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City Council approves size, siting of The Apartments on College Avenue

A rendering of The Apartments at College Avenue. (Source: HDC MidAtlantic | Tippetts Weaver Architects)

Lancaster’s City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved the design of The Apartments on College Avenue, the $16.4 million, 64-unit affordable housing project that nonprofit HDC MidAtlantic plans to build across the street from the former St. Joseph Hospital campus.

The decision to follow the Historical Commission’s recommendation came after about an hour of discussion, during which council members closely quizzed fire Chief Todd Hutchinson and Building Codes Bureau Chief John Lefever about the project’s provisions for fire safety.

A rendering of The Apartments at College Avenue as seen from Elm Street. (Source: HDC MidAtlantic | Tippetts Weaver Architects)

The south facade would be close to the property line — about 6 feet along one section and 12 feet along the rest. Residents in the 600 block of West Chestnut, whose back yards border the property, say it’s dangerously close, and have called for the site planning to be adjusted to allow for a fire lane.

Hutchinson said the building’s interior bearing walls, structural members, floors and ceilings will have one-hour fire ratings — a choice on the developer’s part that exceeds code requirements — and all areas of the building will have smoke detectors, alarms and sprinklers. There will be multiple exits. The parking areas will have sprinklers.

Fire Chief Todd Hutchinson speaks about The Apartments at College Avenue before Lancaster City Council on Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

With all those safety measures in place, under the International Building Code, ladder truck access isn’t required, Hutchinson said.

Lefever concurred. A building with fire-rated internal construction but no access for a ladder truck is safer than one where the reverse is true, he said.

“This building is safe,” he said.

Project architect Gary Weaver said the standard for ladder-truck access is a 26-foot-wide roadway 15 feet to 30 feet from the target building — an impossible configuration on the property’s footprint. Chief Hutchinson said he foresees no added fire risk from building The Apartments at College Avenue, either for the property itself or its neighbors.

He agreed that lack of vehicle access along the south property line is not a concern for his department: “We don’t put apparatus between buildings like that,” he said.

A site plan for The Apartments at College Avenue showing the proximity of its south facade to the property line. Click to enlarge. (Source: HDC MidAtlantic | Tippetts Weaver Architects)

The Historical Commission bases its decisions on buildings’ appearance from the street. Jay Rosenthal, a resident of the 600 block of West Chestnut, said it’s “irresponsible” for the commission not to consider the impact of structures as a whole on its surroundings, on all sides. Nor should HDC MidAtlantic have been granted a zoning variance allowing a five-story building to be so close to its property line, he said.

Rosenthal is part of a group of residents who say they welcome affordable housing, but that the building is too big and should be scaled back. They have filed an appeal in court seeking to overturn several zoning variances granted for the project.

“Our ask has always been to remove that zoning change and make it a 12-foot setback,” he told City Council.

A resident on the other side of West Chestnut Street, John McGrann, spoke on behalf of neighbors who support the project. They’re in favor of securing as much affordable housing as is practicable, he said, and welcome The Apartments at College Avenue as a harbinger of the redevelopment of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital campus.

Douglas Smith, city chief planner, reminded council that the project still has other regulatory hurdles to clear, including approvals by the Traffic Commission, Shade Tree Commission and Planning Commission.