Planning Commission 3

Attorney Mark Stanley of McNees Wallace & Nurick, representing UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster, speaks to the Lancaster city Planning Commission with members of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee and other city residents watching in the background, in City Council chambers on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. 

Lancaster city’s planning commission will have many factors to weigh Wednesday as it considers whether to recommend rezoning the former UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster hospital property from “hospital complex” to “mixed-use.”

The College Avenue complex, which has been closed for nearly a year, is back on the tax rolls — but it’s paying even less than it did when it was untaxed.

Under Pennsylvania law, real estate owned by a nonprofit like UPMC is only tax-exempt if it’s “actually and regularly used” for the nonprofit’s mission.

Industry experts say there’s no plausible case for the site to remain a hospital. UPMC says it has two “serious developers” interested in creating a mix of residential and retail there.

City officials would like to see it redeveloped sooner rather than later. Activists fear the result would be a high-end development, contributing to gentrification and worsening the city’s economic divide. They’re calling on the city to slow down.

The commission debated the matter at its meeting last month, but deferred a decision. Its recommendation goes to City Council, which would have to pass an ordinance to amend the zoning code.

Here’s what’s at stake:

Why does the zoning matter?

“Hospital complex” allows for only a hospital and some related uses. “Mixed use” allows many options, including the kind of residential and retail complex that UPMC says potential buyers want to build.

What does City Hall think?

The zoning change would help return the site to productive use, which is what the city wants, said Chris Delfs, director of community planning and economic development.

Mixed use fits the neighborhood, he said, and aligns with the city’s and county’s growth strategies, as detailed in documents like “Building on Strength” and “Places2040.”

What do local activists think?

They don’t trust UPMC and believe allowing a business-as-usual redevelopment process will shortchange the community. They want the city to study all its options, including re-using the complex rather than demolishing it. They’d like to see a health care use plus affordable housing, a homeless shelter or both.

What is the city’s response?

It’s fair to ask what community benefit there will be, Delfs said. That will become clear as the planning and development process continues, he said. At present, he said, “there’s a lot we don’t know.”

“Ideally, we’d be working with a capable developer to realize a vision for that site,” he said, adding that the city’s priorities definitely include “some degree of housing choice.”

Since December’s commission meeting, the city has met with UPMC and potential developers. Delfs declined to elaborate, but said he expects some aspects of those discussions will be revealed Wednesday.

Why can’t the site reopen as a hospital?

Because the complex is in bad shape, and because the region’s health care environment is evolving rapidly.

UPMC hasn’t said much about the building’s condition. But Brooks Turkel, president of UPMC’s Lancaster region, told the Planning Commission that when UPMC had the facility operating, “it was a daily question whether the lights would come on, whether we’d be able to have heating, ventilation and air conditioning.”

There’s “water intrusion,” too, from a stream that runs under the property, he said.

The facility was comparatively small, outdated, and operating in a market dominated by a larger provider, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital. Nationwide, those factors are strongly associated with closures, said Stephen Foreman, a professor of economics and health administration at Robert Morris University.

LGH’s ER expansion and Penn State’s plans for a hospital in East Hempfield Township make the business case against keeping the site a hospital even more overwhelming, he said.