Suburban Blight

Sunday News

By GIL SMART, Associate Editor
Aug 15, 2010

LANCASTER – The former Boas Fruit Market at 1501 Columbia Ave. stands vacant, exposed metal rusting – and with what looks like corn growing inside the building.

Jim Huber remembers Columbia Avenue the way it was.

Huber, a former county commissioner, was manager of the county’s first McDonald’s, opened in 1962 in the Wheatland Shopping Center off Route 462. “Traffic could get bad, bumper to bumper,” Huber said. “The parking lot would get really full,” with customers and with others shopping at the pharmacy, gift shop and other retailers in the shopping center.

“There weren’t a lot of other shopping centers around at the time,” Huber said; the Columbia Avenue strip “was one of the first major commercial areas” outside the city itself.

Now, commercial development has leapfrogged Columbia Avenue; other corridors boast bigger shopping centers, newer restaurants.

And Columbia Avenue has begun to show its age.

Between Stone Mill Road and Rohrerstown Road, a distance of less than a mile, are at least 11 vacant buildings or empty storefronts. Some are in deteriorating condition. Weeds peek
through cracked pavement even at sites that are open for business.

To be sure, there are several newer businesses along the corridor, and many merchants there thrive. The road itself is being repaved. Yet as this original suburban sprawl has given way to examples of suburban blight, it epitomizes the decline of older suburbs throughout the country.

“What has happened to the Columbia [Avenue] strip is important,” said Dr. David Schuyler, a professor of American studies at Franklin & Marshall College, who has written about the suburbanization of Lancaster County. Suburbs supplanted cities; now newer suburbs supplant older ones, and the Columbia Avenue corridor is experiencing “the same difficulties – loss of long-standing anchor tenants, the leasing to lesser, more transient businesses, the ‘for lease’ signs, and declining property values – that afflicted downtown in the 1950s and 1960s,” Schuyler said.

“As that great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, ‘deja vu all over again.’ It’s not just our cities but our inner ring suburbs are very much at risk.”

Not alone
Other examples of blight in the county’s first suburbs abound.

The former Stehli silk mill, on Martha Avenue in Manheim Township, is pockmarked with broken windows and crumbling brickwork. A historic, grand but vacant and weather-beaten 1870s farmhouse sits along Fruitville Pike, also in Manheim Township, just south of the Red Rose Commons shopping center.

The Columbia Avenue corridor boasts several examples in a short stretch.

Past the Stone Mill Plaza shopping center, the road divides Manor and East Hempfield townships. On the East Hempfield side, at the Stone Mill Road intersection, is the rusted-out hulk of the former Boas Fruit Market at 1501 Columbia Ave., empty for several years.

At Yale and Columbia avenues is the Lancaster County Auto Parts store. The store is stocked with inventory, but it’s been closed for five or six years, said Keith Rutt, owner of the adjacent Wheatland Beer Distributor.

At Good Drive is the old Holiday Auto Sales site, which was to be transformed into a Walgreens. East Hempfield officials say that plan is a “dead issue”; the site now serves as a parking lot for construction vehicles.

At the Rohrerstown Road intersection is the empty Blockbuster Video store, vacated earlier this year.

On the Manor Township side, in the 2100 block are three vacant structures in a row – the former GNT Audio Video Systems, an empty Turkey Hill store and a small office building. Earlier this year a T-Mobile store opened at 2000 Columbia Ave. In June, a burglar smashed a glass door and stole $7,000 worth of merchandise. The cell phone dealer moved out shortly after.

What might have been the most glaring example of blight along the corridor is now in the process of being upgraded: the old Maple Grove Mill at Columbia Avenue and Stone Mill Road, which was gutted by fire Thanksgiving Day 2005. For more than four years the bare stone walls sat like the remnants of some ancient civilization. But earlier this year, Lancaster developer Rob Ecklin, who owns the site, began to rehab it. Now it has a slate roof and new gables; within weeks “it will be sealed up, and that’s as far as we’ll go at this point,” Ecklin said, because he’s still not sure exactly what to do with the site.

Ecklin said that like the mill, the corridor itself could use some work.

“You see such a variety of uses – car dealers, strip centers, the old McDonald’s. It’s definitely showing its age. I always thought it needed a plan.”

In part because the road straddles two different municipalities, a plan is hard to come by. In addition, said John May, a Manor Township supervisor, suburban officials have few tools to tackle vacancies and blight.

