Lancaster’s Zoning Hearing Board on Monday granted the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority permission to offer an array of homelessness services at the South Prince Street site it is planning to renovate for that purpose.
The 2-0 vote followed in short order after about an hour of testimony. Board Chairman Robert Shenk and Christopher Aviles voted “aye”; Michaela Allwine recused herself because she is an authority employee.
The redevelopment authority is planning to renovate the former Neighborhood Services complex at 134 S. Prince St. and the adjoining row home at 132 S. Prince St. into a comprehensive hub or “Homeless Services Community Center” for individuals living on the street or struggling with housing insecurity.
To do so, it required four “special exceptions,” exemptions from zoning rules that would otherwise limit the uses to which the buildings can be put. To qualify, applicants must demonstrate that their plans won’t adversely affect the surrounding neighborhood, along with other criteria depending on the type of relief sought.
Attorney Charles Suhr guided Deb Jones, the authority’s director of Human Services and leader of the Office of the Lancaster County Homelessness Coalition, and architect Wendy Tippetts of the firm Tippetts/Weaver, through the necessary testimony.
They told the board that the hub will have four main components:
- Crisis housing and supportive housing for families and individuals;
- A community center where clients can meet with caseworkers, apply for jobs or assistance programs, receive job training, life skills training and so on;
- A 20-bed emergency shelter for adults, with separate men’s and women’s areas
- Office space supporting the above three functions.
The first three uses each required a separate special exception. The fourth was granted to allow people to stay in supportive housing up to four years, rather the two-year maximum specified in the zoning code. The Zoning Board’s vote covered the approval of all four.
Layout and operations
Jones and Tippetts devoted the majority of their testimony to explaining the hub’s planned layout and the purpose of each component.
The 20-bed emergency shelter is intended as extra or flex space that can be opened for “Code Red” heat waves in the summer and “Code Blue” cold snaps in the winter. That means it will be used only occasionally, for a few days at a time at most, Jones said.
The rest of the time, the space will be available for other uses, such as small-group meetings.
The crisis housing consists of nine units on the first floor with individual bathrooms. They’re intended for families for whom a group shelter wouldn’t be appropriate, Jones said, and will provide a place where they can stabilize their lives and begin accessing whatever services they need to transition to longer-term housing.
Another 22 units of “supportive” housing will occupy a second story that the redevelopment authority plans to build on top of the one-story Neighborhood Services building. It is for individuals and households with major impediments to living independently, such as a disability or mental illness.
The goal will be to help most clients move to more permanent housing within two years, Jones said, but that might not always be achievable: Hence, the special exception allowing stays of up to four years.
Jones and Tippetts highlighted the extensive incorporation of features and design choices intended to reduce stress and create a calming, welcoming atmosphere, including a courtyard garden adjoining a walkway into the community center. The layout will also allow most if not all client queueing to take place within the site, rather than outside along the sidewalk.
Tippetts said the second story, or “overbuild,” accounts for about half of the project’s estimated $5.2 million construction cost. In addition, there are an estimated $1 million in “soft” costs: Professional fees, permitting, startup costs and so on.
The hub will cost somewhat under $2 million a year to operate, Jones said: Among other things, staff will be on the premises at all times, including overnight.
The redevelopment authority is planning to contract with a third-party organization to run the site, she said, and has been talking with local organizations that it would like to be part of the community center and its services.
Tenants in the supportive housing are expected to be eligible for federal support, including Section 8 vouchers and rental assistance provided through the Emergency Solutions Grant program, redevelopment authority Executive Director Justin Eby said.
The redevelopment authority is looking at all available means of covering construction and ongoing costs, including federal and state grants and private philanthropy, she said.
Lancaster city has agreed to provide $800,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the project. Chris Delfs, director of Community Planning & Economic Development, endorsed the hub on the city’s behalf on Monday, telling the Zoning Board that the hub advances key objectives in Lancaster’s new comprehensive plan around homelessness services and low-income housing.
The city’s agreement with the redevelopment authority calls for the hub to open by September 2024. However, it now looks as though it won’t open until December, Jones told the Zoning Board.
Originally, Monday’s hearing was to take place last month, at the board’s October meeting. However, the Zoning Board’s regular solicitor cannot take part in hearings involving the authority due to a conflict of interest; and the substitute solicitor was unexpectedly unable to attend, obliging the board to table the application until now.