The owner of the former Stevens House apartment building downtown is replacing at least six commercial tenants with 16 more apartments, prompting some of the displaced small-business owners to say they’re victims of gentrification.

Berger Rental Communities, which bought the West King and South Prince streets building in 2019 for $8.65 million and has extensively upgraded its 76 units, said the project will provide badly needed market-rate rental housing in center-city.

But some of the entrepreneurs who operated in the recently renamed 10 Prince Apartments say downtown housing is in high demand – and more profitable for landlords than commercial spaces like theirs — in large part due to years of efforts by themselves and other small business owners to revive the once languishing downtown.

“We’re a city that promotes its small business community … and we’re the first ones to be displaced when the big money comes in,” Loryn Spangler-Jones, owner of art gallery LSJ Studio, which operated in the building for five years. She’s moved to 104 W. Chestnut St.

Berger, based in Wayne, Delaware County, received unanimous approvals for the project Monday from the city’s Zoning Hearing Board and Historical Commission.

Berger needed a zoning variance to have street-level housing in the central business district. The company needed the commission to allow alterations to a building in the Heritage Conservation District and to approve Berger’s choice of exterior building materials.

“I think it’s a nice and simple way to revitalize an underutilized building and provide more living downtown. I think it’s great,” said commission member Steve Funk.

The only public official to question the soundness of the proposal was the city’s chief planner, Douglas Smith, who attended the zoners’ meeting.

Noting that Berger had not cited a hardship to justify the conversion of commercial space to housing, which hadn’t happened downtown “in recent memory,” Smith commented:

“I am concerned that (approving this request) would make it difficult to say no to similar requests in downtown and essentially erode the commercial storefronts in the downtown district that make it a very vibrant economic district for our city.”

Project representative Cheryl Love of engineering and landscape architect firm ELA Group replied that the commercial spaces have been hard to lease, in part because of the slope of West King Street past the building.

The project would create one- and two-bedroom apartments plus a fitness center and a courtyard.

Nicole Loser, regional manager for Berger, did not respond to questions from LNP | LancasterOnline about the project timeline and cost.

Berger’s project is one of a half dozen on the drawing board that would add hundreds of apartments to downtown, though only a handful of units would be affordable for low-income households. Hundreds more market-rate units and more than 100 affordable units have been proposed in the city outside downtown.

Renovating into residential

Plans submitted by Berger show it will convert seven commercial spaces, including the vacant restaurant space once occupied by the Bird’s Nest and Hoar House restaurants, into apartments. However, a commercial space in the corner of the building, now a tattoo parlor, will remain an unspecified commercial use.

“I’m a little upset,” said Jhony Lopez, who’s operated Johnny’s Barber Shop in the building for 17 years. He’s relocating to 120 E. Chestnut St. at the end of the month, an endeavor that will cost him $8,000 to $10,000 in new equipment and moving expense.

Lopez said that when Berger met with him in mid-March, he was expecting to hear that his rent was going up, even though he paid rent for months he couldn’t operate due to the pandemic. Instead, he was told he had 2 ½ months to leave.

“My head started spinning,” Lopez said. “It was shocking, honestly.”

Entrepreneur Ole Hongvanthong, whose PhotOle Photography operated there for seven years, has relocated temporarily to Nick Gould Photography, 128 E. Grant St., while he looks for a building to purchase.

Like Spangler-Jones, Hongvanthong felt like his efforts to make downtown desirable backfired.

“I’ve been championing revitalizing our community, but I feel like at the end of the day, I’m gentrifying myself,” he said. “We’ve made downtown very attractive to out-of-town and out-of-state investors. Then all of the sudden, we get the rug pulled out from under ourselves and we don’t get to enjoy (the rejuvenated community).”

Lane Levengood, whose Levengoods of Lancaster hard cider tasting room opened in the building in 2017, also has found a temporary haven – at Rachel’s Creperie, 201 W. Lemon St. He too was critical of how his landlord handled the transition.

Levengood said that while Berger fulfilled his lease’s requirement to provide two months warning of a dislocation, that isn’t enough time to get state licenses transferred. He too felt that Berger was cashing in on the efforts of himself and others to make downtown appealing.

Berger, he said, is “profiteering off a city that’s been made what it is by individuals who are more like myself. I’m not angry … I’m over it and moving on and will be better off for this move at this time next year.”

Only Ryan Braught, owner of event space, art gallery and music venue Community Room on King, which was in the building for eight years until moving its furnishings into a storage unit temporarily, was accepting of Berger’s motives.

“Though it hurts, I understand it. That’s their prerogative. It’s their building,” said Braught, who also is pastor of Veritas Church, which worshipped there.

Wes Schulz, owner of Dreams Collide tattoo parlor, could not be reached for comment.

The nine-story Stevens House opened in 1965 at a cost of $1.2 million, according to LNP | LancasterOnline files. It replaced a four-story luxury hotel, also dubbed the Stevens House, that had opened in 1874 and was razed to make way for the new, taller and “modern” building.

Berger owns and operates three other apartment communities in Lancaster: Creekside North and South (with 261 units combined) on Stone Mill Road and Millers Crossing (180 units) off Millersville Road. It also is proposing an 11-story apartment building at North Queen and West Chestnut streets with 117 units.

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