprehensive plan can also be the basis for creating new zoning rules, (what activities and physical structures can be used on any given property), development requirements (what developers must include in their plans to get city approval) and capital projects – and prioritizing certain public infrastructure projects, like fixing sidewalks, or building bus stops.
The city has used the 1993 plan as a basis for the preservation and repurposing of historical buildings, for instance, something outlined in that plan.
But that plan doesn’t directly address new problems like soaring housing prices, nor does it provide any land-use directions for specific parts of the city, via a land-use map.
That’s something Smith said city officials want to include in the new plan. A land-use map would establish parameters for what could be built or changed on any given piece of land in the city, arming planning commissions and zoning boards with more specific details on what future developers can and can’t do.
City officials provided LNP | LancasterOnline a tentative list of committee meetings, events and strategies to gather input over the next year, before a final draft of a comprehensive plan heads to a vote before the City Council in late 2022 or early 2023, Smith said.
Those advisory committees will have their first meetings Sept. 27 and Sept. 29, Smith said, and meet twice more over the next 18 months.
By the end of 2021, city officials will produce an initial round of reports, Smith said. Those include a document stating the city’s values and priorities for the comprehensive plan, a report on the city’s existing conditions, and a summary of public engagement efforts and input so far.
Work next year will move to policy, Smith said.
City planners expect to produce a draft of a land-use map by the spring, Smith said.
In the fall of next year, the city’s final draft of the comprehensive plan will include policy recommendations and how the city can incorporate them into its set of laws.
The county and neighboring municipalities will have the chance to review the plan and provide comments to the city, according to state law.
LNP | LancasterOnline spoke to 15 of the 18 residents on the Comprehensive Planning Committee. They included recent and long-time transplants to the city, native Lancastrians, nearby county residents who work in the city, a McCaskey High School senior, new parents and older ones.
LNP | LancasterOnline was not able to conduct interviews with three committee members in time for the story.
All of the 15 remaining members mentioned concerns over affordability and whether the city can continue offering living options for families without a lot of wealth or high incomes.
"In Lancaster it’s harder for a homeowner to maintain a house, and to get a house, too,” said Mi Mi Poe, 18, a senior at McCaskey High School.
The comprehensive plan will no doubt also have to address the effects of climate change on the city’s infrastructure and development patterns, city officials said.
City planners have trained committee members on the comprehensive plan process, and asked for input on how to reach those seldom-heard voices: single parents, the working poor, people with disabilities and residents from the city’s racial and ethnic minority communities, just to name a few.
Yaima Lopez, 32, an activist who grew up in the southeast neighborhood and now lives in South Side, said she developed a relationship with Mayor Danene Sorace after Lopez got involved in street protests last year over police brutality and racism. She said she’s enjoyed being on the committee and representing women and men in Lancaster who have struggled their whole lives and grew up with parents who weren't homeowners.
Friends and neighbors are "excited just knowing that someone like me, who experienced what they experienced growing up, is on the committee,” Lopez said.
A welcoming city
Another issue committee members pointed to were the city's ability to offer public transportation for residents to get jobs outside the city.
“If jobs are offered outside the city, how do (residents) get to them?” said Holly Kutz, 65, an insurance executive who works in Lancaster and lives in Manor Township. “Does public transportation get them to where they need to be?”
Maxine Cook, 55, an employee at Lincoln University and southeast resident, said she wants to see the comprehensive plan include green space and parks that foster more events in the city that welcome all residents.
“How do we embrace each other as opposed to being, ‘You live in the southeast of town,’ and that be a negative connotation, or you live near F&M, you’re on the better side of town,” Cook said, referring to Franklin & Marshall College.
Steve Cook, 56, a sales director at UGI Utilities who grew up in Lancaster city but now lives in Strasburg, said he wants the comprehensive plan to balance the needs of city residents and visitors.
Castillo, a transplant who moved to Lancaster city 13 years ago, said as a Hispanic woman, she did not feel welcome in a lot of spaces in Lancaster when she first arrived, and now wants to make sure other people don't have the same experience by making aspects of the city more accessible.
She also said a lot of buildings aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, and the comprehensive plan could help address that.
“I don’t look at this change for myself, I look at this change for my nephews who are 8 and 12, for the future generations” Castillo said.