Lancaster’s Row Homes

23 Jun

It’s hard to beat Lancaster’s row homes. Brick beauties line streets throughout the city. They are architectural windows into our past. Most in Lancaster were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They are quintessential Lancaster. With the “largest contiguous historic district in the country,” our main streets and side streets are lined with hidden gems. In many cities surrounding Lancaster–Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. to name a few–comparable homes to Lancaster’s row homes often sell for a small fortune. We should do all we can to celebrate and protect these homes. They are an important distinctive for our city.

Lancaster Row Homes

In Lancaster, you can buy and rent these homes very reasonably. The first home I (Chris) bought in Lancaster City was 405 North Queen Street (pictured below). Built in 1890, it is classically Lancaster. All original hardwood floors (once we peeled off layers of hideous carpet and vinyl). Beautiful brick construction. One bathroom (upstairs, of course) and a great alley leading back to a private patio. And I bought it for less than $100,000. When I show pictures to friends from outside the area, I often will ask them to guess my purchase price. Consistently, I hear guesses north of $300,000. And it reminds me just what a special city Lancaster is. For the first time in five years, this property is available for rent (August 1 move-in). If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact us. Or, you can check out the listing on Craigslist for more details.

405 N Queen St

Stehli Silk Mill Sneak Peek

11 Oct

I’ve said it before: It’s the most potential-laden building in all of Lancaster. The Stehli Silk Mill is equal parts beautiful and tormenting, as it sits majestically dormant. For one day, however, the building sputtered to life. And it only exacerbated my conviction about this reality.

Exterior

The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County convened a party (a Gourmet Gala) at the Mill. For the first time recently I’m aware of, the big iron doors were thrown open to the public. And as I walked the building’s voluminous halls, it lived up to my imagination. Seemingly innumerable massive windows lined the halls. Original wood floors exuded promise. Original millwork and manufacturing details provided intrigue and surprises around each corner.

Windows

Matthew Bupp, who owns the building, has grand plans for it, aspiring to bring on partners to develop it into senior housing or some sort of mixed use urban complex. To date, I haven’t yet heard concrete plans to reinvigorate this architectural gem, but I can’t wait to see promise converted into reality. If a thoughtful developer takes a plan forward with the building, it will be an instant landmark. To get a sense for “what could be” …take a quick trip south to Baltimore and do a meal at the Clipper Mill.

Doors

Something is Better than Nothing?

14 Jun

Faced with tremendous pressure because of the Lancaster Shopping Center and Park City Mall, the City of Lancaster’s retail sector nearly collapsed in the late 1950s. Landmark city retailer W.T. Grant (“Grant’s”) bolted for the ‘burbs and the once-vibrant retail corridor on the 100 block of North Queen lost 30% of its value in just a few years. Surging vacancies and decreasing values created an identity crisis. To compete with the onslaught of suburban retail, city leaders elected to raze the buildings lining North Queen and construct what they hoped would become the “prosperous hub of the Lancaster Metropolitan Area.” And Lancaster Square was born. (Source: A City Transformed, a must-read book on the City of Lancaster from 1940-1980)

There’s a tension I feel in urban real estate. And it’s a tension that city planners felt in the 1950s and 1960s. The purists fight for conservation at all costs, and are only happy with “perfect” uses. The pragmatists fight for progress, development and action. They are motivated by change, enlivened to see vacant buildings replaced by occupied ones. Enthralled to watch new construction consume vacant lots.

This tension was on full display when Lancaster General Health unveiled their plans for the former YMCA property on 500 North Queen. Vacant for years, the property formerly housed the YMCA, but now is simply an aging (and  ugly, I might add) complex of non-historic buildings and empty parking lots. LGH plans to raze these buildings and construct a hospital complex (an office building and 632-space parking garage) in its place.

Source: Google Streetview

Not everyone agrees that this is the right use for the property, however. At a City Council meeting in March, Design Lancaster distributed a position paper arguing that LGH’s proposed use is “monolithic and incongruent with the scale and architecture of surrounding blocks.” They pleaded with Council members to urge LGH toward a use more befitting the historic neighborhood.

Frankly, both sides of this debate merit our ear. The purist in me sympathizes with Design Lancaster’s qualms. Will a six-story parking garage cultivate the type of energy, community and vibrancy Lancaster has become known for? To “humanize” the project, is there still time to introduce street-level retail or even a mix of street-facing residential suites to complement the office building and parking garage?

I’m reminded of the clarion voice of urbanist pioneer Jane Jacobs who said,

When a primary use is combined, effectively, with another that puts people on the street at different times, then the effect can be economically stimulating…insufficient primary mixture is typically the principal fault in our downtowns, and often the only disastrous basic fault.

In other words, if LGH builds a commuter parking garage and office building that is only humming with activity during primary business hours, these blocks won’t “feel like Lancaster.” They’ll be robust at times and eerily quiet at others.

