Hotel Sterling and traffic blocks still standing

Sarah Kennelly, Correspondent

One of Luzerne County’s famous and oldest hotels is causing the county some distress.

The Sterling Hotel in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania was condemned a few months ago, after the September Flood of 2011. The 114 year-old building will likely be demolished in the future.

Luzerne County has been trying to negotiate a demolition agreement with the Wilkes-Barre and CityVest, the owner of the Sterling, for months. One reason the agreement has not been reached is that city’s refuses to waive demolition-permit fees.

Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton said that the city committed roughly $250,000 in state gaming funds toward the demolition. Leighton is frustrated because the city could have used the money for other projects.

In addition, Wilkes-Barre is also paying $5,000 a month for traffic barriers constructed around the Sterling due to concerns of building debris falling onto nearby traffic. The traffic barriers have caused irregular traffic patterns on River Street where the Sterling Hotel is located.

“This county must make a decision soon because the building is a fire hazard and continues to attract the homeless.” Leighton said.

“It’s likely the nonprofit CityVest will file for bankruptcy if the county doesn’t take the property off its hands.” Leighton said. “The property would then be frozen and continue to deteriorate until the city could obtain funds for demolition.”

Leighton also predicts that the county will be tied up in bankruptcy court for years to try to recover some of its investment in the project.

According to a March 2011 report released by CityVest, it would cost about $1.2 million to demolish the property.

The study also included a roofing company estimate to redo the roof, replacing the wood framing with steel and metal. This estimate, released in 2009, was $1.4 million.

The CityVest study also says it will cost anywhere from $5 million to $7.7 million to stabilize and mothball the entire building.

There were some efforts to save the Sterling Hotel. Wilkes-Barre architect Carl Handman asked Luzerne County officials to consider the cost of structurally securing and mothballing the Hotel Sterling for future preservation.

Handman worked on the Sterling project in 2003. He publicly criticized, CityVest, for failing to listen to his past recommendation to mothball the structure to prevent further deterioration.

“CityVest’s study claims that it will cost about $7 million to mothball the property,” Handman said. “but the study lacks detail on how they arrived at that estimate.”

There is even a Facebook page group called “Save the Hotel Sterling” with 782 followers.

People who have lived in the area for more than a few decades, such as Wilkes University Dr. Bradford Kinney say it’s a shame that the hotel sterling will probably be demolished.

“There were so many things that could have been done to that building.” Kinney said, “It could have been a museum, to attract people from other areas, or dorms for Kings and Wilkes students.”

Kinney remembered when the Sterling rented out part of the 1898 building to King’s College and Wilkes University for dormitory space. By the 1980s the tower had become a low-cost residential hotel. Around the same time the owners announced a plan to turn the hotel into condominiums for tourists.

Unfortunately the project was never completed. City health authorities later discovered several building code and health violations and ordered all residents living in the hotel to leave. Due to ownership issues, unpaid taxes, and a fire in 2000 the building remained abandoned for years.

In late 2005, the non-profit organization CityVest bought the Hotel Sterling and decided to redevelop the original hotel building into residential and commercial space, with a budget of $6 million in Luzerne County money. The rooms and hallways in the 17 story Plaza Tower were too narrow and low for redevelopment, so CityVest demolished the building in February 2007.

CityVest’s initial loan papers with Luzerne County promised to begin work on the hotel in February, 2007, finish the job a year later, and create jobs for people of low and moderate income.

County Controller Walter L. Griffith Jr. released an audit of the project in June, accusing CityVest and the county community development office of mishandling funds.

“CityVest had failed to complete plans that should have been done years ago, and they never bothered to find a developer.” Griffith said, “Now they claim they cannot pay back the $6 million they borrowed from the county and want to tear down the building and give the land to the county.”

Luzerne County council has split views over what should happen to the Hotel Sterling.

Four council members are in favor of finding ways to save the Sterling Hotel. Elaine Maddon Curry, Rick Williams, Harry Haas and Eugene Kelleher have said the county should find out how much it would cost to mothball and stabilize the Sterling, and find out if the county has enough funds to afford it.

The seven other members of the council expressed support for demolition. However, council members won’t make any decisions unless a cooperative agreement is reached among Luzerne County, Wilkes-Barre and CityVest.

“There is no time frame yet to when or if the demolition will take place because the three groups, Wilkes-Barre, the county, and CityVest, have not reached an agreement.” explained Council Vice Chairwoman Linda McClosky Houck, “As for the current condition of the building, with collapsing ceilings and holes in the roof, I believe if it was turn over to the county it would have to be demolished.”

Luzerne County council hopes to receive some agreement with CityVest and Wilkes-Barre within the next few weeks, though it is not likely.