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City Council OK’s demolition of row home near Lombardo’s in exchange for community garden

227 W. James St., left, and 217-221 W. James St. Lombardo’s Restaurant plans to incorporate buildings on the right into its expansion but wants to demolish the one at left. (Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

City Council overruled the Historical Commission’s recommendation Tuesday evening, voting to allow the team expanding Lombardo’s Restaurant to demolish a blighted row home nearby at 227 W. James St., on condition that it be replaced with a community garden.

Developer Immobili Commerciali is to build and maintain the garden at its sole expense, and partner with the city’s Office of Public Art and Public Art Advisory Board to create temporary or permanent public art displays there. Additionally, Lombardo’s Restaurant must develop a formal plan to allow neighbors to use its parking lot during off hours.

Councilwoman Katie Walsh asked how the arrangement would be enforced. That prompted the addition of a final stipulation: The Lombardo’s team and the city must draft a developer’s agreement — a binding contract laying out the various conditions — which will be submitted to City Council for review and approval before demolition can proceed.

The conditions broadly follow those proposed by attorney Mike Davis when he presented the developer’s case at last week’s City Council committee meeting. On Tuesday, Davis said council’s amended version is acceptable, and that the agreement with the city will be formalized as a covenant on the property, providing a legal framework for the garden to exist in perpetuity as a privately owned public amenity.

City Council’s vote on Tuesday was 4-1, with Councilwoman Janet Diaz voting “no.” Council members Jaime Arroyo and Faith Craig were absent.

The decision brings closure to a process that has lasted a year. The Historical Commission voted three times to recommend against the demolition of 227 W. James St., saying its loss would further decimate a block already mostly lost to parking, turning what should be an urban residential streetscape into one reminiscent of a suburban strip mall.

The Immobili team maintainted that 227 W. James St. is structurally unsound and that saving it would entail gutting and rebuilding it virtually from scratch, which would be financially impractical. Neighbors, they said, oppose leaving the building as a shell or restoring it to residential use, but strongly support the garden concept.

The issue concerned the main portion of the row house. The Historical Commission and City Council previously signed off on allowing demolition of two wings in order to provide additional parking space for the restaurant as required under city code.

While the Fire Bureau has flagged 227 W. James St. as too dangerous to enter, it has not been condemned. That would have required the submission of a complaint or similar reason, Chris Delfs, Director of Community Planning & Economic Development, told One United Lancaster. However, apart from citations for high grass and weeds, there haven’t been any reported exterior violations of the property maintenance code; and because it isn’t a rental property, it’s not subject to internal inspections.

Danielle Keperling is a Historical Commission member and executive director of the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County. She told council members on Tuesday that she understands their reasons for overturning the commission’s recommendation, but that she’s worried the potential precedent it sets.

Immobili, she said, is in “direct violation” of the city’s rules on “demolition by neglect,” which prohibit property owners from allowing buildings to fall into or remain in disrepair and then using their poor condition to justify demolition.

City resident Gail Groves Scott recalled a comparable situation from a few years ago: The demolition of three row homes next to the Lancaster Press Building to make way for a pocket park.

Scott said she didn’t favor that decision, but every case is different and should be examined on its own terms. The West James Street neighborhood seems to want the community garden, she said; this time around, she told council, “I think you’re making the right decision.”