State College: Real estate firm wants to demolish Sears house
A real estate company seeking to demolish a 1938 Sears “Lynnhaven” home in a historic State College neighborhood received an official denial Monday night – but the battle for the house may still be far from over.
Burkentine Properties, together with sister company Penn State Ventures, bought a home in the historic Holmes-Foster/Highlands neighborhood for $300,000 in October 2020. Citing “unreasonable” economic hardship, Burkentine now wants to demolish the home at 420 E. Foster Ave. and rebuild — but, because these homes are protected in historic neighborhoods, demolition is only permitted in “extraordinary circumstances.”
The borough council voted 5 to 1 Monday night to reject calls for demolition. But Burkentine appears unwilling to concede, as he previously wrote to the borough that any denial “will constitute an illegal take, as it will prevent the plaintiff from seeing an adequate return.” Burkentine can appeal to the courts or resubmit a claim with more favorable evidence; he did not immediately respond to CDT when asked about his next move.
Eric Boeldt, chairman of the borough’s Historic Architecture Review Board (HARB), spoke briefly to council Monday evening.
“If the plaintiff considers this to be an insufficient return on investment, then the owners have made a poor business decision,” said Boeldt, who opposed the demolition. “And it’s not the fault of the borough or the citizens or the people who love historic neighborhoods.”
Burkentine, who rented the house to college students in the spring, said she was suffering from “unreasonable economic hardship” – in part because she suffered a net loss of around $5,000 over a 14-month period and because three recent estimates put renovation costs between $715,000 and $750,000. But HARB and borough staff questioned both claims.
For one thing, they said, that net loss included a misleading $12,000 one-time cost for landscaping. In future years, without the landscaping, that means there would be a profit of $7,000. As for the cost of the renovations, officials also believed that many of the estimates included unnecessary work.
Removal of asbestos siding, for example, is not necessary if the siding remains in good condition. And in a March 1 letter, HARB noted that regular Central Region Code Administration inspections found only minor or moderate issues, such as the need to replace the batteries in the smoke detector. , repairing cracked glazing on the front door and repairing deteriorated garage joists.
“Frankly, I think if we don’t go along with the HARB board on this, we’re completely abandoning the meaning of a HARB,” Board Chairman Jesse Barlow said, referring to the unanimous recommendation of HARB that the council refuses the demolition. “This is a clear case – frankly, for me – of a demolition that we should not allow.”
The HARB and two historic neighborhoods were created in late 2017, part of a movement sparked after a landlord sought to demolish one of the Sears homes in the College Heights neighborhood. At that meeting 5 years ago, former councilman David Brown supported its creation – apparently for cases similar to this. He said at the time that he wanted to prevent real estate agents, developers and speculators from buying the historic homes only to tear them down or turn them into rentals.
Current board member Deanna Behring said Monday that the timing of HARB’s creation was exactly why she intended to vote against demolition.
“The critical point for me is that the purchase of this home was on 10/15/20, 2 years after HARB was approved,” she said. “So the buyers purchased this property with full knowledge of HARB and its restrictions and guidelines. So that’s the key point for me in my deliberation.
HARB wrote to the board that, based on its training with the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office, demolition is only an option when there is an immediate danger to public health and welfare (due to a structural deficiency, for example) or when the return on investment is economically infeasible (as after a catastrophic fire or the collapse of a roof, for example).
Councilman Peter Marshall was the only dissenting vote. With three estimates from February, he felt Burkentine presented enough evidence to show demolition made more sense than renovation.
“I think it’s gone too far, personally,” he said. “I think they’ve shown where this house is a mess and trying to fix it will cost a lot more than tearing it down and building a new one.”
It was not immediately clear how Burkentine planned to proceed.
Holmes-Foster/Highlands contains 727 buildings contributing to the historic district, while College Heights has another 278 buildings. Both neighborhoods are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as they reflect a number of architectural styles popular in the early 20th century.