Sunday, November 9, 2008

PLANNING / REAL ESTATE: Let Lancaster be Lancaster!

A Nov. 9th Sunday News Business Section article "Divergent generations converging on the city" is occasion for reflection, especially in view of information gleaned from "A City Transformed, 1940-1980" by F & M Professor David Schuyler.

The article discusses the trend of empty nesters and young professional to locate downtown, a phenomenon long common in cities throughout the country and elsewhere.

Throughout the past century, misguided local leaders and officials continuously ignored our regions' natural attributes and limitations and instead tried to model Lancaster after cities with similar or larger populations that, unlike Lancaster, were centers for a large portion of their state.

The first mistake was the failure to recognize that, dwarfed by Philadelphia, Baltimore and Harrisburg and close to Reading, Lancaster was never meant to attract office tenants beyond those who would be servicing the immediate county market.

Secondly, leaders were unwilling to accept that, due to the post World War II population movement to suburbs, it was impractical for Lancaster to compete with Park City as a 'regional' shopping center.

Yet there was and are important roles for downtown as a center for government, banking, attorneys (due to the court house) and as a 'community' shopping center for an increasingly gentrified downtown community and with restaurants, specialty boutiques and activities that attract suburban visitors and tourists.

The future success of Lancaster will not be tied to unnatural implants that discourage rather than encourage prosperity, but rather to the logical evolution of a pleasant, traditional downtown area replete with small shops and restaurants and activities such as First Friday. And the best opportunity for a burgeoning downtown is the potential growth of the Pennsylvania Music Academy, which benefits from its proximity to major metropolitan cultural areas but yet provides a small town environment attractive to families sending their talented youngsters from throughout the world.

Lancaster’s leaders need to stop wasting money on wrong headed projects and, instead, concentrate on opportunities that further Lancaster's inherent strengths and opportunities, the public library being another example.

Towards the end of "A City transformed", Schuyoler states "Lancaster's long, painful experience in redeveloping North Queen Streeet convinced business and civic leaders that private investment, not federal programs, was the key to downtown revitalization." Three decades later the Convention Center Project mushroomed from a 50% / 50% private enterprise and governmentally funded project to one triple in cost and consisting of 90% state and city grants and guarantees. How quick we forget!

After three years of study of the local scene, I stand by my article published by the Sunday News in September, 2005 and reproduced below:

September, 2005

"Past Folly & Future Hope"

In planning for the future it is important to avoid mistakes of the past; and building on current successes is less risky than pursuing untested concepts.

With the proposed Convention / Hotel Center, it is especially urgent that we avoid the mistakes that led to the failure of Lancaster Square or we may go down the same disastrous road. The reasons for that failure, as given by former mayor and guest columnist Art Morris in the August 18th Sunday News, were very wide of the mark.

When Lancaster Square was developed a quarter century ago, it was anchored by the Hilton Hotel (currently the Brunswick) and the Hess Department Store. The Hess opening so contradicted the national trend that the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story heralding it to be the first new department store in a downtown location in twenty years. With department stores abandoning downtown locations in favor of suburban malls, Hess struggled from the outset and closed a few years later!

The newly opened Hilton Hotel was, as Art Morris correctly recalls, indeed a delight. But it could not survive national trends either. Downtown hotels struggled then and now in cities such as Allentown, Reading, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Lancaster, while suburban motor hotels flourished and continue to prosper.

Further it is typical for hotels to serve the commercial market on weekdays and tourists on the weekends and over the summer. In our region, most commercial activity takes place in the suburbs and the primary tourist attractions (such as the Amish, Dutch Wonderland and the Rockvale Square outlet stores) are miles from center city. Also downtown Lancaster is isolated from major traffic arteries and thus downtown is not a suitable overnight spot for transients. Historically downtown Lancaster hotel occupancy rates have been very low and the average room price modest.

Recently purchased for a tiny fraction of reproduction cost, the Brunswick is being upgraded and will better serve downtown.

After decades of experience in developing and managing commercial real estate including five hotels (none local), my sense is that, given the current proliferation of convention centers and downtown Lancaster’s lack of comparative advantages, the proposed convention center may not prove viable. At best, the Conference Center is unlikely to generate nearly enough added room nights to support both the renovated 220 room Brunswick and the proposed, costly 300 room Marriott.

Is the downtown situation so unpromising that we need to do "something", no matter how great the subsidy, how much is put at risk and how questionable the prospects for success?

Fortunately this is not the case. We already have several institutions that have proven to be very successful and need only a moderate amount of community support to enable them to grow to their full potential.

1) The Lancaster Public Library on Duke Street, though it has not been enlarged or renovated for decades, nonetheless attracts some thousand persons a day despite being closed most evenings and on Sundays. Other cities take great pride in a new or recently enlarged and renovated library which serves as a cultural center and benefits all generations and the entire community. (The expanded and fully renovated Martin Library in York holds its grand re-opening in October.) A modernized and properly funded library would draw hundreds of patrons during evenings and Sunday afternoons and would encourage the location of professional offices downtown.

2) The Pennsylvania Academy of Music (PAM) ( was formed to bring to South Central Pennsylvania the opportunity to pursue an accredited superior musical education. It has attracted distinguished faculty members from New York, Baltimore and elsewhere and students from outside this region and even from abroad. PAM could be developed into a private high school for musicians along the lines of Julliard in New York and Curtis in Philadelphia. PAM’s growth would require more school facilities, dormitories, and spur development of downtown cafes, boutiques, shops and housing. And its concerts would attract many local and out of town visitors.

3) Pennsylvania College of Art & Design (PCA&D) ( is an accredited professional art college offering bachelor of art programs in fine art, graphic design, illustration, and photography. Its expansion would further contribute to a downtown campus and cultural atmosphere.

4) Bethel Harambee currently performs "Living the Experience" at the
Bethel A. M. E. church and this dinner show already draws bus loads of tourists of all races and creeds. ( Its "Church Town Rediscovered" project envisions a 600 seat auditorium south of Center Square for live performances of this and other African-American cultural and historical presentations and use by other organizations. Development of this project would bring tourist business downtown and help revitalize the neighborhood.

By embracing and supporting these and other viable projects, we can avoid the white elephants of the past and create a vibrant downtown where companies will compete for prime sites and not require immense grants from government, generous tax abatements, and risky City guarantees.

Robert Edwin Field