Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Lancaster Square Not a "Concrete Eyesore," Just Not Feasible

According to the Feb. 27 Intelligencer Journal, "plans to demolish portions of Lancaster Square are being finalized and pieces of the concrete eyesore could start coming down this summer."

Elsewhere similar-appearing projects built in the 1960s continue to be successes and are a source of community pride. So the problem with Lancaster Square was not the design, with the four star Hilton Hotel and the Hess Department Store serving as anchors, but because the sponsors of the project had failed to adequately explore the feasibility of both major uses.

There simply wasn't sufficient business to sustain the Hilton Hotel due to the paucity of commerce downtown. And tourists preferred to vacation closer to farmland and the Amish. Occupancy was abysmal, Hilton withdrew its franchise, and the mortgage lender took over the property. For years rooms and meeting space were mainly leased to the federal government for training purposes.

The opening of a downtown department store was so contrary to the national trend to suburban shopping centers, that the Wall Street Journal wrote a front page article heralding the Hess opening as the first such event in twenty years. After several years, the store was converted to light industrial use.

Finally, with the introduction of multiple cinema complexes, the movie theater between the Hilton and Hess could no longer compete and has remained empty since.

The scope and investment in Lancaster Square is only rivaled by the current convention center / hotel project. History may be about to repeat itself, since the only feasibility study for the current project (PKF in 2006) predicted huge losses, for many of the same reasons that had doomed the earlier Hilton and Hess.

So how many years will it be before the Intelligencer Journal will describe the Convention Center project as a "concrete eyesore"?