“We watch this closely at the township, but there is little we can do if there is no nuisance or threat to health, safety and welfare,” May said. “It is hard to watch as this Columbia Avenue corridor slowly wastes away.”

Robert Krimmel, East Hempfield Township manager, attributes most of the vacancies to the stagnant economy. “If we received a complaint … we would respond, but only to act or force repairs if it is a live safety issue,” Krimmel said.

“Appearance is not an item we are empowered to enforce.”

Inviting crime
Yet appearance, in urban settings, is seen not only as the cause of falling property values – but of crime.

The City of Lancaster, for example, has in recent years based its crime-fighting philosophy on the concept of “fixing broken windows” – the idea being that blight sends a message that disorder is tolerated, and so crime proliferates.

The Columbia Avenue corridor has been plagued with a series of high-profile crimes in recent years, including several armed robberies. In May, police allege, two York residents robbed the Friendly’s restaurant at gunpoint and then led police on a chase before ramming their car into a police cruiser, injuring an officer.

In June of this year, a Lancaster man was charged in a carjacking spree that began at the Turkey Hill at Columbia Avenue and Rohrerstown Road.

Two high-profile assaults occurred along the corridor last year, including the beating of a pregnant woman at the Empire Beauty School in the Wheatland Shopping Center.

Sgt. Jim Alexander, of Manor Township police, agrees that blight can provide a green light to crime. “In theory that can be a cause, but I don’t think that’s a factor” in recent crimes along the corridor, he said.

Still, he acknowledged, police may not feel compelled to check vacant structures as often as occupied ones. “If there are areas that see three police patrols a night and others that just see one, that can contribute,” he said.

‘City-like challenges’
Nationwide, policymakers began to think about the plight of older suburbs over the last decade. In 2003, William H. Hudnut III, a former Indianapolis mayor and resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, published “Halfway to Everywhere: A Portrait of America’s First-Tier Suburbs,” which chronicled the “city-like challenges” faced by older suburbs – including aging commercial corridors.

In 2006, the Brookings Institution issued a report titled “One Fifth of America: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s First Suburbs.” “Neither fully urban nor completely suburban, America’s older, inner-ring ‘first’ suburbs have a unique set of challenges – such as concentrations of elderly and immigrant populations as well as outmoded housing and commercial buildings – very different from those of the center city and fast-growing newer places,” the report said.

In May, a symposium on the plight of “first suburbs” drew a crowd to a panel discussion held at Grace Lutheran Church; a statewide summit on the issue was held July 16 at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

But while awareness of the issues has increased, responses remain elusive.

Manor Township Manager Barry Smith points out that businesses along Columbia Avenue are in many cases constrained physically; the commercial sites were built long before modern development codes stipulated a sufficient amount of parking or landscaping that might make the corridor more attractive.

“The design criteria of the 1960s and ’70s was a lot different than it is today,” he said. “You didn’t have the trees and landscaping, so it’s less aesthetically pleasing. And look at the GNT [Audio Video Systems] site; people could pull into the parking area off [Route] 462, but you practically have to back out onto 462 to get out.

“That might not have been a problem in 1950, but I guarantee you it’s a problem today, and business owners realize this.”

Curb cuts are another issue: “Today you never have multiple entrances to the same site, it encourages conflict between vehicles,” he said.

All of it adds up to a tough sell, Smith said. The constraints and drawbacks tend to drive potential tenants elsewhere. But a little bit of creativity can help overcome the obstacles.

When Ed Hollinger bought the Sun Dance Car Wash at 2154 Columbia Ave. in 1994, he had a problem: A concrete divider in the middle of the road prevented westbound customers from entering the site. “A lot of people would literally drive up the wrong side of the road to get in,” Hollinger said.

So he relocated the entrance to the eastern end of the property. But he faced other problems as well. He also owned the adjacent Sweet Kleen Laundry and the GNT Audio Video Systems site. There was little space for laundry customers to maneuver in the parking area, so he “took a little corner off the [GNT] property to make a turning radius. That helped.”

Others simply deal with the constraints. Rutt, of Wheatland Distributors, notes that 18-wheelers can’t back into his loading dock along Yale Avenue. Instead, smaller trucks deliver his beer.

“There are vacancies everywhere,” Rutt said.

But there are still plenty of thriving businesses doing well along the county’s first sprawling commercial corridor – including his own.

“It’s still pretty good,” he said.

Gil Smart is associate editor of the Sunday News. E-mail him at, or phone 291-8817.

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