Historic district could help
Wyomissing safeguard future
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
By Thomas Hylton
Wyomissing Borough, incorporated in 1906, is considering the creation of a historic district. There are several forms such a district could take, but special protections – beyond conventional zoning – will help the borough preserve its unique character.
Wyomissing is familiar to town planners nationwide as one of the best designed communities in America. Laid out by a succession of outstanding landscape architects over a 30-year period, Wyomissing is known for its parks, its two sweeping boulevards, and its extraordinary mixture of housing types and styles, all tied together by 8,000 shade trees lining its streets.
The original part of Wyomissing, bounded by West Reading Borough on the east and Wyomissing Area High School on the west, is remarkably intact. There have been only two major losses in character – the stuccoed degradation of several factory buildings in the former Wyomissing Industries complex and the demolition of the former Wyomissing High School/Elementary School on Wyomissing Boulevard. A historic district could prevent similar blots in the future.
Wyomissing’s core area would easily qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. National Register status places no restrictions on private property owners, but it does make federal tax credits available for the renovation of commercial buildings that contribute to the character of the district.
A local ordinance historic district, as authorized by state law, would establish a historic architectural review board to review any exterior changes or additions to existing buildings in the district. The board would also review all new construction in the district to ensure it is compatible with the character of surrounding buildings. The board could deny the demolition of historically significant buildings. All decisions of the review board would be subject to the approval of Wyomissing Borough Council.
If a historic district seems too restrictive, a conservation district could be created as an overlay to Wyomissing’s existing zoning ordinance. In this scenario, applicants would be required to submit to the borough planning commission drawings showing proposed changes and additions to existing buildings and new construction. The commission would be given a fixed time period -- say three months -- to suggest changes to the plans, but its recommendations would be advisory only. Proposed demolitions would also be reviewed.
We have all three kinds of districts in Pottstown, where I’ve served on the planning commission for 10 years. Our downtown and our oldest neighborhoods are incorporated in both National Register and local ordinance historic districts. The rest of our residential areas, and some small-scale commercial areas, are covered by our conservation overlay district.
Our planning commission encourages property owners in the conservation district to come to us with their sketches and ideas, and we are happy to provide free advice – even drawings – from architects, landscapers and planners who act as consultants to the commission. It’s important for people to see us before they’ve spent a lot of money on their own architects and engineers. More often than not, applicants are pleased with our advice. If not, they can do what they want, as long as they meet our typical zoning and building standards.
Many homeowners have willingly taken our design suggestions for additions and renovations. We redesigned a proposed apartment complex to look like townhouses. We designed a new housing development to be pedestrian-oriented with garages off alleys to the rear, Wyomissing-style. Thanks to our conservation district, Pottstown’s main street boasts one of the most attractive McDonald’s restaurants in America. Without our asking, the corporation flew an architect in from Chicago to tour Pottstown’s historic areas and design a compatible building. We approved the very first design submitted.
Wyomissing is a jewel that merits special protection. Although known for its affluence, the borough has a remarkable number of older row houses and twins woven seamlessly with single family homes representing every decade of the past century. The design of the buildings and streets has preserved the borough’s high property values. A historic district can help safeguard Wyomissing’s future.