Penn Ketchum said there are roughly 30,000 people living and working within a mile of where Beaver Street meets the Codorus Creek in York.
The owner of Penn Cinema also said that there are no movie theaters within that mile.
“These are people who are taking discretionary income and leaving the city,” he said, referring to the multiplex screens outside of the city, as well as the restaurants and strip malls that surround them.
That’s one reason he chose to build Sweet City Cinemas on the vacant lot that is being sold by the Redevelopment Authority of York. The $3 million project is the latest set to happen in a redevelopment project known as the Northwest Triangle.
The authority’s goal has been to spur economic development in the city by increasing residential density in the Triangle, a former industrial hub along the Codorus, said Dave Cross, chairman of the York Redevelopment Authority. The project has been in the works for more than a decade, and about $15 million has been spent on site acquisition, demolition, remediation and infrastructure. Some of that was funded through state and federal grants.
There have been some accomplishments in the 11 acres made from 22 parcels bought from nine property owners. That includes a $14 million, privately funded rehabilitation of the former Thomas Somerville building on North George Street into office space, now home to LSC Design Inc. and Carney Engineering Group Inc.
Also, the former Smyser Royer building at West North and North Beaver streets has been renovated to hold York Academy charter school at a cost of about $4 million in private funds. Work is underway by Kinsley Construction Inc. to expand the space available for the school.
“I wish there was more (activity),” Cross said. “But we’ve accomplished a lot.”
The activity Cross and the board want is residential. It almost happened: Kinsley was ready to go with 125 or so units in the middle of the last decade, he said.
“We’ve always wanted dense, market-rate, single-family homes,” he said. “But, the market changes. As we were teed up for it in 2007, things tightened up.”
From a revitalization standpoint, the residential piece of the puzzle is important, said Chris Leinberger, a land-use strategist, teacher, developer, researcher and author with the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.
Leinberger, who has visited York several times in the past 10 years — most recently to speak at the York County Community Foundation annual meeting this month — said the demand for walkable/urban communities is high and getting higher as the millennial generation enters the workforce.
“It is worth the investment,” he said of the redevelopment authority’s work. “But if you don’t make the investment, there’s no future for York. This is what the market wants. The market is clamoring for walkable/urban. If you don’t give it that, the market is going to go to Lancaster.”
He said the Northwest Triangle’s proximity to downtown, generally considered the areas along Philadelphia and Market streets, makes it what is known as “downtown adjacent.” He referred to it as “gentle urbanism,” and he compared it to areas such as DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C., which has grown into a strong neighborhood as downtown D.C. has seen a rebirth.
“Think of downtown as an aircraft carrier and the areas around it are a bunch of support ships all around it,” he said. “They have a lower density than downtown, and serve a different, but important, economic roll in the regional economy.”
The housing market is beginning to pick up in York County, based on recent data. Realtors in 2013 sold 4,399 homes in the county for a total volume of $715 million, according to the Realtors Association of York and Adams Counties. That is a 14 percent increase in the number of homes sold compared with 2012. The total dollar volume is a 19 percent increase over 2012.
With that, Cross thinks the addition of Sweet City Cinemas, a strong business district anchored by the nearby York Central Market, the York Revolution baseball team and the planned extension of the York County Heritage Rail Trail into the Triangle all will lead to houses.
“We remain vigilant in our mission,” he said. “We want residential development.”
The possibility got a boost a few weeks ago when Eric Menzer, president of the Revolution, announced the organization would be offering its employees who are first-time homebuyers a grant up to $10,000 to help purchase a house in the city. York College of Pennsylvania and WellSpan Health offer similar programs.
That’s good news for Ketchum, who hopes to break ground on the two-screen theater that will hold 400 sometime this summer. The goal is to have the theater open with a blockbuster in the spring. Because of that, Ketchum couldn’t be specific on when the theater would open.
“There are a world of variables between now and when we will be able to finalize our plans,” he said. “When we have the groundbreaking, we’ll have a firm date.”
Squaring away the Northwest Triangle
The Northwest Triangle is an area designated for redevelopment in York. It consists of 11 acres and 22 parcels that were bought by the York City Redevelopment Authority from nine owners. So far, the authority has spent about $15 million in state and federal grants to handle demolition, remediation and other site work.