Lemon Street pocket park

Landscaping, pavers and other enhancements are coming soon to finish up the pocket park at 31-35 W. Lemon St.

THE ISSUE

A new “pocket” park is coming to Lancaster city. The park at 31-35 W. Lemon St. will be, according to Wednesday’s article by LNP’s Tim Stuhldreher, “smaller than a high school basketball court.” But what’s not small is the cost of turning this modest green space into a reality: close to $750,000. “The authority is covering the costs with money from repayments on loans the authority extended — using state grant funds — to help build the Marriott at Penn Square,” Stuhldreher wrote. “Additional funds come from loan repayments from the Press Building project.”

For those wondering about that basketball court analogy: The standard dimensions for a high school basketball court are 84 feet by 50 feet. That works out to 4,200 square feet.

The park designated for the former site of three city row homes will be 3,255 square feet — about 78% the size of a high school basketball court.

Furthermore, a single tennis court, not including the area outside the lines, is about 2,800 square feet.

Get the picture?

This is a small park.

It’s touted as the “final piece” of the block’s revitalization, according to Marisol Torres, the city’s housing and economic development administrator. That revitalization effort also included the Lancaster Press Building — a six-story brick building converted into a high-end residential complex with 48 condominiums, plus a French-American restaurant on the ground floor; a parking garage; and two former warehouses that became the Prince Street Centre — “three multi-use buildings offering office space, restaurant space and luxury apartments,” according to its website.

It’s not hard to see why a small park would be a welcome amenity on this block.

Developer Ed Drogaris, who led the Press Building and Prince Street Centre projects, “previously told LNP that he didn’t ask the city to build a park but agreed it would be a positive for his project,” Stuhldreher noted.

Indeed, we like parks, too. But it’s the costs — and we’re not just talking dollars — that concern us in this case.

Six years ago, in 2013, there were a trio of row homes on what will be the site of the park. At that point, they were up to code.

In 2014, the Lancaster city redevelopment authority bought 33 and 35 W. Lemon St.

In 2016, it used eminent domain to acquire the third home, 31 W. Lemon St.

“By that time, the houses were in poor condition,” Stuhldreher wrote. “The owner of 31 W. Lemon St. had gutted it; the other two were ruled uninhabitable. Torres said the houses were too far gone to be worth saving.”

Perhaps that’s true. But we wish another path had been taken. Lancaster is greatly in need of housing, especially affordable housing. We don’t think it was wise to turn space that could have housed multiple families and generated tax revenue into a small park that may be aesthetically pleasing but will benefit relatively few.

City officials counter that it would have cost $676,500 or more to renovate the three row homes, but that high figure is certainly a consequence of the city’s announced intentions and decisions regarding those parcels starting in 2013.

And we especially don’t like that eminent domain — the power of a government to take private property and convert it into public use — was deployed for this. The end result is certainly not sufficient justification for wielding that level of power.

Officials stress that this will be a public park, like any other in the city, but let’s be realistic about who’s going to benefit from it. As Stuhldreher notes, “A walkway will run through the park from the Press Building to the North Queen Street Garage, where the condominium’s tenants park their vehicles.”

And then there’s the cost in dollars. The Lancaster city redevelopment authority spent a little over $467,000 to acquire the row homes and the land just east of the Press Building, demolish the row homes, rebuild a stretch of sidewalk and have an architectural plan created for the park.

And last month it awarded a $282,592 contract to Doug Lamb Construction to build the park.

With those overall costs of about $750,000, Stuhldreher notes that the park will cost about $230 per square foot. “That’s comparable to the two new city fire stations, which are expected to cost $4 million to $5 million apiece, or $222 to $278 per square foot,” he wrote.

We think that’s absurd.

A park that’s essentially the size of a tennis court shouldn’t cost so much. Why does it have to be so elaborate? In addition to the aforementioned walkway, it will have trees, landscaping and low walls upon which people can sit. Much of the ground — too much for our taste — will be covered surface, not grass, which seems to be at cross-purposes with the notion of a park as “green space.”

So we question spending more than $282,000 on the construction. We understand that’s a function of the bid specifications, so our issue on this is with the redevelopment authority, not the winning contractor.

To take a position at the admittedly extreme other end of this debate: Because this is a public park, could it perhaps have been built as part of an Eagle Scout project or something similar? Involve the community. Get creative. Such a course might have left more redevelopment funds available for other priorities.

Too many aspects of this project left us shaking our heads and wondering whether the city and public interests have truly been best served.