Within a span of about two blocks, two very different stories are unfolding in downtown Harrisburg.
At first glance, they don’t seem so different.
On one street, a pair of dilapidated, century-old buildings barely stands, empty, graffiti-ridden, forsaken. On the other street, there’s another pair of attached buildings, also long-abandoned, marred and falling down.
One pair should be with us for another century; the other is about to be wiped off the map.
Until recently, you would have been wise to bet against any of these buildings surviving.
Near the state Capitol, most people probably had already lost hope for the two small, mid-19th century clapboard-and-brick buildings at the corner of North and Susquehanna streets. They had been empty, boarded-up, for some 30 years, even while the block revived around them.
The Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority took possession of the buildings back in 2007, sparking some thought that they might be saved. However, it was a false hope. No redevelopment followed. Eventually, the roofs caved in, and even the ever-optimistic community group, Capitol Area Neighbors, beseeched the authority to do something about its mess—even if it meant demolishing the buildings, which seemed beyond saving.
But, in fact, they could be saved.
In 2014, an attorney named Matt Krupp moved in just across the alley and, for the next four years, walked past these buildings every day. Finally, fed up living across the street from blight, he approached the Redevelopment Authority and, with a partner, made an offer of $34,300 for the wrecks—which was about $34,299 more than they were worth.
“I just got tired of looking at them,” Krupp told me.
This autumn, about six months after buying the pair, Krupp expects to finish the restoration and rebuild, turning the buildings into several apartments and a snug commercial space.
He doesn’t expect to make much money off of the project, but he doesn’t think he’ll lose any either, as he plans to hold for the long-term. The real benefit, he said, has been the elimination of an eyesore and vermin and squatters and the dangers posed by a tumbledown building, along with the ability to improve his neighborhood and return these two historic structures to Harrisburg’s built environment.
The six-month restoration begs the question of why these buildings were left to rot in the first place. Why did the prior owner board up and abandon them—and why did the Redevelopment Authority, the owner for 11 years, similarly do nothing, letting them deteriorate to the point of near collapse?
The North Street project also brings into sharp relief the second half of my story. Just two blocks away, at N. 2nd and Liberty streets, a rather similar situation has been unfolding, but one headed for a very different ending.
At that corner, there’s another pair of small, attached buildings. An attorney from Hershey, now retired, bought them some 35 years ago and, for many years, rented out a few apartments and some shop space there. According to neighbors, they’ve been boarded up for more than a decade.
They’re not quite as old or as decrepit as the North Street properties, but they’re still in bad shape, with broken windows, boarded-up back ends and a distinct lean.
Recently, the owner’s son, representing his elderly father, asked the Harrisburg Architectural Review Board to allow him to raze the buildings. HARB members were clearly upset and torn, but, in the end, voted to permit the demolition.
Since that meeting, I’ve thought often about these two situations, which are so similar yet are ending so differently. Why was one pair of buildings saved, yet the other was not? To me, the juxtaposition is striking.
In the end, the North Street properties found a person who cared. It took the better part of three decades but someone finally stepped forward to save them. Krupp is invested in his community, even serving the thankless role of president of Capitol Area Neighbors. Also, living literally across the street, he had a strong motivation to take on the project and then the ability, teaming up with a business partner, to make it happen.
In contrast, the 2nd Street properties lacked an advocate. The owner’s son told me that his dad was well intentioned, but, well, time just passed. He stopped coming into Harrisburg for work, and the buildings’ condition grew worse and worse. Eventually, even simple maintenance, like snow removal, wasn’t done.
Neighbors said that people repeatedly made offers to buy the increasingly decrepit buildings, but their overtures were rebuffed. The owner’s son said he didn’t understand why his dad held onto the properties, but that now he wants them taken down.
Harrisburg hasn’t yet reached the point of attracting much outside investment. Building inventory remains high, and property appreciation is anemic. So, there’s little to entice developers to come into the city to fix the historic housing stock or build new based solely on return on investment—which is the logical standard for a for-profit developer.
Therefore, the city needs caretakers. It needs people who will buy a house, fix it up and live in it, knowing it may take awhile to recover their investment. It needs investors who will renovate, rent and hold, as it may take years to turn a profit. It needs people who care about Harrisburg to step up boldly.
Here’s what Harrisburg does not need: flippers, slumlords and neglectful owners—all of which are in plentiful supply. (Note to would-be flippers: think twice and then think again—in Harrisburg, this is where the dumb money goes.)
Several local developers have told me that, despite common “wisdom,” it’s very tough to make money in real estate in Harrisburg. I’ve found that to be true—decent renovations of historic properties are expensive and resale prices, plus fees, often don’t cover those costs.
One day, perhaps, the economics will improve enough so that outside developers with deep pockets will be attracted into the city. That’s when we’ll see Harrisburg undergo more widespread redevelopment. Until then, it’s up to people like you and me who care about this place, are already invested it and are in it for more than the lure of a quick buck.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.