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Royal revivalMeeder Development project revitalizes Lancaster's East King Street

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Wohlsen Construction safety director Steve Reinoehl checks work on the storefronts at The Historic East Side Suites in downtown Lancaster. The Lancaster-based construction company is the general contractor of the mixed-used redevelopment project that will see its first storefront tenant, La Petite Patisserie, open today. Photo/Amy Spangler
Wohlsen Construction safety director Steve Reinoehl checks work on the storefronts at The Historic East Side Suites in downtown Lancaster. The Lancaster-based construction company is the general contractor of the mixed-used redevelopment project that will see its first storefront tenant, La Petite Patisserie, open today. Photo/Amy Spangler

The Historic East Side Suites, opening this week in Lancaster, exemplify what John Meeder sees as the mission of his company, Meeder Development Corp.: "Building for the future on the foundations of the past."

"I take that slogan to heart," he said.

Stretching along the north side of the 100 block of East King Street in Lancaster, the suites were a multimillion dollar project that took about a year to complete. But that year of work was a decade in the making.

"It's a key project in the redevelopment of downtown Lancaster," said David Nikoloff, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, which helped organize financing.

The raw materials: seven vacant, deteriorating 120-year-old storefronts, with a warren of 40 uninhabitable apartments above them.

The result: seven freshly renovated, tenant-ready storefronts, 17 condominium-style "market rate" one- and two-bedroom apartments and 4,000 square feet of contemporary open-layout office space.

Marshall Snively, vice president of the James Street Improvement District community nonprofit, called the suites a prime example of the kind of medium-scale development Lancaster needs to complement recent flagship projects such as the nearby convention center.

The project also exemplifies the difficulty of urban redevelopment. Financing and building the suites involved challenges that developers who build from scratch never encounter.

First the financing: Meeder began purchasing the properties stretching along 141-159 E. King St. in the late 1990s. He made three unsuccessful tries to finance the renovation, finally succeeding on the fourth. The key element was a federal incentive known as a new markets tax credit, designed to attract investment to projects in low-income areas.

The other financing components including bank financing, federal historic tax credits, a façade improvement loan, a "Building PA" state loan and a Recovery Zone Facilities Bond — all had to be melded with the new markets element, Meeder said.

"I'm a very creative developer. I use the tools that are out there," he said.

The final package totaled $9.2 million. That sum included funding for a new building at 19-21 E. King St., Meeder said. The building, home to a Subway restaurant and offices, opened in February 2010 and was the first completely new commercial building in Lancaster since the 1970s, he said.

The project's voluminous closing documents fill six fat three-ring binders. Meeder himself invested in the project in conjunction with the partners of its general contractor, Wohlsen Construction.

Wohlsen is proud to be involved in a historic redevelopment project such as this one, Vice President William Forrey said.

The company, founded in 1890, discovered a bit of its own history at the suites: Workers conducting demolition found a beam stamped "Herman Wohlsen & Sons," Forrey said.

Wohlsen rectified numerous structural problems, Forrey and Meeder said. Beams thought to be sound proved rotten, and several floors had to be torn out and rebuilt. Part of the facade had to be taken down and reassembled brick by brick.

But it was worth it, the men said. Among other things, the project restored what is believed to be the oldest intact original storefront in Lancaster, dating to the 1880s, Meeder said.

Behind the complex, Wohlsen largely rebuilt several wings added in the 1930s, Forrey said. They overlook a newly landscaped parking lot that melds with quiet, one-lane East Grant Street, itself recently streetscaped.

Many of the apartments have one or two decks overlooking Grant — 14 decks in all. Counting the parking lot and 13 single-vehicle parking garages, the complex offers two parking slots per apartment, plus parking for the offices and retail store staffs, Meeder said.

The apartments have bamboo floors, granite countertops and unique elements reclaimed from the buildings' earlier days. One boasts an elaborate foyer with vintage built-in casework and a stained-glass window. Carpenters restored hardwood staircases and old-fashioned solid-core doors.

Two elevators provide modern accessibility. Among the project's most challenging aspects was finding solutions that simultaneously satisfied building codes and historic preservation guidelines, Meeder said.

Meeder, who hails from western Pennsylvania, came to Lancaster in the 1980s and became a developer soon after. One of his best-known projects is Christian Street Court, a $4.5 million project near Fulton Bank off Penn Square in the heart of Lancaster and home to Meeder Development Corp.'s offices.

