In a world emerging from strife and disease, Harrisburg plants its flag. Grand buildings emerge. Neighborhoods fill with new homes. People congregate to celebrate life.
So, is it 1921 or 2021? Harrisburg has seen building surges in other ages, but right now, a perfect storm of trends is driving a renaissance that’s reshaping the cityscape for the 21st century.
Twenty-seven projects. That’s the number of development projects planned or underway as counted by Harristown Enterprises, and the number keeps growing. Total investment in the city: $601 million.
Many projects are clumped in a few blocks of Midtown Harrisburg. Whatever could be going on there?
While the federal courthouse at 6th and Reily streets is not the sole reason for the surge, it is the catalyst that city leaders hoped for when they stopped the mighty U.S. government from gouging a gash in the heart of downtown, choosing instead to build in a once-blighted area about a mile away.
Historic Harrisburg Association recently talked with two federal judges who want to get to know their new neighborhood and “be a part of the community,” said Executive Director David Morrison.
“That’s what we think is spurring a lot of this development—federal employees wanting to live in that part of Midtown, as well as people who do business with the U.S. courts,” he said.
One major project clearly spurred by the courthouse is the Reily House—seven floors of apartments, retail, urban grocer and restaurant, with a 500-space garage for courthouse parking neatly disguised to the rear.
“That’s a really creative approach to killing a couple birds with one stone,” said historian Jeb Stuart.
Single causes have never driven Harrisburg’s historic “spikes in development and lulls in development,” said developer Derek Dilks. Some of today’s projects are “obviously” attributable to the courthouse, but others are like his—redevelopments of townhomes, offices and a Midtown church to satisfy demand for Class-A, market-rate apartments and retail spaces.
“For the best and the newest products, there’s a waiting list,” he said. “People in older apartments, paying the same or similar rent, are going to go from older stock to newer. Hopefully, that encourages the owners of those older buildings to redevelop.”
With their historic perspective, Morrison and Stuart emphasize that the city has had multiple growth spurts.
The City Beautiful movement of 1901-02 was sparked by construction of the new state Capitol and a comprehensive plan to clean up a filthy city. In the 1920s, growth pushed northward, creating the Zembo Mosque, William Penn High School, Italian Lake and new homes. Municipal historic districts created in the 1970s—earlier than in many cities—protected priceless architecture from the wrecking ball. The “Harristown Plan” of the 1980s focused development on downtown.
For today’s resurgence, all of those phases add up to good bones. Harrisburg has a robust inventory of buildings sought by character-craving apartment-hunters and restaurateurs.
“We have some really nice architecture here,” said Harristown President and CEO Brad Jones. “No question about it. Two of our projects are that kind of adaptive reuse. I was showing that (27 projects) slideshow to someone from Philly recently, and he said, ‘Wow, you picked some nice buildings.’”
Increasingly, developers and community groups contact Historic Harrisburg to vet their ideas for adaptive reuse. Developers responding to market demands—driveways in the 1920s, walkability in the 2020s—are a key force in growth, said Morrison.
“The municipality is a helpful partner, but it’s not a monolithic domineering factor that prohibits things from happening,” he said. “It’s kind of a partnership that happened then and we’re seeing now.”
At the Gateway
While the courthouse visibly represents Midtown development, people don’t see the interest that Harrisburg Director of Economic Development Nona Watson is fielding for projects citywide. She won’t cite the projects yet, but “wheels are turning in other parts of the city.”
“They’re using what’s happening to continue to branch further and further out,” she said.
From her perch, Watson tries to formulate “a holistic approach” that convenes existing assets, funding and multiple partners to revitalize not just buildings but entire neighborhoods. It worked organically for Mulder Square at Mulberry and Derry streets, she said, and now, it’s a model for such areas as Camp Curtin, to extend the courthouse’s redevelopment juice farther up the 6th Street corridor.
There at the Camp Curtin gateway, Adam Maust is redeveloping the long-abandoned Hudson Building at 6th and Maclay streets into The Atlas 1923. With no development experience, Maust dove into a massive project that, he hopes, will help smooth out the neighborhood’s “rough areas.” He has worked with neighbors and community groups to design the Atlas elements, aiming for a market or grocery store, and perhaps a community center for exclusive use by neighbors.
“I’m excited about saying we can come in here and really help foster a safe environment, a lit-up environment, with things that are just going to organically help the area,” he said.
Affordable housing is high on Watson’s agenda. At the direction of Mayor Eric Papenfuse, she is working with City Council members to develop an affordable housing plan that could incentivize developers to mix affordable housing with market-rate units. And as she notes, affordable housing means housing for moderate-income people as well as low-income.
“We have to have housing on all levels,” Watson said. “If you have too much affordable housing, especially in a particular area, then you have concentration of poverty. If you talk about all market-rate, then you have gentrification.”
Watson is seeing the difference that the development surge is making in—yes—grocery stores. Food chains that rejected her overtures before now want in on the action.
“Development is going to draw more investors, is going to draw more businesses, and with that, of course, you’re going to need more housing,” she said. “Everybody wants to be on the winning team.”
From a developer’s perspective, Harrisburg is “manageable,” said Maust. Out-of-state developers spooked by the cost points of redeveloping in big cities are stretching their budgets in Harrisburg.
“We have the Farm Show,” said Maust. “We have the Susquehanna River, which is gorgeous. You have the historical, long-term buildings and residences all around the area. It is a beautiful city that is actually very tangible, and that’s why you’re seeing all these big projects.”
Harrisburg real estate is “red hot,” said Jones. One of the reasons: The scrutiny that secondary and tertiary cities—the terms come up a lot—are getting from metropolis residents who have become work-from-home converts.
“There’s lots of flight from bigger, more expensive cities to places that offer a strong value proposition but still give you some of the things you loved about your urban environment,” said Jones, whose company is building more two-bedroom apartments in response. “If I only have to work in the office a couple times a month, I can live in Harrisburg.”
Big-city companies and people are looking for value in tertiary markets, agreed Dilks.
“If you’re in Chicago or D.C. or New York and you just want to get out of the city, you’re going to come to a smaller market, like a Philly or Harrisburg or Lancaster,” he said.
Dilks is tailoring his apartments to the remote-work trend, with bonus spaces or sliding walls to keep the dog from crashing Zoom calls. Such spaces could also be attractive to lobbyists and others who travel regularly to Harrisburg on state business. Once, they rented an office space and a hotel room. Now, they want a single space year-round.
Like Watson, Jones sees “more projects coming into the pipeline, all over the city. The more you see, the more there will be. One project’s success leads to the next one’s evolution.”
Dilks plans to wait for the pandemic’s after-effects to materialize before deciding on his next projects. In the meantime, he counts himself among developers who are “doing what we do because we love the city.”
“We love the architecture. We love development. There just happens to be a market here that supports what we’re doing,” he said. “Those are the ingredients you need. You need somebody who loves to do it, and you need a customer to appreciate what you’re doing.”
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