Questions of trust, of process, of jurisdiction and of the distinction, if any, between art and architecture all played into a lengthy debate at City Council’s meeting Monday regarding the public art proposed for the garage facade overlooking Ewell Plaza.

At stake is the construction schedule for the 360-space public garage and the new home of the Lancaster Public Library, which will sit beneath it at ground level. The $29 million project’s developer, the Lancaster Parking Authority, is demolishing the annex where the new complex will go and is hoping to begin construction early next year.

Council must vote on whether to allow the design to proceed. It will do so at an upcoming regular meeting; Council has placed it on the agenda for the next one, Nov. 12.

Because the public art is also the building’s facade, the project has brought the city’s Public Art Advisory Board and its Historical Commission into conflict.

Mayor Danene Sorace acknowledged as much Monday and asked: “How do we do this better?”

The art board commissioned a concept from R&R Studios of Miami, and wants the go-ahead so a final design can be developed. There would be public input, but the artists would be have creative freedom and no municipal body would have final approval.

The Historical Commission, however, requires architectural designs to be finalized and to conform to design standards codified by ordinance. Last month, members said R&R’s concept failed on both counts and recommended 6-1 that council not approve it.

Christopher Peters

Christopher Peters, an architect and chairman of the Lancaster city Historical Commission, explains the commission's vote on the design for the garage and library at Ewell Plaza at City Council's committee meeting on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. 

R&R’s rendering depicts vertical colored metal tubing, large text and yellow glass encasing the building’s stair tower.

Jo Davis 1.jpg

Jo Davis, Lancaster city public art manager, discusses the public art planned for the Ewell Plaza garage-library building at City Council's committee meeting on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. 

Public art manager Jo Davis warned that a vote against the project would discourage future developers from incorporating public art in their designs.

Artists see beyond the here and now, she said, and it’s vital to trust them.

“Trust the process, the public art process,” she said.

But Historical Commission member Eric Berman said the design should be refined more, then voted on. The words “trust me” are among the scariest in the English language, he said.  

Matthew Creme, solicitor for the Lancaster Parking Authority, contended that the Historical Commission was only empowered to review materials and structure. Those elements, he said, are finalized, and the art’s colors, image or message are outside the scope of review.

He also said the absence of historic buildings around Ewell Plaza means there’s no basis for applying the commission’s standards.

Not so, commission member Steve Funk said. Color is a normal part of the review, as is composition; and despite Ewell Plaza’s modern origins, “it’s still part of a city that has design standards,” and they still apply, he said.

Several local artists and residents said they were excited about the project and encouraged council to find a way to move it forward.

“It’s so important that the next phase happens,” said Stephanie McNulty, a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.

Others emphasized the importance of respecting and enforcing Lancaster’s design standards.

Their enactment helped create and preserve the appealing cityscape Lancaster enjoys today, said retired business owner Moirajeanne Fitzgerald.

Former mayor Art Morris said not enforcing them when art is involved would create an enormous loophole in the city’s regulations.

Denise Ewell, for whose father, Olympian Barney Ewell, the plaza was recently renamed, urged all sides to communicate better going forward.

“Ewell Plaza now has a deeper passion for me,” she said, expressing hope it will be home to “some uniqueness ... that expresses Lancaster.”