Without a map of where we really want to go, we’re unlikely to end up where we really want to be.
To some degree, any downtown (outside of major metropolises) is a delicate eco-system of finance, businesses, livability, and functionality. To always defer to the “market” as if any and every new investment will save us and never damage us, is to ignore history’s many examples. The “market” will usually commit to a project development direction for primarily financial reasons, and sometimes downtowns benefit, but more often they get hammered by unintended, even unconsidered consequences, through actions taken by both public initiatives and “the market” : Lancaster Square, the former YMCA at Queen and Frederick, are a few examples.
When Lancaster’s c. 1923 Griest building was first built, it put so much new large office space on the market that it sucked most occupants out of the ~ 40 yr old Woolworth bldg in the same block. Eventually, as it declined and after a fire on upper stories, the historic Woolworth bldg with its domed towers, roof terraces, and grand commercial scale was demolished. We got a “5&10 cent store” there in its place; not a great addition to the city architecturally, but at least an active spot. What we got as a replacement office building, however, was a high-quality piece of architecture in the Griest bldg. Loss of the old can sometimes be worth it, IF (big, bold “if”) the city gets new architectural and urban development quality of equal or added value out of the new design and construction. This was the case with the Griest building, but is it the case with the new parking garage at Queen and Chestnut ? Better than a surface parking lot, yes. But what really could have gone there, on such a valuable, pivotal corner that was just a parking lot for so long? That was never really explored, and it c/should have been before we let anything get built there that we’ll have to live with for the next 50-100 years!
To explore and determine this, we must take pro-active design steps years ahead of project proposals that will come from “the market,” so that we can set some agreed-upon basics in place about what sort of PLACE we WANT our downtown to be.
Without this advance planning on our part, “the market” will continue to decide what it thinks it can afford to do, and project sponsors will expect that we should just accept and approve their plans, time and time again: the new CVS replacing the National Register-listed historic tobacco warehouse at Prince and Lemon is a case in point. Without a city development agenda and a set of planning and urban design parameters, especially the large institutions will decide on their own what to build and where. Hospitals, Colleges, Banks and others have all served up their own designs which they’ve developed from their own perspectives. Without any considered alternatives to suggest or any development standards in place beforehand, the city has always been unable to advocate for anything different than what’s been proposed.
Without some basic design and development parameters in place, we will not influence “the market” to produce anything more or different than the safe, the short-term, and the predictable — usually, this has meant demolishing the old and building the least costly new structure possible. Look around downtown at what we’ve created by relying solely on “the market” to design the center of our community for the past 40 years, and largely this is what you’ll see. With a few bright exceptions of well-adapted older structures and one or two new buildings, we have built architecture that largely detracts from our local sense of place and character, instead of adding real value to it.
With some well-informed and co-ordinated design forethought, we could do a LOT better. Charleston, SC is a good example of doing it better; so is Annapolis; so is Bellefonte, PA; Doylestown, PA.
This is not impossible to do, Lancaster just hasn’t taken it on yet; and each year we defer, we lose more and more of the character that makes the City of Lancaster someplace special. For the good of our future quality of life (and this is important investment and property-value advice as well as architectural and community advice), we should be working on this NOW — it is still not too late ! And, there are many of us who have the skills and knowledge needed to help, if we would only be asked by those in charge, and then also listened to with care and concern for the community’s future.