Buildings Are Not the Key to Lancaster’s ‘Revival’

by Daniel Klotz | April 3, 2013

For $25, you can go to an Hourglass Foundation event at the Ware Center this Thursday night to hear a Brookings Institution fellow feed you a line of bull.

What Christopher Leinberger is expected to say, according to Bernie Harris’s Intelligencer article yesterday, is that if Amtrak rolls out high-speed rail service along its Keystone line, Lancaster should have a street-car trolley that runs a loop that connects the train station with downtown.

Given the state of Lancaster city today, this focus on infrastructure is intolerable.

One of the recent great books on urban life and planning is Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. It includes these poignant reminders:

Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection.…

The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people.

The downtown convention center has yet to prove that it was anywhere close to worth its expense. Many of the brick-edged sidewalks and street crossings laid downtown four years ago are already cracked and ugly. Tearing down parts of the exterior of the monstrosity of a building at Lancaster Square (across from Binns Park) so far has done nothing to make the property more attractive to private developers.

It is easy and tempting to focus on buildings and infrastructure when focusing on the improvement of a city. I imagine that this is especially true for the people in Lancaster’s city government who need to spend endless hours figuring out how to deal with the city’s aging infrastructure, particularly for public utilities. If I spent all day figuring out how to mend old infrastructure, I’m sure I would dream of going beyond simply fixing what’s there to instead build shiny new buildings and transportation methods.

The problem, however, is that Lancaster isn’t its buildings and infrastructure. Lancaster is its people. And we can and should invest a lot more in them.

There are all sorts of things that deserve more attention, discussion, and funding than infrastructure. Here are a two starting points:

  1. Despite ongoing valiant efforts of a handful of citizens, Lancaster city still has precious few Latino public figures, especially when you consider that Hispanics will soon be the majority ethnic group in the city.
  2. Before being unanimously rejected by the city’s school board, the proposal for an Academy of Business and Entrepreneurship Charter School enjoyed far more support than it ever should have. It is going to be a long time before anyone can say that we as a community are doing enough for our school children.

Please chime in below in the comments. Do you agree that attention on infrastructure is misplaced? If so, what do you think is more important for Lancaster city to focus on right now?

6 comments

I believe Lancaster could be a city with a bright future. However, as much as I love a lot of the work the city has done, I don’t think it’s future is bright enough yet. Unlike you, I love the convention center. A city growing, needs that as a place for meetings and attracting outside groups. Our amish tourism has been a forefront long enough, as it drains and people are beginning a re-attraction to urban centers, Lancaster City needs to become the forefront of our county’s tourism. I think saving the building infastructure is good, however, but not enough. There is no drawl to bring people to Lancaster.

Awesome, Amtrak is a well traveresed hub. However, let’s make it last and give people something worth the $20 ticket out here from Philly. We have a shotty public transportation system and a city with to few things to do and attract.

We live in the Southside and try to shop, breath, play and eat in our neighborhood. We are able to do that. We’d like to work in our neighborhood (well I current;y don’t, but my wife does). We need to attract big businesses. We need to be willing to get over our small city appeal and allow people to build up. The city has no draw.

by Jeff McLain on April 3, 2013 at 12:45 pm. #

After spending four days in Brooklyn, and returning to Lancaster. I noticed also, our city lacks a defining culture to attract people and bring together our tourism aspect. Yes, we have the arts but we are sold as the quaint countryside’s urban little sister. This isn’t the right angle, at all, for a city that should have a bright future of growth and sustainability.

by Jeff McLain on April 3, 2013 at 12:47 pm. #

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comments, Jeff!

by Daniel Klotz on April 3, 2013 at 2:40 pm. #

I think that investing in public transportation is an investment in people. The quality of life of residents of a city increase when neighborhoods are walkable, and lightrail increases walkable distances. For some reason, people are more likely to use lightrail rather than buses. Maybe it’s the visibility or permanence? That increased walkability of Lancaster would also attract more visitors to see the city’s beauty–both its people and buildings. So, I think that investing in infrastructure is a vital piece in building up the city for the long term. I would love to see a well-researched an planned lightrail system take shape in our city.

by Nate Milton on April 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm. #

Daniel I definitely agree with you about the focus being on the community and the people in general.

First Friday for example is a great start but why let it stop there. Individuals or a small groups of a few people can step up and organize other events aimed at bringing the community together and with the help marketers like us it could build traction.

I do have to agree with Jeff McLain about the convention center , I do like it and see a lot of potential that itrepresents , although I see your point as it can be seen as under-utilized regarding community building events.

Another thing to keep in mind that I remember seeing just a few years back is that some credible organization recognized Lancaster as ‘The #1 All-American City’ because of its rich culture and diverse background. That is just something cool to know but also something that shows there is the foundation for being recognized as a tourist attraction for more than just the Amish angle , which I agree is way overrated in the eyes of ‘locals’

Anyway this was a really a good post and I am happy to have stumbled across your blog here

Have a great day!

by Ben Boyer on June 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm. #

Great thoughts and discussion. Sorry I found it a month later. Huge opportunity ahead when F&M reclaims the old train yard and old Armstrong plant area. Being close to the station, Barnstormers, YMCA and great restaurants, we should focus on this area. Any trolley loop should include the Amtrak station, this new development, Gallery Row, PCA&D, Ware Center, Fulton, Southern Market and Penn Square. I would love to see Queen as pedestrian and trolley/bus only with car traffic directed on Duke or Lime instead. What do you think?

by Andrew Whalen on June 30, 2013 at 6:04 pm. #