A newly transfigured, 13-story high-rise, vacant for 13 years, now bears two signature “JT” monograms on its beige and brown façade.
Inside, the building has the aroma of newness, the look of a chic hotel, and the grateful smiles of dozens of senior citizens.
After years of waiting and work, the 159 like-new units of Jackson Towers are filling with residents aged 62 and older, who were eagerly waiting to call 1315 N. 6th St. “home.”
First built in 1960, just blocks from the Capitol Complex, Jackson Towers has stood lifeless and languishing since being vacated in 2004. After a 2011-12 gutting and a long bidding process, renovations began in earnest in September 2013.
Fast-forward four years. After the Labor Day weekend faded into the rear-view mirror, the moving vans started pulling up to the covered portico. Seniors began sitting on the outdoor benches, and a lonely, tranquil building sprang to life.
After the total makeover, many residents are moving from its next-door neighbor, Lick Apartments. Both towers are located across from the Broad Street Market, adjacent to Ben Franklin School, near the Bethesda Mission and the proposed site of the new federal courthouse.
Among those moving in is 80-year-old Arthur Jefferson, who sat outside Lick Apartments in a wheelchair on a sun-soaked August afternoon. Fred Banuelos, vice president of the Harrisburg Housing Authority, called “Jeff” the unofficial “mayor” of Lick Apartments, a man who knows everybody by name and is a friend to all.
Jefferson reached into his back pants pocket to produce his folded white paper bearing his room assignment in Jackson Tower. It was his ticket to a brighter future.
He confessed that a stroke often interferes with his ability to express his thoughts easily, but his eyes and face told the tale. While health complications will prevent him from using the library and gym, he is looking forward to the conversation rooms and group areas.
“I like it,” he said enthusiastically about his new home.
Live in Dignity
When visitors walk beneath the covered entranceway of Jackson Towers, past the benches and precise landscaping, they enter an open, airy two-story lobby. The color palette is a sea of taupe, terra cotta, russet and chocolate brown. The lobby has a security station, open steps and three elevators, one of which is handicapped accessible.
Plush new carpets, tile floors and faux stone walls give the structure a look of sophistication. The first floor, which still had slipcovers protecting the carpet in late August, is non-living space, loaded with amenities. Rounding out the first floor are a library, game room for board and card games, community room with rich, faux cherry cabinets, group dining room, fitness room and resident relations office, where people can get help with medical issues, transportation and employment. Hamilton Health Center has a presence, as well, complete with examining rooms and a spacious waiting room.
“It has the appearance of high-end, but it was done at an economical rate,” Banuelos said.
Room keys work on a high-tech fob system to avoid lost keys and lockouts.
The renovation, which cost $25 million, reduced the building’s units from 240 to 159, so they’re fewer but bigger.
“This is how housing could and should be,” Banuelos said. “If you are low-income, you don’t have to live in an institutionalized setting. They deserve to live in dignity and in something nice as well.”
Jackson Towers is part of a vast public housing spectrum.
Banuelos said that there are 1,641 public housing units in Harrisburg, and, of those, 420 are for seniors. In addition to Jackson Tower, Morrison Tower has 120 and Lick has 144. The balance is for families, including Hall Manor, Hoverter Homes and William Howard Day Homes.
At JT, every resident is age- and income-qualified, Banuelos said.
Resident income must fall at 50 percent or below the median income in metropolitan Harrisburg to qualify. A waiting list for housing continues, but the authority is working to shorten it, both in terms of names and waiting times, he said.
He added that residents are charged 30 percent of their income for rent, so it is always affordable.
Banuelos said that he gets the same reaction from virtually everyone who tours JT: “It looks like a hotel!”
Family members of residents are especially thrilled. “I’m so happy my mom can live in such a nice place,” is a common refrain, he said.
“We knocked down walls and made new configurations,” Banuelos said. “We got great support throughout the community. That makes us want to come to work every day.”
The building has four styles of apartments. There are nine efficiencies, which have no private bedroom for “very simple living.” The second style is a one-bedroom apartment, with a galley-style kitchen and long countertops. Pocket doors allow for added space, and walk-in showers and closets offer ample storage and easy movement.
The third style is an L-shaped kitchen, with almond-colored walls. The fourth is handicapped-accessible. Floor-to-ceiling heights are tight. New Energy Star windows help with the energy retrofit of the building.
Banuelos said the intent was to move seniors from Lick to JT, but “the funding environment is making it prohibitive.”
Many residents had their hopes up and were disappointed, he said. The housing authority decided to make the move voluntary, leading about 80 to 85 of Lick residents to move.
Admittedly, coordinating the logistics of the move for many frail residents was tough. It was also like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle—some wanted the top floor, others the first. Some wanted the front and some the back, Banuelos said.
He said almost every preference was accommodated.
Moves began Sept. 5 in the morning, then two waves in the afternoon. Twenty moves each week are expected, until all are resettled.
“It’s a Herculean effort,” he said, even though the residents are only moving about 100 feet.
Jackson Towers and Lick Apartments have a long, proud history in Harrisburg.
Lick was named for Alton Lick, a former commissioner on the Housing Authority. Jackson Tower was named for C. Sylvester Jackson, a community activist and member of the Harrisburg Authority. The old plaques from the original, nondescript brick buildings and timeworn renderings are framed behind glass in the second floor administrative offices.
Lick Tower is being redeveloped also, but at a much slower rate, Banuelos said. Renovations will be done while residents continue to live there.
Denny Shelley served as the project manager with Dillsburg-based eciConstruction for the Jackson Tower overhaul. Involved in all three phases of the project, he said it took longer than expected, which is typical for projects of this magnitude, but it was done within the original construction budget.
He thinks the best part of the building is the architectural design, the lobby area and the Exterior Insulation Finishing System. This water-resistant surface is designed to be more durable and better at thermal and moisture control than traditional brick, stucco or siding.
He said the old building looked like “the public housing of old,” but, with this “new aesthetic,” JT “looks like market-rate apartments.”
Shelley saluted KD3 Design Studio of Lemoyne, led by Dale Hair and Kurt Oravecz, for the architecture and interior design services.
Beyond the project are the residents. Banuelos knows his people well.
“I have 144 grandmothers who are always asking me how my day is going,” he jokes.
But then he turns more serious.
“The city of Harrisburg has so much potential,” Banuelos said. “This is proof.”
When Shelley drinks in an aerial view of the downtown region, his eyes naturally gravitate to Jackson Towers.
“I believe this building stands out in the view of the cityscape,” he said.
Jackson Towers is located at 1315 N. 6th St., Harrisburg. For more information on the Harrisburg Housing Authority, visit www.harrisburghousing.org.