Wilbur Chocolate

This 2015 photo shows the Wilbur Chocolate complex in downtown Lititz.

The vacant Wilbur Chocolate site in downtown Lititz will be revitalized by developing a hotel and apartments there, it was announced Tuesday.

Lancaster-based Oak Tree Development Group said it has agreed to buy the 11-acre property from Wilbur’s owner, Cargill, for an undisclosed price.

The announcement ends 20 months of uncertainty over the fate of the North Broad Street property, a major part of the borough’s bustling downtown.

“We like projects that are community-centric,” said Oak Tree President Mike O’Brien. “We’re excited to do a project that positively impacts a small town like this.”

Oak Tree expects to submit plans to the borough in 60 days. The firm hopes to get them approved by year-end, start construction in early 2018 and complete the venture by March 2019.

A name for the project has yet to be selected, said O’Brien. He declined to disclose the project’s cost.

“We’re eager to work with Oak Tree,” said Karen Weibel, president of Lititz’s Borough Council.

“It’s a local firm. They have a lot of credibility. We’re extremely thankful that the building will be utilized quickly, and not sit there for five or 10 years and invite blight.”

Related: Wilbur Chocolate Store in Lititz moving across street to former Freeze & Frizz space

Mayor Tim Snyder also was enthusiastic about the plan, saying the new uses “will enhance downtown Lititz. ... It’s going to be nice. I’m looking forward to it.”

The project will bring significant change to the front, middle and rear of the property, which is zoned industrial.

In the front, the idle 180,000-square-foot manufacturing and office complex, which consists of numerous buildings constructed from 1920 to 1972, will be partially demolished.

Oak Tree will use the remainder of the existing buildings plus new construction to create a 70-room boutique hotel and more than 40 loft apartments.

This section also will include a small bistro and 4,000 square feet of small retail shops on the North Broad Street side.

Wilbur site plan

This site plan shows the location of five buildings a developer will construct on the idle Wilbur Chocolate property in downtown Lititz.

O’Brien declined to say how much of the existing buildings will remain, but he did say the renovated remainder plus new construction will form a seamless structure of 110,000 square feet.

The structure will be four stories tall in some places and five stories tall in others.

“We’re turning it into something that’s usable in today’s world, but being respectful of what was there...,” said O’Brien. “The key is to maintain as much of that iconic elevation of the building as possible.”

On the south side of this section, facing Lititz Springs Park, “the entire facade ... will be maintained, with some minor exceptions,” said O’Brien.

On the east side of this section, facing North Broad Street, the former Wilbur store will be saved.

But beside it, Wilbur’s office building from the 1970s will be razed. It will be replaced with a new structure and facade that “fits the original character,” O’Brien said.

Enthusiastic responses

That approach won kudos from Weibel.

“We’re ecstatic that Oak Tree understands the history of the building and the iconic landmark structure that it is,” she said.

Cargill executive Bryan Wurscher, in a prepared statement, made a similar observation.

“It was always our goal to find a buyer for the building that understood and respected its historical significance and its importance to people in Lititz and throughout Lancaster County,” said Wurscher, president of its North American cocoa and chocolate division.

Wurscher added that Cargill is “thrilled” by Oak Tree’s plan for the tract.

O’Brien declined to make public the renderings of this front section of the project, saying the images are preliminary and still evolving.

Any demolition will require the approval of borough council.

In the middle and rear portion of the property, Oak Tree will construct two buildings of luxury apartments (totaling nearly 140 units) and two buildings of apartments (totaling about 50 units) for people age 55 and older.

O’Brien said the numbers of apartments are tentative. These buildings will be four stories high.

The 55-plus buildings will provide independent living, complete with underground parking. But if the tenants someday are no longer able to live independently, they will have the option of moving to Pleasant View Retirement Community.

Zoning change eyed

Oak Tree’s plan for the Wilbur site comes as the borough prepares to review whether certain industrial uses are appropriate downtown, said Elijah Yearick, the borough’s director of planning and community development.

The borough’s Planning Commission told borough staff in February to look at that issue, with an eye on a master plan for downtown prepared in 2008 by the borough and Venture Lititz, a downtown promotion and advocacy group.

“There’s so much allowed by right (in the industrial zone) that doesn’t make sense for downtown,” Yearick said. He cited an equipment yard, warehouse, self-storage facility, car wash and manufacturing plant for examples.

Another provision of the current industrial zoning designation will block a key part of the Wilbur plan, unless the zoning is modified. It now allows apartments in an industrial zone only if they’re above ground-floor stores or offices.

Related: Wilbur Chocolate unveils new retail store in downtown Lititz

Just a handful of the Oak Tree apartments (the ones above the North Broad Street shops) meet this standard.

O’Brien and Yearick said the company and borough staff are discussing ways to alter the zoning to accommodate Oak Tree’s plan; any such changes will require council approval.

Another issue raised by the Oak Tree plan is the future of two Warwick Little League baseball fields on the rear of the property, which Cargill has allowed the teams to use for free.

With apartments and parking eyed on the ballfields, Little League board members are working with the borough, Warwick Township and the Regional Recreation Commission to find suitable replacement fields.

That same area is where the fireworks for Lititz Springs Park’s Fourth of July gala are set off, so Oak Tree is working with the borough and local groups to find a new location for that activity too.

Lengthy history

Wilbur came to Lititz in 1902 by merging with Kendig Chocolate, according to the Lititz Historical Foundation. Kendig already had two buildings in the first block of North Broad Street.

Minneapolis-based Cargill bought Wilbur in 1992 for $51 million.

Cargill announced in October 2015 that it was closing the 48 N. Broad St. complex, saying the site’s byzantine layout made it too inefficient to operate and too expensive to modernize.

Operations ceased in January 2016, idling about 100 employees and ending 113 years of chocolate making by Wilbur there.

The plant made chocolate, chocolate liquor and a chocolate substitute named compound, a mix of cocoa, sweeteners and vegetable fat. These products were sold to food and beverage manufacturers.

In October, Cargill moved its Wilbur Chocolate store and museum from the front of the plant to the former Freeze & Frizz location across the street.

Wilbur continues to operate plants on West Lincoln Avenue in Lititz and in Mount Joy.

Oak Tree, established in 2005, is among the county’s most active developers. Its portfolio has 1.15 million square feet of office, retail, medical, multi-family and industrial/flex space.

Projects include Lime Spring Farm, Lime Spring Square, Donegal Square, Richmond Square and Mountain Springs.

Oak Tree co-founders and principals Ian Ruzow, Steve Zuckerman, Bob Zuckerman and Rob Liss started the business after selling their ownership in Clipper Magazine the year before.