OPED: York City's historical architecture merits strong preservation effort

Teresa Johnescu
York City Historical Architectural Review Board

More bad press for the York Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB) in the Wednesday, May 11 edition York Dispatch merits a response.

Is a historic house in the 300 block of East Market Street really only a $20,000 house? No, it is not. The purchase price reflects a drop in demand of housing in York City, the result of poverty, trash in the streets, a high crime rate, and an oppressive property tax rate.

How should York City's historical-preservation law work?

The price tag on this house, or other homes in the HARB district selling for $20,000, $10,000, $5,000 or even $1,000 on my block (check the weekly deed transfers in the Sunday paper, it is depressing) does not reflect the real value of these properties, but rather the problems of a city that has been broken for some time.  No it is not a $20 thousand building, but a steal-of-a-deal on a historic building in the heart of the HARB district.

If a property purchased for $20,000 or less is treated as such it will become just that, and York will lose yet another historic architectural asset. Replacing original windows – meaning they lasted more than 100 years because they were crafted with quality materials – with materials that are not historically appropriate or sustaining results in deterioration and reduces the property’s value in the long run. Regarding the tin can window repair mentioned in the newspaper – is  the city following up on that?

Too many architectural assets have been lost because of this approach to repair and maintenance. I recall a recent news item expressing concern over the number of condemned and demolished historic buildings in the city-demolitions by neglect. Where do you think that process started?

Why not flip this sentiment? Why not view the $20,000 purchase as a steal-of-a-deal? Having saved so much money on the purchase price, a property owner could make the investment in appropriate replacement materials that will preserve the house for the future – or better times when the house could be sold for its real value.

This house is an investment. This is the approach that led to earlier redevelopment of South Newberry Street, one of the most attractive residential streets near the center of the city.

This is the approach that has recently transformed the formally blighted portion of East King Street that is part of the Royal Square, attracting business and residential interest. There is value in preserving York’s historic properties. York does receive national recognition for its historic architecture (has anybody thanked HARB?).

As a HARB member, I must recognize the historic value of HARB properties and understand my responsibility to act as a steward for the preservation of these architectural assets for the future of this community. I am looking at the long term health of these assets. My goal is to reconcile the needs of property owners with the requirements of the active HARB ordinance.

As HARB Chair Dennis Kunkle indicated, HARB applies the guiding ordinance with respect to each situation, with a goal of arriving at a win- win outcome. It is a tough line to walk at times.

However, I will not ignore my responsibility, throw in the towel, because there is a growing incidence of cheaters ignoring the process. The high incidence of bypassing the HARB process is rooted both in weak enforcement and the need for HARB ordinance revision.

I understand that two recent efforts to update the ordinance resulted in no change to the current process. I agree that a revision to the HARB ordinance is needed. Before jumping into a brash overhaul of the process, York should look to other communities with a historic district overlaid by a high concentration of poverty and the accompanying problems.

York’s architecture has value much higher than its current purchase price and merits a strong preservation effort.

 — Teresa Johnescu is a member of the York City Historical Architectural Review Board.