A fire-damaged historic landmark that preservationists had hoped could be saved is on track for demolition by mid-February, Mayor Danene Sorace told City Council this week.
The Gunzenhauser Bakery at 801 N. Prince St. is in danger of imminent collapse and “it is imperative that the building be taken down as soon as possible,” she said.
That said, the city views the demolition “as a disappointing loss,” she said, “and (we) take it very seriously.”
The city’s Community Planning and Economic Department is taking this opportunity to launch a review of Lancaster’s ordinances and policies on historic preservation, emergency demolition and how they intersect, the mayor said.
Vacant for a quarter century
Built around 1911 for baker Christian Gunzenhauser, the building was badly damaged in a 1999 fire and has been vacant ever since. It sits just south of another building, also part of the former bakery complex, that was designed by C. Emlen Urban (1863-1939), Lancaster’s most renowned architect.
The rest of the block is vacant. Since 2003, it has been owned by Charter Homes, which plans to redevelop it.
In January 2023, an engineering firm retained by Charter Homes inspected 801 N. Prince St., determined it was unstable and recommended tearing it down. The city issued a demolition permit in mid-September.
That raised alarms for the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County, which sent a letter to City Council in December saying the process had bypassed “all historic preservation oversight.”
The claim that collapse could be imminent cannot and should not be used to circumvent the city’s Heritage Conservation District ordinance, the Trust said. It asked City Council to “pause” the process “to allow the appropriate review and oversight.”
Normally, demolition projects must go through the city’s Historical Commission and be approved by City Council. Moreover, the city specifically bars “demolition by neglect” — that is, allowing a property owner who foregoes maintenance to use the resulting impaired condition of a building as a justification to level it.
On Tuesday, the Trust’s executive director, Danielle Keperling, and board president, James Brown, restated their case to City Council in person, asking the city to follow “due process.”
The city has done so, Sorace said. Its chief building official, James Lefever, inspected the site and corroborated the January 2023 findings, determining firsthand that the building’s condition indeed constituted an emergency. Under city ordinance, that allows a demolition permit to be issued without any further steps, the mayor said.
Demolition did not proceed last fall because PPL has power lines in the area that need to be relocated first. PPL notified the city Tuesday that it would permit the demolition in mid-February. The city has since followed up, asking PPL to expedite the process, if possible, Community Planning & Economic Director Director Chris Delfs said.
Keperling said the Trust is disappointed; and it remains concerned that the city’s historical preservation policy leaves a major loophole for developers willing to exploit it. The concern extends to other communities with historical districts covered by local ordinances, she said.
The city dealt last year with another case involving an older building in poor condition: Entrepreneur Samuel Lombardo’s bid to demolish 227 W. James St. in the course of expanding and renovating Lombardo’s Restaurant nearby.
The Historical Commission voted against allowing demolition, but City Council ultimately overruled it, on condition that Lombardo build a community garden in the building’s footprint — a compensatory amenity proposed by the project team.
In her comments at City Council Tuesday, Sorace said the city does its best to save historic buildings but can’t always succeed. She said Charter Homes is working to save the Emlen Urban building on the block and return it to active use.
Charter Homes President Rob Bowman did not return a message seeking comment.
It’s fair, Sorace said, for residents to raise questions about buildings that sit vacant year after year. In theory, the city has tools to prevent that from happening: Its Property Reinvestment Board can issue a finding of blight, and its redevelopment authority can seize a property by eminent domain if the owner doesn’t remediate.
However, there are “real economic factors to consider,” the mayor said. Property owners must receive “just compensation” for takings by eminent domain, and when properties are large, that amount can be considerable.
That’s among the factors the Community Planning & Economic Department will consider in its review. Once it is completed, City Council can expect to receive proposals for legislative changes to consider, Sorace said.