Thursday, January 10, 2013

For Appearances' Sake

This property in the 200 block of High Street, recently had this stone facade installed on the front of the building.

When council voted last year to remove the jurisdiction of the Historic Architecture Review Board from the downtown area, it was really just a matter of time before something HARB might have discouraged was put up downtown.

As you can see from the photo above, it took almost exactly a year. 

The argument in favor of removing HARB jurisdiction -- supported by Council President Stephen Toroney, Vice President Jeff Chomnuk, along with former council members Maureen Allen and Jody Rhoads -- was that the HARB process was making it hard for developers to work downtown. 

Voting against were councilmen Mark Gibson, Joe Kirkland and Dan Weand, 

In the course of the debate last year, none of the proponents of HARB's removal produced a single  developer to support their contention that HARB was stifling their development plans.

Nor could (or would) they even name one. In fact, they had trouble even saying how many developers had made this complaint.

Chomnuk, who headed up the committee that recommended the removal of HARB oversight, insisted that the borough's zoning code provided adequate protection for what HARB Board member (and current president) Andrew Monastra called "Pottstown's architectural equity."

As a seven-year member of the zoning board, it's fair to call him an expert on interpreting that code.

Arguing against the move was former HARB Chairman Joseph Fay who mustered a number of downtown merchants in support of HARB's continued involvement.

Councilman Joseph Kirkland, an architect, agreed with Fay's warning that the new process, which lets the oft-maligned and often-cited codes department make these decisions, is not equipped with the expertise or the manpower, to make good decisions about changes to downtown facades. 

The codes department said flatly they did not want this additional responsibility.

Sheila Dugan, president of the Pottstown Downtown Improvement District, which was never consulted by council about the move (there's a suprise), was joined by property and business owner Bruce Sullivan in calling on council to reconsider its decision.

The only member of Council to do so was Weand.

Weand had supported the idea when it was first proposed, but he tried to get council to hold off for six months after talking with business owners downtown who said they supported HARB's involvement.

But the four council members, none of whom is a business owner, placed their judgement above those who make a living downtown, as well as the business organization that represents those owners.

So I guess in the end the question is results -- since that is what matters.

Those favoring the change, said it would help spur downtown development. Those opposed said it would be the beginning of the end of downtown Pottstown's architectural integrity -- something numerous revitalization studies have cited as one of Pottstown's best assets.

In the ensuing year, I am not aware of any new developments being attracted by the absence of HARB oversight, although I am happy to be corrected on that score. But it's hard not to be aware of what happened to the building shown above.

So, the score so far?

New development = zero.
Erosion of architectural integrity = one and counting.

After spotting the change in the facade of the building, which was once a Woolworth and more recently hosted the much-maligned "drop-in center" for the less fortunate, I snapped the above picture and e-mailed it to all members of council, Borough Manager Mark Flanders, as well as Monastra at HARB.

I asked them if this what they had in mind when they removed HARB oversight, or if they wanted to offer any comment at all.

None of them responded, (another shocker) except Monastra.

Monastra would not go so far as to condemn the facade, located next to High Street's premier address -- The Steel River Playhouse.

He did allow that had HARB been involved, they might have worked with the property owner not only to put up something more architecturally consistent with the other buildings on the street, but also something potentially much less expensive.

"However, I'm not anxious to discourage people from investing in their property to improve it," Monastra told me during a Positively Pottstown's Happy Hour in December. 

Which is a fair point.

And, I will also grant, the new facade could have been far worse -- an aluminum siding monstrosity or some such addition.

Sadly, other improvements made to the building, a new paint job on the window light boxes, for example, where certainly in keeping with the architectural element.

I realize that, to a great extent, this is a matter of taste and that's hard to legislate. 

But again, what matters is results.

It remains to be seen if the change will help attract a tenant.

In the meantime, since no one in borough hall seems to have an opinion they're willing to share, I'll throw it open to the rest of you.

What do you think?


  1. I've seen it in person a few times. It's really nice looking. While I'm all for saving architectural history, there has to be a balance of new and old, in my opinion. With the upgrade of the facade to the Steel River Playhouse, the building next door looked old and dumpy. It needed to be upgraded like that. Frankly, I think the Recovery and Education center, which I do take advantage of when I'm in town, should be in another part of town, but it's not. It's not moving either. We at least need to get the properties to look as nice as possible down there. All in all, this is a positive for the downtown.

  2. I agree downtown needs to be made appealing but you have to have good taste when making changes and this definitely is not good does it improve downtown ( I don't think so ) just my opinion..

  3. I love seeing downtown improvements but this one leaves a bad taste in my mouth and is not the long term appealing aesthetic that will help sustain the business. Sometimes property owners want a little direction and I think HARB could have helped here and saved this owner some money. I hope the Borough Council reconsiders its decision.

  4. Yuck.

    HARB could have saved this property owner some money and prevented the aesthetic pain and suffering of all those who have to look at this facade for years to come. Someone with an eye toward good design AND history should weigh in on all facade improvements in our historic districts... this would/should be HARB.