Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lancaster is Hit with the Ugly Stick...Again

Lancaster City seems bound and determined to repeat history. Certainly, those who run things around here have not learned from it. Three and a half decades after the Brunswick Mall debacle, I watch my beloved hometown rush headlong towards the finish line on the Lancaster County Convention Center, a bloated, hopelessly optimistic, and inherently doomed "city revitalization" project which has been the epicenter of controversy around these parts for nigh on a decade now.

Anyone who has lived in or around Lancaster since 1970 knows the joys of the Brunswick Mall. Conceived as an urban renewal project in 1965, it saw the razing of a full city block of vintage architecture in favor of what has come to be known to locals as "The Concrete Monstrosity." It was envisioned as a hotel and business space with a mall full of shops, two outdoor courtyards for public gathering and a enclosed skywalk bridging North Queen Street so that folks could safely cross; the final result was outdated virtually upon its completion. At first, shops did appear in the storefronts and efforts were made to use the courtyard spaces on a regular basis, but after the novelty wore off, the city was left with a block-long patch of the ugliest concrete construction imaginable, looking like nothing more than an abandoned Stalinist block building, and inspiring just as much cheer. In recent years, renovation has finally begun on the area in an attempt to make the area more attractive, but at this point it is simply putting makeup on a pig.

You would think with such a glaring reminder of misguided "renovation" and poorly spent funds still marring the city, developers would be much more cautious when a similar project came about. Sadly, you would be wrong.

I won't go into the history of the debate over the proposed Lancaster County Convention Center - you can read a nice summary of that history here and here (scroll down to the comment by ArtieSee near the bottom of the page), or do some Googling. I won't waste time talking about the fact that building a convention center on the edge of a rundown and, at times, extremely unsafe part of town with inconvenient parking at best will do no favors towards encouraging repeat business. I won't even go into the fact that, at this point, a project that was sold to the city at a $74 million budget as an "economic boon" is now looking to clock in at just under $200 million (all but $11 million of which is taxpayer funded), and is expected by some estimates to lose $1 million a year.

No, I will instead limit my commentary to this: the thing is frickin' hideous! Once again, Lancaster is trying to "revitalize" via tons and tons of concrete. This time, though, instead of spreading it out, they're piling it high! This will be one of the tallest buildings in the city when it's finished later this year. And rather than completely demolish vintage architecture (in this case, the former Watt & Shand building, which had been on the National Register of Historic Places), they decided the thing to do was to gut it, leaving the facade standing, and plop the tower of concrete inside of it. Oh, and little to no apparent effort was made to match the design (or even color) of the original building, much less the surrounding edifices.

Construction is scheduled to end this spring. I have no doubt that, initially, the Center will see much use, much as the Brunswick Mall did in 1970. But, what happens when the novelty wears off? We're going to left with yet another expensive, hideous reminder of urban renewal gone bad and concrete gone wild.

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