Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Apartment conversion, “tiny house” project for veterans get Harrisburg zoning approval

Two Harrisburg development projects jumped a key hurdle on Monday night, getting the approval of the city’s Zoning Hearing Board.

A split board first granted a variance and special exception to developer Derek Dilks, who plans to convert the former First United Methodist Church (pictured) into an eight-unit apartment building.

Dilks needed zoning relief because he has proposed a change in use for the 140-year-old church building at 260 Boas St. Also, the proposed one-bedroom apartments range in size from 550 to 1,125 square feet, which is smaller than the city allows by right.

Dilks explained that he plans to invest about $1.2 million into the building’s redevelopment and that the project would not be financially viable with fewer units.

“We’re projecting that eight apartments is a little bit better than break even,” said Dilks, who added that he considered as many as 12 units before scaling back to eight.

Rents would range from $1,250 to $1,800 a month, Dilks said. Some of the units include lofts and additional home office space, he said.

Last July, Dilks bought the property for $99,000 from the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church, which put most of its churches on the market in 2019.

The city’s zoning code did not require Dilks to provide off-street parking, but the issue came up both at the meeting and at the previous Harrisburg Planning Commission meeting. In response, he said that he’d provide eight dedicated parking spaces at the Lofts at 909, an apartment building he owns a block away at Green and Forster streets.

Only one resident spoke at the virtual meeting about the project and voiced support.

“My interest is only to say that I totally support it,” said Green Street resident Shane Fox. “It seems great. I would love to have more neighbors in Midtown.”

The Zoning Hearing Board approved the variance and special exception by a 2-1 vote, adding a condition that each unit be assigned a designated parking space at the Lofts at 909. Board Chair Thomas Leonard voted against it.

“I’m opposed . . . because the impact on the neighborhood is excessive,” he said.

Later on during the nearly four-hour meeting, the board gave unanimous approval for a variance and special exception for a project that proposes 15 “tiny houses” and a community center on vacant land along the Susquehanna River in south Harrisburg.

A nonprofit called Veterans Outreach of Pennsylvania has proposed the project at 1103 S. Front St. to provide temporary housing and support services for homeless veterans. The organization needed zoning relief for that specific use and because the community center does not meet the height requirement for the “riverfront” zoning district.

A rendering of the proposed “tiny house” community.

The development would be built on about 5.5 acres of what is commonly called Phoenix Park, former industrial land adjacent to the Capital Area Greenbelt. The property owners, Harrisburg philanthropist Peggy Grove and her son, Michael, have agreed to donate the land to the group, according to Thomas Zimmerman, president of Veterans Outreach of PA.

“Our homeless veterans are ones who were willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedom,” Zimmerman said to the board. “We want to give them the opportunity to have transitional housing to get them back on their feet so they can get back into society and live a life of normalcy.”

He said that they are modeling their village upon similar developments in places like Kansas City, Mo., San Diego, Calif., and Savannah, Ga., among other cities.

“This model has been proven in other parts of the country,” he said. “So, we’re just bringing it here to central PA.”

The project also includes 15 parking spaces.

With these approvals, both the church-to-apartment conversion and the veteran’s tiny house project now must have their land development plans approved by the city.

Several other significant development projects were on the Zoning Hearing Board agenda for the meeting on Monday. However, they were either given a continuance until the February meeting or will be heard at a special meeting scheduled for next week.

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