Overshadowed by the daily twists and turns of Harrisburg's financial saga, a quiet but steady neighborhood revitalization effort continues in Midtown.
Located within earshot of the Governor's Residence, the area bordered by Muench, Maclay, Second and Third streets, known as Olde Uptown Harrisburg, once was one of the capital city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
Abandoned and decaying homes — many vacated after the devastating flood from Hurricane Agnes in 1972 — lingered in the backdrop while drug dealers and violence permeated the streets.
That started to change around 2005 when Harrisburg-based developer WCI Partners took the reins to begin transforming the neighborhood.
Six years later, the company is still buying and renovating select properties, but the work is winding down on the residential side and could be done this year, said David Butcher, the company's president.
Retail and commercial office space is now coming online in the neighborhood and more could open up as part of the next wave.
"We felt it was very well located, and it was natural for development to occur there," said Alex Hartzler, one of the company's founders, citing the proximity to the Governor's Residence on North Front Street and similar development efforts already underway in Midtown Harrisburg.
Together with Harrisburg-based developer Green Street Properties, an early partner in the long-term capital project, WCI Partners began an aggressive push to acquire blighted homes and others in need of rehabilitation, as well as vacant lots throughout the neighborhood.
"No one person wants to refurbish one house when 10 others just like it are in disrepair," Hartzler said of the comprehensive effort, which started under the city's last 10-year tax abatement program.
With the help of commonwealth grant funding through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and Elm Street funds from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, more than 100 homes have been renovated for resale and rent. An additional 16 townhouses were constructed on Green Street on vacant lots donated by the city.
To date, about $20 million in public and private money has been invested in the neighborhood, Butcher said. This revival project would not have been possible without the tax abatement to attract buyers and the grant funding to plug gaps between the cost and final value of the properties, he added.
Building an attractive housing stock is complementary of other projects going on in Midtown, he said, including mixed-use residential and retail properties like the 1500 Project.
Susquehanna Township-based Vartan Group is building the condominium project at North Sixth and Reily streets. The 1500 Project will include 10,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor, with the residential units on the top four stories of the building.
Others include the Campus Square Building, a 75,000-square-foot mixed-use commercial building on North Third Street owned by Harrisburg-based GreenWorks Development, and the pending federal courthouse project at Sixth and Reily streets.
Meanwhile, retail and commercial spaces in Olde Uptown Harrisburg are on track for September completion.
The retail component includes an 800-square-foot café and coffee roasting shop on the corner of Green and Muench streets that will be called Little Amps Coffee Roasters.
The coffee shop will anchor one side of Green Street while Alvaro Bread and Pastry Shoppe, a thriving Italian bakery, serves as an anchor at the corner of Green and Peffer streets.
In 2005, the average property in the Olde Uptown Harrisburg neighborhood was worth between $30,000 and $40,000, Butcher said. Today, the unimproved properties in that area might run as high as $120,000 to $130,000, he said, as WCI Partners continues to purchase and renovate units for sale and rent.
The rehabilitated homes sell between $110,000 and $220,000, depending on size, location and finishes, which bolsters the tax base for the struggling city. Rents range from $850 to $1,500 per month, excluding utilities.
In the last five years, the neighborhood has changed completely, said Dave Leaman, owner of Harrisburg-based Renovations Co. Inc., the contractor responsible for about 30 to 40 percent of the residential work in Olde Uptown. Almost all of the properties in that area were low-income rentals, he said. Homeownership has really turned around.
"It's a good feeling," he said about being part of this residential renaissance.
There about 300 homes in the Olde Uptown neighborhood; more than one-third have been renovated. WCI Partners expects to wrap up another seven this year and plans to continue looking for other opportunities, Butcher said.
Many of the homes contain hardwood floors, exposed brick walls, rooftop decks and modern kitchens and bathrooms with stainless steel appliances and fixtures.
"The process is now to the point where we've reached the tipping point," Hartzler said. "We hope to be a catalyst for more developments, more residents and businesses."
