As state officials led local media on a tour of the Allentown State Hospital, a 107-year-old psychiatric hospital slated for demolition, efforts were underway to preserve historic structures on the property.
The state legislature passed a bill authorizing $15 million to be spent demolishing the 28 buildings on the 200-acre East Side Allentown property, which is owned by the state. The theory is that the site would be easier to sell as a green space than it would with buildings the state considers too expensive to rehabilitate.
The property has been mostly vacant since the hospital closed in 2010 and state officials said no one came forward to buy the property during that time. It also noted that maintenance costs on the property run about $2.2 million a year.
But now the legislature has approved a direct conveyance to TCA Properties of Doylestown, giving the company an opportunity to negotiate to buy the property, which is currently appraised at $2.7 million, after the demolition is complete.
Since word of the planned demolition came out, sparked in part by the recent release of the M. Night Shyamalan movie “Glass”, which was filmed on the property in 2017, there have been calls to halt the demolition.
Former Allentown mayoral candidate and developer Nat Hyman said he reached out to the state offering to purchase the property for the appraised value with the buildings intact.
He said his company has experience rehabilitating older properties, which are often plagued with environmental problems like asbestos, and he feels he can rehabilitate the properties at a lower cost.
“I’ve done a lot of these kinds of buildings. It’s exponentially more expensive when you demolish,” he told Lehigh Valley Business.
While he didn’t have a specific plan, he said the “promenade” style of the property would make it appropriate for development as apartments, health care offices or other uses. He even offered to preserve land on the property for a school building for the Allentown School District.
Meanwhile, an Allentown woman, Brooke Kemler, started a petition opposing the demolition roughly three weeks ago that has since garnered more than 4,000 signatures. She also has sent information packets on the history of the property and potential reuse options to regional state representatives and senators and the governor’s office.
She said she hopes to gather 10,000 signatures to show the state there is a desire to preserve the site for its history and architecture.
While she said it would be nice if the property could be used for apartments or perhaps school or community facilities, she said she has no specific plans for what she’d like to see on the site, just that the buildings are preserved.
“One of my biggest goals is just to draw more awareness. Some people haven’t heard about it,” she said. “It’s unique and it’s interesting.”
Kemler is joining with the Allentown Preservation league this Saturday, Jan. 26, to host a screening of the movie “Glass” at the Carmike 16 movie theater in Allentown. There, she said, they will pass out literature, discuss ideas for the hospital’s preservation and urge supporters to contact state representatives and ask them to reverse demolition plans.
So what are the buildings’ chances of being saved by the wrecking ball?
At first blush, they don’t seem strong.
Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Department of General Services, who hosted the tour of the hospital, said the demolition orders are a legislative matter, and the legislature voted in favor of it. His department is moving forward as if demolition is still the plan.
And local representatives don’t seem particularly keen on reversing their decision.
Allentown-area state Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D) said he voted for and remains in support of the demolition plan, which was proposed by Allentown-area state Sen. Pat Browne (R).
Schlossberg said that while he respects the fact that many people would like to see the building preserved, “nobody has shown me a way yet to make it more fiscally responsible.”
He said many people have pointed to a similar state hospital in Buffalo, New York, which was converted into a resort, but he noted that restoration project had many differences from the Allentown property and still cost more than $100 million.
He said while he appreciates the historic value of the buildings, he said the $100 million or more he estimates it would cost to rehabilitate the property would be better spent on schools or social services.
He also noted that much of what is historic about the building is being preserved.
Before demolition begins the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission will be picking through the building to save anything of historical value.
And Thompson pointed out that those concerned with spending $15 million on a property worth $2.57 million can be assured that the assessment will change if and when the structures are demolished.
While he didn’t have hard numbers, he said it’s expected that the sale amount would make the $15 million investment worthwhile, and that if a deal can’t be reached with TCA Properties, the state could negotiate with other potential buyers.
In addition to the sale proceeds flowing to the state, Schlossberg noted that any commercial reuse of the property would create jobs and bring in tax revenue, which it is not doing in its current abandoned state.