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Uncertainty paralyzes a city block

Melissa Campbell set up shop at the corner of Elmwood and Forest with the expectation that she wouldn’t be there long.

The owners of the house where Campbell planned to sell art and women’s clothing wanted to demolish the building. So Campbell pulled up the rug, painted the walls and hung up two hand-painted signs out front for Filigrees Gallery & Boutique.

“We thought it was going to be temporary,” said Campbell, who turned the space into an eclectic mix of gallery, hula-hoop studio and shop selling locally made goods. “Now we’re going on four years.”

This is a corner in limbo. It has been eight years since a developer first proposed tearing down a strip of tired houses on Elmwood to build a hotel. Neighborhood opposition and the discovery of century-old deed restrictions sunk the first proposal. A second plan, unveiled in 2009 by Chason Affinity Companies, has lingered so long that when a judge ruled the project could go forward this month, some were surprised it was still in the works.

At Filigrees, the uncertainty has been on Campbell’s mind. Long-term investments just aren’t feasible.

“If it’s worth doing for one year, it’s worth doing,” said Campbell, who has been waiting for a push out the door that never comes.

There’s no doubt the uncertainty has taken its toll on the block. When the porch came off Allentown Music last year, the business lost its sign and the place where owner Joe Maniaci would hang guitars to draw in customers.

Maniaci doesn’t blame the current owners. You just don’t put on a new tear-off roof or rebuild a porch on a building that’s slated to come down.

“If they’re going to knock it down in a year or two, why would they do that?” asked Maniaci, who noted the current owners have put money into maintaining the buildings.

Maniaci moved in seven years ago with the understanding the move would be temporary. He expected to stay six months, maybe a year.

At the heart of the recent lawsuit, filed by Affinity Chason, were deed restrictions that limited the type of businesses on the properties. A group of homeowners who opposed the hotel used the restrictions to put the plan on hold until State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek ruled in favor of the developers this month.

You can hardly blame the homeowners for doing what they can to stop a project that will likely radically alter their backyards, but the uncertainty has paralyzed the neighborhood. Businesses have moved out or shut down. Others are in limbo, and a prime location that could be a link between the cultural institutions and Elmwood shops has fallen short of its potential.

Done right, the hotel project, which is expected to include residential and retail space, has the potential to transform the neighborhood. But its size – potentially five stories – could also overwhelm it if not carefully designed.

“Who knows if it’s a good thing or not,” Maniaci said. “They will permanently change this block forever, so that’s something to consider.”

Developer Mark Chason said the plan would add activity to Elmwood, while “taking into account the neighborhood fabric where the building will reside.” Those are the right words. Now, we’ll see if they live up to the promises.

After years in limbo, it’s time to move on. But please, proceed with care.