St Joe aerial 001a.jpg

This is an aerial view, captured Sept. 24, 2019, of the building at 250 College Ave. in Lancaster city that formerly housed UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster, Lancaster Regional Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital.

THE ISSUE

“Developers are proposing to convert the onetime St. Joseph Hospital into offices, shops and housing as part of a wider $90 million redevelopment project on Lancaster’s west side that includes up to 120 apartments for low-and-moderate income tenants,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Jeff Hawkes reported last week. He cited a City of Lancaster Facebook post that described the proposed new use for the shuttered hospital site and two nearby properties as “an exciting mixed-use, mixed-income vision.” The developer’s purchase of the site from UPMC Pinnacle hinges on rezoning the entire hospital block; a Lancaster City Council committee is slated to review the request next Monday.

This is a promising development.

We know some community activists were hoping that the former St. Joe’s would be used as a medical facility for folks on the west side of town.

But Lancaster city — indeed all of Lancaster County — is in serious need of low-income and affordable housing. Moreover, mixed-use developments are best for both local economies and the environment. (When retail space is nearby, vehicle usage is reduced.) And this plan meets the Lancaster County Planning Commission’s aim of developing compactly in urban growth areas to preserve farmland elsewhere in the county.

This we also found encouraging: The project is a partnership of Baltimore-based Washington Place Equities and affordable housing developer HDC MidAtlantic in Lancaster. So we have confidence that low-income and affordable housing will become a reality in this project.

As Hawkes reported, the plan calls for converting most of the former hospital into 150 to 175 market-rate apartments, with up to 10,000 square feet for retail; converting the hospital’s southeast section into an office complex totaling about 40,000 square feet; and building 25 to 30 row homes for sale along West End Avenue between West Walnut Street and Marietta Avenue, “restoring how the block looked before it became hospital parking.”

Of the 325 housing units proposed, 100 to 120 would be affordable to people with low and moderate incomes.

The affordable housing would be built on three sites: two four-story apartment buildings of 20 to 30 units each on Wheatland and College avenues; and 50 to 60 affordable townhouses on a section of the hospital block facing Marietta Avenue.

“This is a win for Lancaster’s working families, families whose income has not kept up with the cost of housing,” Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace said.

We agree, but have a question: Is more office space needed now? Could some of the proposed office space be converted for additional retail — like a small grocery offering fresh food — that serves the neighborhood?

Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El didn’t reveal his position. “I think it’s incredibly telling how excited we get over the possibility of 100 to 120 units of affordable housing when, indeed, the need is in the thousands,” he said. “This has been a tough time for the community with the loss of that hospital, so we don’t want to trade away … what it means to the community without a sense of certainty that the community is going to get something that it actually needs.”

We understand his point. But more than 100 affordable housing units is “something.”

And while the trend toward mixing incomes in housing developments has seen varying levels of success, it’s a better option than concentrating low-income families in one neighborhood or area, leaving those families to deal with underfunded schools and public services.

A possible snag: As Hawkes reported, “More than 30% of the development’s housing will be affordable through the use of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits.”

But HDC MidAtlantic “can’t proceed with the affordable housing unless the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency approves tax credits for the project.”

And securing them is not a certainty. Last year, Hawkes reported, three Lancaster County projects were among the ones denied.

We hope the state agency gives this project the consideration it deserves.

Activist Tammy Rojas, co-coordinator of the grassroots Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee, opposes the project. She raised concerns about gentrification and the displacement of the poor from city neighborhoods.

Rojas has been a fierce champion for retaining the use of the old St. Joe’s for health care purposes, especially in this pandemic. We’d urge the developers of this project to heed her concerns and those of other community members.

But we'd also urge Rojas to keep an open mind and not be so immediately dismissive of this proposal. Huge construction projects can be difficult to navigate and will require some compromises.

We’ve implored developers for years to build affordable housing — and not just in the city, but across the county.

We’d like to see the developer of the former Stehli Silk Mill in Manheim Township, for instance, include some units priced at less than the estimated $1,000-1,500 a month. Those are reasonable rents, but still out of range for many working people.

Reviving Lancaster County’s economy — damaged by COVID-19 and the necessary monthslong shutdown of businesses — will depend, in part, on ensuring that workers can find affordable housing.

The block occupied by the former St. Joe’s has been pretty much abandoned since UPMC closed its hospital there in February 2019. We hope the project fulfills the promise we see in it — while making sure it doesn’t abandon the community in which it is to be built.

Right to know prevails

Gov. Tom Wolf allowed a bill requiring state agencies to fulfill Right-to-Know requests during emergencies to become law Sunday. He didn’t sign it, but he didn’t veto it, either.

This was a victory for transparency in Pennsylvania, and we applaud Republican state Rep. Seth Grove of York County for championing this bill, and his fellow lawmakers for voting for it.