On the other hand, I look at the property now and think LGH’s proposed structures (no matter their appearance) are a massive improvement over vacant parking lots and the derelict buildings that sit there. Adding layers of red tape and regulatory roadblocks to development could stifle a project like this altogether. While my inner-Jacobs would love to see retail and residential uses added to the current design, I also know that LGH is taking all the financial risk and needs the property to fulfill their growing needs. As a property owner, I have seen firsthand how “perfect can be the enemy of great,” often preventing or impeding healthy progress.

And it’s in this tension where I think lies the most potential. Rather than pitting the purists against the pragmatists, I think they need to link arms, or at least try to. Because the residents of downtown Lancaster care so deeply about the uniqueness and historicity of their city, an opportunity presents itself for developers, planners and concerned residents to work together. We can make healthy progress when we listen to one another. In this and future projects, I hope that’s possible. Let’s give all City stakeholders an opportunity, at the very least, to strengthen our plans.

Open House at 43 South Prince Street

13 Jun

We are excited to host an open house on Wednesday, June 20 from 5:00 – 7:30 PM at 43 South Prince Street. A second-floor apartment, with freshly completed renovations, will be available for viewing. If you would like to RSVP and join our mailing list for future openings, please click here or submit your name/email here.

Come get a glimpse of this beautiful historic apartment building located right in the heart of the City of Lancaster.

Map of the property.

historic door knob


Here’s to the Little Guys

2 Mar

Blockbusters make headlines, but sometimes the low-budget films actually pack the most punch. The Artist, produced for a meager $15M, took home this year’s top awards at the Oscars, including best picture and best director. And this same principle applies to our city.

Lancaster’s streets are replete with oft-ballyhooed  projects like the Watt & Shand retrofit, Urban Place, College Row, Historic East Side and the Ware Center. And these projects should be celebrated. They inject high-impact vibrancy to their blocks, attract many visitors and contribute mightily to the magnetism of Lancaster’s urban core.

But off the main drag, the proverbial “off-Broadway” productions slip by without notice, rarely making the news headlines. These projects typically only surface in conversations between neighbors within a tight radius of the property, but their contribution to the health of the city is no less significant. Like the unassuming little brother of the star athlete, these “boutique” projects have a personality too!

In Lancaster, boutique developments typically reside in the $50,000-$2,000,000 investment spectrum. On the smaller side of this range, I think about one of our good friends who buys vacant row homes (all in terrible condition) for $30,000-50,000. His investment group puts some capital and elbow grease into the home and then rents or sells the renovated properties. It’s well-documented that vacant properties are a healthy city’s biggest foe. And this sort of project matters.

On an even smaller scale, many Lancaster families and an astonishing number of aspiring entrepreneurs buy “fixer-uppers” or rent a tired storefront and infuse some TLC into improving it. Fresh paint, planted street trees, repointed brick facades and filled apartments contribute meaningfully toward healthy cities.

On the other side of the boutique spectrum are projects like the type we like to undertake at Re3. A bit more substantial, these projects typically demand more business expertise, real estate savvy and more complex financing. The most significant of these projects involve converting sad or dying properties into vibrant, contributing “block-changers.”

Scott Graeber, a real estate developer, recently found his way to the Intelligencer Journal because of his commitment to rehabilitating the Posey Iron Works building. Empty for years, Scott took a risk to convert this metal factory into eleven apartments.

It’s been vacant so long I think I can help out the city.

And help out he will. He’s taking a major risk on a property in a rough part of town. Good for him. The importance of this type of project cannot be overstated. Where once stood a crime-riddled, uninhabited shell for vagrants and drug-deals will now house eleven neighbors.

When investors and families take a risk on launching their boutique projects, they do more than simply rehabilitate a piece of real estate. They inject love into their block. To have a healthy city, we need safe dwellings, lighted streets, and occupied buildings. I’m reminded of the ancient proverb that heralds the work of good neighbors:

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

No better time than now. Get out there and start restoring streets to dwell in. Our city will benefit because of it. And even if the journalists don’t call, know that you make your city a better place.

Lancaster Press Building Moves Forward

13 Feb

Last week we attended the opening reception for the The Lancaster Press Building. It was a tremendous privilege to join civic leaders, developers and members of the press for the unveiling of a model unit in this converted cigar factory. Live music floated through the historic structure as excited guests experienced what the Press Building will look like when the dream of Garden Spot Village comes to fruition.

Source: The Lancaster Press Building

Developers plan 44 units for the landmark building that anchors the northeast corner of Prince and Lemon streets. Priced from $215,00-435,000, these one and two bedroom lofts are for active adults aged 55 and over. The Press Building will feature many attractive amenities such as a rooftop deck, a garden and a secure parking garage. Tippetts/Weaver designed a number of nice floorplans for the space and the units will feature all the great aspects of traditional urban lofts: Exposed beams, high ceilings and lots of stainless steel.