Money staying in Harrisburg
Olde Uptown is keeping people in the community and spending money. It's also keeping businesses up and running, said Joe Perkins, owner of Harrisburg-based Trinity Construction Group, which is working on the retail and commercial projects in the neighborhood.
Trinity Construction Group is renovating a 6,000-square-foot space and a 3,000-square-foot space across from the Governor's Residence. Both are being fixed up to attract professional services, Butcher said.
"People can live and work here," Perkins said, noting that his subcontractors are all local. "This is a huge deal for us. All of the money is going right back into Harrisburg."
The target audience for WCI Partners is first-time homebuyers, but there also has been high demand for quality rental housing, Butcher said. Nearly half of the properties renovated have become rental units, he said.
"We want people to think Olde Uptown (Harrisburg) as having high-quality, high-value housing and great urban living," he said.
The bordering blocks of the neighborhood are still in need of work, Butcher said about the remaining challenges. The majority of the company's renovations have been done in the interior of the neighborhood, he said.
"There still a number of vacant houses on Third Street, houses need to be renovated on Second and Maclay (streets) and the 2000 block of Susquehanna Street," he said.
WCI Partners believes the long-term trend in the U.S. favors city living, Hartzler added.
The neighborhood and surrounding developments in Midtown are within walking distance of the State Capitol, Riverfront Park and the Broad Street Market, as well as downtown restaurants and shops.
"While Harrisburg may be slower to get there compared to others, it's coming," he said.
Attracting younger couples and families, which already has been occurring in Olde Uptown Harrisburg, is essential to Harrisburg's health, he added. For decades the city has seen its population decline.
"If you can build a nice product, people will buy and live there, and it opens the invitation to other investors in the city," Hartzler said.
Since he was a little kid, Aaron Carlson has heard people talk about a Harrisburg renaissance.
In a little less than two months, the 33-year-old Central Dauphin East graduate will get to be part of a growing revival in Midtown.
A self-proclaimed coffee nerd, Carlson is opening Little Amps Coffee Roasters on Green Street at the intersection of Muench Street in the up-and-coming Olde Uptown Harrisburg neighborhood.
The 800-square-foot shop, which is going in at the site of a former corner store, will serve as a hangout for coffee enthusiasts and a showroom for Carlson's specialty brews.
While touring the country with a band, Carlson said, coffee stops were a regular occurrence. Living in Oakland, Calif., in 2005, he developed an appreciation for small coffee roasters and decided to venture into the hobby for himself.
Two years ago, Carlson moved back to Harrisburg and bought a small commercial roaster and several hundred pounds of beans. He began roasting in a local warehouse and selling his beans online with the idea of one day opening a coffee shop.
That day recently arrived when he found out WCI Partners, the Harrisburg-based developer leading the revitalization efforts in Olde Uptown Harrisburg, was looking to add a coffee shop in the neighborhood.
Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, Carlson was skeptical of the location at first, he said. But he quickly became encouraged by the steady business at Alvaro Bread and Pastry Shoppe, also part of the neighborhood on Peffer Street.
"It's a little town," he said of the neighborhood, hoping to be a second anchor for the evolving community and tourist destination for other coffee nerds.
Little Amps, which gets its name from the small amplifiers his bands, The Carlsonics and Nethers, used while touring, expects to open in mid- to late-September.
Carlson said he plans to serve up a variety of coffee drinks, including a few signature creations. The shop also will feature various imported food items such as bagels from other budding businesses.
In addition, Carlson said he hopes to stage special events such as musical performances.
"The main task is awareness and people will come," he said.
Aside from Oakland, Carlson has lived in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y. In all cases, there was a buzz about those neighborhoods as change occurred, he said. He said he believes the same thing is happening in Olde Uptown Harrisburg.
If it continues, he expects Little Amps will be quite successful. The shop plans initially to be open five or six days per week from 7 a.m. to
2 p.m., plus special evening events.