In the News

More housing added for Shops at Rockvale redevelopment; here’s what’s next
CHAD UMBLE, Staff Writer, Lancaster Online
Feb 16, 2023

Scores of new apartments have been added to a housing plan for the $120 million proposed redevelopment of the Shops at Rockvale even as township officials continue to push for even more apartments in what now stands as a 16-building, 504-unit complex.

After proposing 416 apartments in December, New Jersey-based Fernmoor Homes has added 88 apartments in three new buildings to its plan for remaking Rockvale by replacing some commercial space with housing. The additions have pushed the project’s cost from $100 to around $120 million, the company said.

The latest plan also shows two buildings on existing parking lots at Rockvale that will stay commercial, including one building with 11,000-square-feet of retail on the first floor and apartments on the three floors above.

The changes, which were unveiled Tuesday for the East Lampeter Township Planning Commission, come after township supervisors in December urged Fernmoor Homes, which bought the property in December for $30.5 million, to consider ways to boost its planned housing options.

But for some, the changes don’t go far enough, especially since an ordinance meant to encourage the redevelopment of Rockvale would allow 780 housing units on the 65-acre property.

“We don’t have many areas where you can have this density and I think it’s really important for the township to take advantage of that when you can,” Randy Patterson, a township planning commissioner, said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Even with more than 626 apartments and townhomes proposed at the other end of the township in Greenfield North, commissioners suggested that the housing demand is strong enough to support the maximum buildout at Rockvale.

Jeffrery Fernbach, president of Fernmoor Homes, said the current proposed density is near his limit, saying adding new floors to apartment buildings would be too costly.

“We’re not looking at doing anything more than four stories. I don’t see that happening,” Fernbach, who joined the meeting via Zoom, told commissioners Tuesday.

“You have a cost issue. We have a land issue,” replied Darrel Siesholtz, planning commission chairman, suggesting that an upcoming study of the township’s housing options – which was also discussed at Tuesday’s meeting — would show an urgent need for new places to live.

Building higher density housing in some areas to relieve some of the pressure to build in agricultural areas is one of the longstanding goals of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, whose Places2040 comprehensive plan promotes infill developments and high-density housing.

More room to live
The space for the new apartment buildings at Rockvale would be created by tearing down 267,000 square feet of commercial space in the middle of the shopping center. The existing retail tenants would be moved to the remaining commercial spaces along Route 30 and at the western and eastern edges of the shopping center.

Since it unveiled a plan in December, Fernmoor’s has repositioned the planned apartment buildings centered around a clubhouse to allow for two more four-story buildings with 32 apartments. Each building would have a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments rented at market rates. There won’t be any subsidized housing.

The new plan also shows a new, 3,600-square-foot commercial building at the end of a parking lot near Cracker Barrel. There’s also a new four-story building on the parking lot between Cracker Barrel and the Comfort Inn that would have 11,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor and 24 apartments on the upper floors.

Describing the plan for planning commissioners Tuesday was Chris Venarchik of RGS Associates who said Fernmoor originally was going to propose 13 three-story apartment buildings and have around 300 apartment units. At the behest of township staff, a fourth story was added to the buildings before the proposal for 416 units was formally presented to supervisors in December.

While he said he was against going any higher with the buildings, Fernbach said he was open to adjusting the plan. Yet, he said, time is of the essence.

“As the market evolves and the potential evolves, we could adjust it going forward in the years to come,” he said. “But we very much would like to get started here because we are losing (commercial) tenants, and it’s continuing.”

With both township supervisors and planning commissioners having now been formally briefed on the master plan, the next step will be for Fernmoor to submit the master plan for approval, beginning with the planning commission, which will then pass along a recommendation to township supervisors, who will take a vote on whether to approval the master plan.

If the master plan is approved, the project would then begin the formal land development process, which includes stormwater management plans, traffic considerations, landscaping and other aspects.

With many steps to go in the approval process, Fernbach has said demolition might begin by fall, at the earliest. Constructing the new apartment buildings would then take four or five years, he said.

Remaking Rockvale
After a previous owner defaulted on a mortgage, New Jersey-based Wharton Realty Group spent $30 million in 2017 to acquire the shopping center which at time had 70 tenants, down from a peak of 120.

Wharton Realty changed the center’s name from Rockvale Outlets to the Shops at Rockvale while adding new facades and signage. Those efforts failed to generate a significant improvement in revenue or occupancy and by the time of the sale to Fernmoor, there were fewer than 40 tenants.

Although Wharton Realty was unable to revive Rockvale as a shopping center, it did set the stage for its transformation by winning approval in July 2020 for a zoning ordinance that allows for housing to be built on the property, as is now being proposed by Fernmoor Homes.

In addition to adding apartments, Fernmoor also says it plans to change the name of the shopping center that opened in 1986 as Rockvale Square. Renderings from Fernmoor showing updates to commercial spaces have “Rockvale Outlets” on some buildings, although a company representative said that was a generic moniker that didn’t necessarily reflect the final decision on a name.