Advocates celebrate protection of Wilkes-Barre’s historic architecture

i Nov 22nd 2020

By Steve Mocarsky, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — Vaughn Koter adores his 91-year-old historic home on West Ross Street, he loves the character of his neighborhood and he’s grateful the city council has taken action to help protect both.

“I remember when I was probably in junior high, King’s College tore down all the brownstones on Union Street. I remember seeing all those beautiful buildings being demolished,” Koter, a 49-year-old working in health care technology sales, said.

“I just didn’t get it. Other communities are preserving their history, but we have a way of tearing these beautiful architectural gems down and then put up buildings that don’t necessarily fit in with the landscape,” Koter lamented. “I think we’re losing a lot of our history, and it’s not a good thing for our city.”

Koter’s home, which lies in what the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office recognizes as the River Street Historic District, and other buildings in that district are now protected from neglect that could lead to condemnation as well as from developers with plans to demolish them and replace them with something different.

Wilkes-Barre City Council on Nov. 5 passed on final reading an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance, authorizing an historic properties overlay for the zoning map and establishing an Historic Overlay District Advisory Committee that will designate historic properties in the city and review any applications that seek to make changes to properties included in the district.

The district can be designated to include any property in the city that the committee deems historic.

Applications for building permits, land development plans, land subdivisions and demolition permits for buildings in that overlay district will have to come before the committee for review, and the committee will make recommendations for approval or denial to the issuer of a permit.

“I am very glad to see the initial step of putting that into effect,” Koter said. “If we keep tearing things down and putting up parking lots or prefabricated buildings, we’re losing the charm and the blood, sweat and tears that people put into building our community.”

Protecting the past

Koter used to live about a quarter mile from his current home, and he put that home on the market in 2018 with plans to move out of the city. But while he was out on a run one day, he noticed a “for sale” sign in front of the Ross Street structure, which he had always admired and had once served as the quarters for the Wilkes University wrestling team.

“I immediately called my Realtor. I wasn’t in the door three steps and I knew I was going to buy it. I think it was an overall feeling of the history of the home. And the exterior architecture is something you don’t find in today’s buildings. The brick work outside is spectacular,” Koter said.

Many homes in that area have their own historic charm that adds to the character of the neighborhood. In fact, employees of the city health department are using a state grant to develop a smartphone app that will assist users with a self-guided tour of the historic district, which runs along River and Franklin streets between Ross and North streets.

“Historic preservation is what makes each community unique,” said city Councilman Tony Brooks, who has been working with Larry Newman, executive director of the nonprofit downtown management organization Diamond City Partnership, the Downtown Residents Association and state historic officials for years to develop a local ordinance to preserve the city’s architectural heritage.

Brooks said members of those organizations and the Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society, of which Brooks is founder and president, were galvanized by a developer’s decision to demolish the historic Frank Clark Jeweler building on South Main Street this past summer to make way for a hotel and conference center with apartments and retail space, claiming it wasn’t feasible to preserve even part of the building’s façade.

“This has been a discussion that’s been going on for decades, literally decades,” Newman said of the zoning legislation. “It came up during the creation of the River Street Historic District in the mid ‘80s, again in the early ‘90s when there was an increase in demolition of historic properties … and in 2001 when historic preservation was one of the six basic strategies identified to advance downtown revitalization.”

“It was a long time coming but also a huge step forward for the city because, obviously, these structures don’t just tell the story of our past, they are also a key ingredient in helping us … plot a new future for the city,” Newman said, noting that all of the 250 new housing units added to the downtown over the last 10 years were constructed in historic commercial buildings.

King’s College’s recent repurposing of the historic Spring Brook Water Co. building, constructed in 1913, to house the Mulligan Center for Engineering, brought new academic programs to the city while preserving the character of the neighborhood by maintaining the building’s architecture, Newman said.

Increasing value

Bryan Van Sweden, community preservation coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office, said that unfortunately, Wilkes-Barre’s initiative to pass a local historic preservation ordinance is the exception to the norm.

“Without any regulation, private property owners can do as they please. They can demolish a building without anyone in the community saying, wait, you can’t do that. Regardless of the significance of the building,” Van Sweden said. “Developers will often seek to build something that suits the driving public without focusing on the pedestrian character of a neighborhood.”

For example, when constructing a new building, a developer might put an emphasis on putting a parking lot in the front, even though it’s been shown that interrupting the continuity of a streetscape consisting of shops and offices can be “a real deterrent to people” who are sightseeing or window shopping, Van Sweden said.

He said some people might fear that putting historical preservation restrictions on properties will deter people from buying them or developers from developing them.

“But study upon study show that this actually stabilizes or even increases the property value because it shows the community cares about these places. It gives them value,” Van Sweden said.

And when towns successfully market their historic assets, they can draw more visitors and boost the local economy.

Attracting visitors

Ted Wampole, executive director of Visit Luzerne County, said heritage tourism is “a big part of what we promote at the Luzerne County Visitors Bureau.”

Wampole noted that a 2019 brand study survey revealed that residents in and visitors to the county ranked historical and architectural attractions among the top 10 things they like to do and places they like to go in the county.

“They’re all throughout the county, but Wilkes-Barre has several. Almost everyone points to the Luzerne County Courthouse. It’s a great architectural and historical location,” Wampole said before rattling off a list of others including the Stegmaier mansions and the Irem Temple.

Brooks has been giving tours for years to out-of-towners who take bus trips to the city for historic tours that also include a stop at Mohegan Sun Pocono casino in neighboring Plains Twp.

Some sites in the city are on the National Register of Historic Places, including the former New Jersey Central train station at Market Street Square, built in 1868. Local developer George Albert is restoring and repurposing the building for offices and agreed to let the city establish a Planters Peanuts Museum there at no cost.

Van Sweden said restoring and developing structures on the National Register qualify developers for federal tax credits, and there are state grants available for municipalities and nonprofits to restore or develop historic sites.

Koter said he hopes more people consider buying homes and developing historic sites in the city.

“I would encourage people to purchase homes or apartments downtown,” Koter said. There are a lot of good homes looking to be occupied by people who share the same outlook.”