St Joe aerial 001a.jpg (copy)

The vacant UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster hospital, formerly Lancaster Regional Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital, is seen in a September 2019 file photo.

A vote to rezone the former St. Joseph Hospital property to facilitate a $90 million plan to transform it into a mix of residential, office, and commercial space could come as early as Sept. 8.

UPMC Pinnacle and the two development firms it is partnering with on the project — Washington Place Equities and HDC MidAtlantic — made a presentation to City Council on Thursday that was almost identical to one it made to the board on Aug. 3. UPMC owns the property in the 200 block of College Avenue.

Baltimore-based Washington Place Equities plans to convert the old part of the hospital into 150 to 175 market-rate apartments while turning the new wing into 40,000 to 50,000 square feet of office space. It also plans to build around 30 townhomes in the area that is currently a parking lot behind the old hospital.

Lancaster-based HDC MidAtlantic plans to build around 120 units of affordable housing, two 30-unit buildings near the hospital in phase one, with 60 townhomes on the hospital property in phase two. Tenants in the townhomes could have an opportunity to purchase their homes well below market value after 15 years under one plan being considered by HDC.

The public comment at Thursday’s hearing, which again was heavily in favor of the proposal, broke down along the same arguments that were presented at the Aug. 3 meeting.

No vote was taken Thursday. That is expected to come at City Council’s Sept. 8 meeting, where members of the public will have another opportunity to weigh in prior to the vote.

Supporters make their case

Supporters of the project, most of whom identified themselves as residents of the surrounding neighborhood at Thursday’s hearing, said it will breathe new life into the vacant building, which they say is unlikely to ever be used as a hospital again.

They pointed out that three different medical organizations have now abandoned the site. The facility, which was constructed in the 1950s, is no longer feasible as a hospital they claim.

“I have watched the failure of multiple hospital systems at that location with the realization that use has passed it’s time and place,” wrote Cindy Sawicki, who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years. Sawicki was one of more than 15 people who submitted written comments prior to the hearing, which was held via Zoom.

“A project that can help transform an empty building and lot into an alternative, positive development is a chance at a path forward for the neighborhood and the city as a whole,” Sawicki added, a sentiment echoed by many supporters.

The inclusion of 120 units of affordable housing, including townhouses that will be part of a program to assist residents to become owners of the property after 15 years, was also applauded by supporters

Critics advocate for the poor

Opponents of the project, most of whom identified themselves as members of the antipoverty activist group Put People First! Pa., railed against what they described as UPMC’s corporate greed in abandoning the city and its poor. They argued that the former hospital should be kept in reserve in case it is needed to combat the coronavirus.

“We must wait until we get through the COVID-19 pandemic before we give away a public resource that could help us get through this crisis,” said Tammy Rojas, who has been a frequent critic of the plan.

Matthew Rosing, who is the coordinator of the activist group’s Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee, said the former hospital belongs to the “poor and dispossessed” of Lancaster and called for the complex to be transformed into a facility to provide services to the poor, including a medical and dental clinic, a homeless shelter with a family space and activities for children, a community garden, and space for a government entity to help the poor connect with needed resources.

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