We are excited about this innovative adaptive reuse project. This factory has been vacant for a long time. The historicity and “classically Lancaster” architectural heritage of the building are well-worth preserving and adapting for an appropriate use. We are thrilled by the this project and anxious to see the dream become a reality.

Top Ten: Year in Review

23 Jan

We love this city. In 2011, Lancaster bolstered its image as an emerging city with tremendous momentum on its side. Pioneering small business owners, repurposed warehouses, prettied sidewalks and constructed murals surfaced across the urban landscape. Here are the top ten reasons to celebrate from the past year:

1) Streetscape improvements: The sidewalks up-and-down the main city corridors look terrific. These modifications–widened and brick-banded sidewalks, new street trees, and fresh paving illuminate the beautiful architecture and make the streets friendlier to pedestrians. The City of Lancaster has done a great job of emphasizing the importance of sidewalks and lighting. It’s the little things that make cities work.

2) Shadow Lawn Apartments: When the developers announced this project, it immediately enthused me. I love to see new faces in the urban real estate scene (in this instance, former owner of Auntie Anne’s, Sam Beiler) and I love to see new uses of empty buildings. Potential drips from this building and I think the final project will energize this block. Let’s hope this is the first of many projects for

3) Historic East Side: Well, this project is simply beautiful. Veteran city developer, John Meeder, took a largely vacant and tired street and infused fresh life and significant financial resources into this burgeoning district. A mix of historically accurate first floor retail and upper floor apartments (with a splash of office suites) brings the right mix of usage to this center city neighborhood.

Source: Historic East Side web site

4) Urban Greening: A famous lyricist affectionately described New York City as a “concrete jungle” (where dreams are made). When we think of cities, we think of hulking high-rises and asphalt alleys. In this light, cities are the horticultural opposite of the rolling countryside. The healthiest cities, however, go beyond steel and concrete. Lancaster is a reformer, demonstrating that Lancaster can be a city that holds onto its agricultural heritage. Hundreds of new street trees, a bunch of new green roofs and an ambitious porous alley project set in motion a very positive trend for the city.

Source: LIVE Green Lancaster

5) Central Market renovation: It’s called “The Jewel of Center City.” And in 2011, we polished the jewel with a beautiful renovation. While nobody likes flimsy orange fencing and the other inconveniences of construction, the final product was well-worth the pain. The City of Lancaster restored Central Market back to much of its original grandeur, improving the heating/cooling systems and opening up long-closed windows for improved natural lighting.

6) 22 new businesses: The Central Penn Business Journal reported an astounding number: 22. Over the course of the past 12 months, Lancaster City has had a net gain of 22 new businesses (35 over the past two years). In a sluggish economy, this dramatic growth is even more impressive. These new businesses bring a lot of exciting new faces and spaces into the city. The list is long, but it includes Orange Street Velo, The Fridge, Fresco Green, La Petite Patisserie, Party Perfect, Laporte Jewelers, The Sassy Tassel (best business name ever!), Maison (with beautiful design care of Infantree), Envy Studio, Fraiche Studio, Lemon Street Market, Pour Wine Bar, Prince Street Hideaway, Freiman Stoltzfus Gallery, City Ballroom, The Shoppes at 301, Resale Therapy Boutique and CVS on College Row (if I missed you, jot a note in the comments and I’ll add you!).

Source: Orange Street Velo

7) Miguel’s No Mas: The Spanish American Civic Association (SACA) purchased the tract of land surrounding the “illustrious” Miguel’s Nightclub in southeast Lancaster. SACA not only has a proven track record of success, but they also purchased the Miguel’s property, an establishment known to introduce countless police problems. Their plans include apartments, homes, and retail and will build on the high-potential location bordering the Conestoga River. This will be an anchor development in southeast Lancaster and I am anxious to see it rise.

8) Poetry Paths: At the intersection of art, poetry, and Lancaster’s heritage you will find Poetry Paths. Across the city, at over a dozen proposed sites, poetry has begun to surface. These projects, ranging from Tabor to PCAD, will infuse unique energy into the city streets and thanks to some enthusiastic supporters, it has the potential to make a wide and deep impact.

9) The Candy Factory Expansion: The Candy Factory is quintessential Lancaster. It is a tremendous picture of community and entrepreneurship. Housed in the historic Keppel building, Candy Factory is a co-working facility. Over 30 members call Candy Factory their corporate home and they announced this year that they are expanding because of the strong demand. Onward and upward.

10) Ponessa Groundbreaking: There is nothing sweeter than the disappearance of a surface-level parking lot. Anyone who consistently reads this blog knows surface parking lots are the thorn in my urbanist side.  The northwest corner of Lemon and Prince streets was a dead spot in Lancaster’s city center for entirely too long. I’m excited for Ponessa and Lewis and Associates as the infill development project they’re endeavoring upon will breathe fresh life into this corner. They still have a long way to go, but I’m glad to see they’ve broken ground.

Source: Lewis & Associates