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The curtain is being drawn back on revised plans for a redevelopment project at the site of the former Lebanon Catholic School in Lebanon city.

The 13.9-acre campus of the former Lebanon Catholic School was put up for sale in 2020. Purchase of the property closed in June 2022. (LebTown)

Destiny Builders & Management, a hotel and multifamily developer/general contractor/management firm owned and operated by Shakher Patel, acquired the property for $2.2 million in June 2022.

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An earlier plan for the site was stymied by zoning hurdles, but rather than cut bait, Patel doubled down on his vision for the property and tapped a community and economic development planner to help make it a reality.

Now, with community support lined up and the property continuing to be the target of vandalism efforts following a July 2022 arson, the hope is that, if all goes well, demolition of the property and site prep for development could take place this year.

“That’s the hope and the dream, but it’s a process, so we’re going to take our time with it,” said community and economic development planner Jesse Suders, director of municipal services for Harrisburg-based consultancy Dawood Engineering Inc.

North Cornwall Township resident Jesse Suders is a community and economic development planner hired by developers Destiny Builders & Management to gather feedback and help adapt plans for the site to better fit community needs. (LebTown)

“We’re going to work with everyone,” Suders said. “We’re not going to try to shoehorn something in. So if there’s a group that needs a little bit more time, we’ll try to accommodate everyone within reason. But I think we’re on the right path.”

It’s a path he has been going down for the last year and a half. Suders was brought in by Patel to aid Destiny Builders & Management LLC in the design of the project.

Suders describes his role as that of a facilitator. He’s spent much of his engagement meeting with stakeholders to gather insights and input as to what’s important to them, and then incorporate that feedback into the updated site plan, which is still in the draft stage.

Draft plan for the Chestnut View Apartments, to be built on the site of the former Lebanon Catholic School in Lebanon. See a PDF version of the draft plan here.

There are a couple major changes to the current plan.

The first is that the development would not have a through-road or anything similar to it. An earlier version of the plan had internal driveways along 14th and 15th streets that became a sticking point in the zoning process. The new plan is setup to throttle the flow of traffic through the site, with no straight-shot throughways like the earlier plan.

However, the property will have internal gates and reinforced walkways to provide direct access to emergency vehicles when needed.

A pathway along the line of South 14th Street has also been expanded out to 20 feet, compared to the 10 feet seen in the plan below, with the additional area to be beautified using geotextile, green-planted weight-bearing fabric that can support emergency vehicles.

The 10-foot walking path has been expanded to 20 feet, with some of that area to be beautified using geotextile, green-planted weight-bearing fabric, so that emergency vehicles can use it as an access road if needed.

The second major change is that the Donaghmore Mansion would be preserved as part of the plan. An earlier version of the plan did not explicitly preserve the former iron furnace manager’s residence, which was once home to the Patch family, although Patel said this was something he’d like to do even in the earlier stages.

Updated plans for the Lebanon Catholic site include preserving the Donaghmore Mansion for use as offices for the management company.

Read More: Lebanon Catholic property contains the Donaghmore Mansion and the historic Patch estate

Suders said he engaged with the historic preservation community to develop a plan for preservation and restoration of the mansion, including the installation of historic signage so that passersby can understand what they’re looking at.

Suders emphasized that when he says the mansion could be used as offices by the management company, he literally means Destiny Builders & Management.

“Everything you see here is actually going to be managed by the property management company,” said Suders. “Destiny is not going to turn this over to someone else, they’re going to maintain it and all of this will be privately owned and maintained by Destiny as the owner and operator.”

He explained that this means none of the infrastructure included as part of the plan, such as stormwater drainage, walkways, or driveways, would need to be maintained by the city.

The new plans do not call for any of the existing Lebanon Catholic School building to be retained. Suders said the building has been vandalized pretty badly inside. As part of his listening tour, Suders said he invited the Catholic community to come out and tour the facility, inviting representatives from Our Lady of the Cross School to take whatever memorabilia or materials they wanted.

“I had a discussion with them about what they would like to see happen with the site, and they just want to see it demolished,” said Suders. “It’s a scar; it hurts to see it this way.”

Suders said he also met with the bike and pedestrian community, and came up with a plan for the site that connected it to the forthcoming Wengert Memorial Park and the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail.