Though all the apartments are ready for occupancy this week, work at the suites will continue while commercial tenants ready their spaces and workers tie up loose ends, Meeder said.

The city sees the suites as having the potential to catalyze more development along the East King Street corridor, said Randy Patterson, director of economic development and neighborhood revitalization.

Meeder said he enjoys seeing "the positive change" urban redevelopment engenders.

"This project is ready to live another 100 years," he said.

Moxie House promotes downtown arts scene

Lancaster marketing and communications firm Moxie House on Wednesday launched the latest edition of its flagship publication, Fig, with a party at the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design.

Like its predecessors, the glossy quarterly "look book" celebrates the vibrant arts and cultural scene of downtown Lancaster — where Moxie House is about to move.

Later this month, the company will relocate from Lancaster Township to offices in Historic East Side Suites, Meeder Development Corp.'s just-completed renovation of a century-old streetscape in the 100 block of East King Street.

"It's perfect for us," Moxie House owner Deborah Brandt said.

"They're a fantastic lead tenant," said John Meeder, Historic East Side Suites' developer. "We're so happy to have them."

Previously, Moxie House operated out of a farmhouse at Brandt's family residence. The move took place for two straightforward reasons: Moxie House outgrew the farmhouse and "I need to be in the heart of downtown," Brandt said.

The fall edition of Fig both continues the tradition of its predecessors and breaks with them. Its cover — a hip riff on the multiple-perspective portrait style Picasso invented in "Girl Before a Mirror" and other works — looks like nothing Fig has done before.

That's intentional. Moxie House tries to reinvent Fig's look for each issue, Brandt said.

The book serves as the gateway into a synchronized marketing package that includes the Fig website and a robust social media presence, she said.

The result is a compelling "destination advertising campaign" promoting dozens of small Lancaster galleries, restaurants and boutiques — one vastly more powerful than retailers could achieve working individually, Brandt said.

"It's very specific … hyperlocal," Brandt said. "That makes it unique."

"We've been told there's nothing out there this local, this focused, this direct," she added.

Though Fig's raison d'être is small retailers, its fans include some of the largest organizations in Lancaster County — among them, the High Cos., the publication's editorial sponsor.

"Fig … is one of a kind, and its readers simply love it," High spokesman John Sandy said.

The Economic Development Company of Lancaster County regularly includes Fig in the materials it sends to corporate prospects, President David Nikoloff said.

It fills a very nice niche. … It shows a bit of that arts mix, which Lancaster is getting a national reputation for now," he said.

The Lancaster Fig has a readership of 100,000 copies each quarter, Brandt said. Most are distributed in the midstate, but there are subscribers nationwide, she said.

Moxie House has begun extending Fig elsewhere. Fig Media, serving the borough of that name, debuted in March, and Fig West Chester is set to roll out this holiday season.

Moxie House works with civic leaders to determine if Fig is a good match for an area's retailers, Brandt said: "We make sure we're positioning their community the way they want."

The Fig model best serves walkable, historic towns that have a strong sense of community and a thriving arts scene, she said.

Approaching the merchants occurs comparatively late in the process, she noted.

Fig's ethic focuses on positivity, creativity and sustainability, she said. The company makes a point of using local vendors as much as possible — "everything we do should be circular," Brandt said.

Brandt, a Manheim area native, attended Kutztown University then pursued design work in New York City for upscale luxury brands such as Dior and Ralph Lauren. She still does work for Dior every day, she said.

She returned to Lancaster County 12 years ago and began seeing a shift to greater sophistication in the area about seven years ago, she said. She and a partner founded a design company to do work locally.

About three years ago, Brandt saw the opportunity to take the company to the next level. She bought out her partner, changed the company name to Moxie House, and developed it into what it is today.

Prominent local clients include Central Market, the city and the Lancaster Heritage Center Museum — a roster through which Moxie House has helped define what people think of when they think of "Lancaster."

Moxie House has a staff of seven, including Brandt and her husband, Matthew. They are working out of a suite in Christian Street Court until their second-floor office at Historic East Side Suites is ready.

The name "Moxie House" refers to its spirit of pluck and tenacity, Brandt said.

"I see Moxie House as a creative force for positive change," she said. "We tell the good news."

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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