There’s something to be said for being the biggest fish in a small pond.
But there’s also satisfaction in making the largest ripple. Arguably, that honor may go to DON Services.
Once more commonly known as Disability Options Network, DON set its sights in 2017 on making a handful of homes on New Castle’s Lower East Side handicapped accessible and providing more housing choices for individuals with disabilities.
That project, originally limited to Court Street between Walnut and Ray streets, quickly fanned out to surrounding blocks and now has developed into a mission of broad-based community revitalization, extending into New Castle’s South Side and downtown areas.
DON’s latest venture involves the purchase and renovation of five buildings in the 300 block of East Washington Street, just west of the Lower East Side neighborhood where its efforts blossomed four years ago.
Those structures include the Wright Building, which has in recent years housed Clark’s Furniture Store; a former train station that has been the home of Clark Studios; the adjacent building that is home to Packard Paints and a youth boxing program; and the former Four Brothers restaurant.
“That’s the corridor from the courthouse and the East Side into downtown New Castle,” said Court Hower, DON’s executive vice president of community resources and development.
“That area is in need of revitalization, and we are working on developing final plans on what we’re going to do with those buildings.”
THEN AND NOW
It’s not like DON purchased these buildings because it had nothing else to do.
On the Lower East Side, DON has finished the last of five homes built with the agency’s original Federal Homes Loan Bank funding and it has started on three of the nine supported by a second round of FHL backing. A third package is enabling DON, in conjunction with 10,000 Friends, to build two additional homes on the city’s South Side.
Also on the South Side, a second community garden is in the works, complementing its progenitor on the Lower East Side.
At the once-vacant Central Building on South Mercer Street, DON continues to renovate the upper floors for office space, after having already attracted Pennsylvania CareerLink and the Lawrence County Learning Center to the structure. They join DON’s own insurance arm, as well as DON Recovery Services — a drug rehab clinic that opened in January — and DON Reclaim, a construction material reuse program.
Behind Lori Daytner, vice president of program development, DON Processing has launched a two-pronged effort aimed at getting more farmers to grow hemp and building a decortication facility to process it for construction materials such as Hempwood and Hempcrete.
So don’t expect an East Washington Street transformation overnight.
“There’s a lot of work there,” Hower said. “This is going to be a three- to five-year plan, probably closer to five years.”
The workload notwithstanding, DON does have some preliminary plans for the block that once was home to the Cinema (previously the Dome, Paramount and Vogue) Theater, the Kurtz mansion, the Pennsylvania (later Penn Central) Railroad Station and the Hotel Excelsior.
The overarching goal is to bring back a sense of what used to be.
“If you look through the Historical Society archives, you see what the strip used to be,” Hower said, “with all the businesses, the train station, the movie theater.”
Philip W. Berezniak, attorney for DON, recalled he and his eight siblings walking behind their mother to visit Troutmans — which was just across Croton Avenue from the buildings DON purchased — to buy school clothes.
“You could barely fit on the sidewalks,” he said. “We may never have that back, but the acquisitions DON has made will enable use to at least move toward that activity again.”
For starters, The Four Brothers building will once again be a dining out destination.
“What I can say at this point, a restaurant will be returning,” Hower said. “It will be a restaurant, not a bar.”
Packard Paint and the boxing association will remain in their building.
“We were able to maintain the tenancy, which was important, not only to bring new businesses in but to keep the ones we already have. “We want to keep those entities that are present in place. DON has offered a number of incentives and opportunities to make sure they remain.”
Perhaps the jewel of the project, though, will be the Wright Building.
Don Reclaim is going in first, removing existing construction materials for reuse in the community. Then the renovation starts.
“It will be a mixed-use development, a mixture between commercial and residential,” Hower said. “That building was built as a mixed-use development, meaning retail and commercial on the first and second floors, and apartments on floors three, four and five. We’re keeping the use identical.”
DON is planning nine universally designed apartments for those upper levels.
“The apartments that are there are dated — not laid out for universal design,” Hower said. “Anything that we develop we want to make sure is fully accessible in every way.
“Unfortunately, with the current layouts, we have to go through and completely gut those floors and create a new floor plan. There are 16 units in there, and we’re reducing it down to nine.”
The renovation, Hower said, will include everything from repointing the exterior brick to replacing the electrical, plumbing and HVAC infrastructure.
All that will take time, but apparently, there already are those who are willing to wait.
“Since we purchased the building, we’ve had a fair amount of interest in that,” Hower said. “We’re moving forward. It will really transform that corridor.”