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Design guidelines benefit municipalities

Harrisburg Sunday Patriot-News
Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007

By Thomas Hylton

By leasing county-owned land for commercial development, the Dauphin County commissioners are trying to keep taxes down.   Last month, Turkey Hill Minit Markets broke ground for a convenience store on a tract along Paxton Street in Swatara Township that was once part of a county nursing home.  The lease will bring $90,000 a year to county coffers.  Other leases are pending.

The public would reap even more benefits if Dauphin County makes design restrictions a part of future deals.  Rather than adding more insipid buildings to the landscape, the county could use lease agreements to promote attractive roadside architecture.

Like all chain convenience stores and restaurants, Turkey Hill uses prototype buildings that act as icons for its business.  For example, you can tell a Pizza Hut by the peculiar shape of its red roof or a McDonald’s by the huge golden arches jutting into the air.  Sheetz employs more red and gold than Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey to draw motorists’ eyes to its gas pumps and convenience stores.

While tacky buildings and gaudy colors may help sales, they degrade everyone’s quality of life.  Sixty years of strip commercial development have decimated southcentral Pennsylvania landscapes from Carlisle to Cleona.  Most daily journeys by car now entail a succession of plastic signs, kitschy buildings, and weedy parking lots. 

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Highway retailers can build tasteful structures that still attract customers.  They can plant shade trees – lots of them – in parking lots.  They can even put buildings close to the street, instead of marooning them behind a sea of asphalt.  They can and will do all these things if the local municipality requires them to.

Unfortunately, Swatara Township has no design guidelines, and Dauphin County didn’t make design standards part of its lease agreement.  But they are essential to creating attractive, inviting places.

Thanks to a design review process, my town of Pottstown recently gained one of the best-looking McDonald’s Restaurants in Pennsylvania.  As part of an innovative zoning ordinance Pottstown adopted in 2003, developers must provide drawings of proposed buildings.  New structures must be compatible with Pottstown’s traditional architecture.

McDonald’s could have contested the ordinance.  Instead, they sent an architect from Chicago to spend a day in Pottstown and get a feel for the community.  The first sketch McDonald’s submitted – a long, narrow brick building with tasteful canopies over modest windows and doors rather than the typical plasticized mansard roof – was all we could have asked for.

However, the planning commission didn’t like where McDonald’s wanted to place the building – to the rear of their tract, behind a parking lot.  The planning commission hired its own landscape architect to demonstrate McDonald’s could place its building up against the street and still provide good traffic flow through its parking lot.

We negotiated.  In the end, McDonald’s agreed to place its parking spaces to the side and rear of its building if we allowed drive-in lanes in the front.  Brick columns and an ornamental fence now create a street wall along the sidewalk.   McDonald’s agreed to plant one canopy tree for every three parking spaces plus 13 trees along the street.

Pottstown’s experience is becoming more common.  A recent publication sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, called “Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania,” says the bottom line for most chain stores is securing access to prime locations.  “Hundreds of local communities have successfully worked with national chains and franchises to get buildings that respect local community identity,” writes author Ed McMahon. “If your community insists on a customized, place- responsive building, then that is what you’ll get.”

That’s what happened in the city of York, where Turkey Hill opened a unique convenience store and gas station last year called “Turkey Hill on the Lincoln Highway.”   The chain store originally proposed to demolish a historic filling station on East Market Street, part of the original Lincoln Highway, to build one of its prototype stores.   When civic leaders protested, Turkey Hill agreed to design a new store evoking the character of a 1920s gas station and store.

“They were amazing to work with,” says Mindy Higgins, formerly of Historic York and now executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania.  “They borrowed books on historic roadside architecture.  They worked with us on the colors, signage, and lights.  They used early 20th century lettering.  No question, they were willing to break the mold.”

To top off its efforts, Turkey Hill painted two murals on the building: One depicts the original structure, and the other traces the route of the nation’s first transcontinental highway.

Paxton Street doesn’t share the illustrious history of the Lincoln Highway, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be transformed, lot by lot, from strip mall purgatory to a pleasant place for ambling. 

The average American takes four trips a day totaling 55 minutes behind the wheel.  Instead of making these journeys a depressing experience, we can enhance our environment with handsome buildings and abundant landscaping.  In southcentral Pennsylvania, Dauphin County can lead way.

Thomas Hylton, author of “Save Our Land, Save Our Towns,” is chairman of the Pottstown Planning Commission.  Free copies of “Better Models for Development in Pennsylvania” can be downloaded from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website,  www.dcnr.state.pa.us/brc/publications.






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