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Final answer sought: Lombardo’s asks City Council to overrule Historical Commission, allow row home demolition

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 is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to allow the demolition of a blighted row house on West James Street as part of the renovation and expansion of Lombardo’s Restaurant.

The fate of the building at 227 W. James St. has been at issue for a year. The Lombardo’s project came before the city Historical Commission for the first time in September 2022, and has been back three times since then, attorney Mike Davis of Barley Snyder, representing the project team, told City Council at its committee meeting last week.

The Lombardo’s team contends that saving 227. W. James St. doesn’t make economic sense. Contractors have estimated it would cost $340,000 to $400,000 to preserve the building shell and up to $675,000 to render it habitable again, Abby Franklin told council members. Franklin works for SN Lombardo Capital, the investment company of Sam Lombardo, owner of the restaurant and the developer behind its expansion.

Lombardo’s says neighborhood residents consider the building an eyesore and are excited about the proposed replacement: A sculpture and herb garden, to be built and maintained at the Lombardo company’s expense.

The city Historical Commission says the loss of the building would create too large a gap in the streetscape. It already is flanked by parking lots on both sides; eliminating it would create an expanse of asphalt reminiscent of a suburban strip mall, “permanently altering the character of the neighborhood,” the commission’s vice chair, Steve Funk, told council.

The Lombardo’s team had planned to seek a decision from City Council in June. At that month’s committee meeting, it introduced the garden idea. Because that represented a significant change from what the Historical Commission had reviewed, Funk advised the developer to withdraw the application from council consideration and return to the commission.

When Lombardo’s did so, however, the commission again recommended against demolition, deeming that a low-rise garden did not offset the loss of a three-story building. (The commission provides recommendations to City Council, which has final say.)

The city’s planning department concurs. With the Stork Corridor Park nearby, there is no need for a community garden in the neighborhood, it said.

Misty Bencak is the granddaughter of Ruth Roseman, the building’s last occupant. No one was interested in helping the family as they tried to keep the building livable for her grandmother during Roseman’s last years, she said.

“I’m in support of it coming down,” she said. “It’s an eyesore.”

Funk told City Council that Immobili knowingly bought 227 W. James St. in poor condition and has not fixed it up. The city’s Historic District legislation specifically prohibits using lack of proper maintenance as a reason to allow demolition.

Franklin said Lombardo’s neighbors don’t endorse maintaining the building as a shell; nor do they want it returned to residential use, because it would mean additional parking demand. Lombardo’s proposal to City Council to allow the garden includes a stipulation that the restaurant would make its parking lot available to neighborhood residents during off hours.

The Lombardo’s project includes expansion of the restaurant and addition of a deli, cigar bar and outdoor dining areas. The plans incorporate a grouping of three row homes on West James Street that are in better condition than 227 W. James St. They would be restored and repurposed.

The total project budget is $7.5 million, Franklin said.