“We wanted to make sure that we connected all the really cool recreational components of the area and encouraged utilization of the city’s recreational facilities, and gave our tenants a way to commute to work and get into the city in some way other than a vehicle,” he said.

Suders said that the project has obtained letters of support from several of the stakeholder groups he met with, including a letter of support from a descendant of the Patch family.

Suders noted that the recreational facilities on the site – a playground, a picnic area, and the pathways – would all be open to the public.

“This is not going to be a ‘no trespassing’ situation,” said Suders. “They’re going to be open to the public for use.”

Suders there was no one from any of the groups he met with – the Catholic school community, historic preservationists, bike and pedestrian advocates – that balked at how the plan had evolved. “They were all very supportive of it,” he said.

The new plan for the site has maintained the same number of units as the earlier version. Suders said the goal was to realize return on investment for the developers, as well as what he called “community return on investment.” He said the development will provide much needed housing to the community.

The site plan includes several apartment buildings, with a mix of unit floorplans to be available, as well as 34 townhouses. Suder said the townhouses will be just slightly taller than the existing house located on the property along Walnut Street, and that the townnhouses have been designed so they obscure the apartment buildings from the street.

“These folks are not going to be starting into a balcony on the side of an apartment complex,” said Suders, referring to neighbors across the street on Walnut Street. “They’re going to be seeing a facade side of a townhome.”

Parking for the townhomes will be located on the side opposite of Walnut Street, and each townhome will have a dedicated parking spot.

Townhomes located along Walnut Street would be just slightly taller than the existing home, designed to maintain the streetscape and obscure the apartment buildings from Walnut Street. (LebTown)

Suders noted several other design challenges solved while reworking the site plan, including placing the dumpsters in strategic locations interior to the property so that the area originally slated for the dumpsters could be preserved as green space and a naturalized stormwater basin.

A new connection to the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail will be built next to a meadow and naturalized stormwater basin on the northeastern corner of the property.
This area of the property will be used for stormwater management in the form of a naturalized stormwater basin. (LebTown)

Suders said that the design process has involved a lot of visualization and thinking through intricate details.

“These are the things that I do on a daily basis – the little things can make the biggest difference, and it’s been a truly collaborative effort, meeting with everyone, talking with everyone,” said Suders.

During the collaborative process, he said, Suders felt that stakeholders saw increased potential for the site. He said Patel, too, was dedicated to the project.

“I’ve worked with a lot of developers, I’ve worked with a lot of firms in the past,” said Suders. “Someone who’s not committed would (decide to move on). You meet a certain level of resistance and then the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t work out and you walk away.”

“There were many challenges to this property that had us going in circles,” said Patel. “At times, we did consider moving on, but as a developer I feel some responsibility to develop urban areas to partially offset the sprawl we are seeing in many counties.”

“A project like this in the suburbs would have eaten up 80-100 acres. Meeting the numerous stakeholders and groups such as Accelerate Lebanon, made it clear that Lebanon’s best days are ahead of it and we want to be a part of that story.”

Suders said that stakeholder groups still on his list to gather feedback and incorporate ideas included the Shade Tree Commission and Lebanon Transit.

If the timeline holds, Suders said that a preliminary land-development plan could go in front of the Lebanon City Planning Commission in the next month or two. Obtaining approval for the plan will make it possible to proceed with demolition of the existing, fire-scarred Lebanon Catholic School building and begin prepping the site for development.

This step would also help prevent further vandalism from taking place on the property.

“There’s a level of cost with mobilizing all that equipment and all those people, and you want to have your land development plan in place, because when they come in and do all that, they can just start doing the rest of the plan,” said Suders. “But to bring them out and then send them home and then bring them out is incredibly expensive.”

Suders said he is optimistic about the plan and thinks it truly addresses community needs.

“It’s engaging all stakeholders,” he said. “This is Planning 101, and I think that it’s gone well so far, and I really appreciate the amount of engagement we’ve received from the community, and I really appreciate the amount of engagement we’ve received from the city.

“It’s really refreshing to have actively engaged partners on a project like this.”

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Davis Shaver

Davis Shaver is the publisher of LebTown. He grew up in Lebanon and currently lives outside of Hershey, PA.


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