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Report recommends sale of former Harrisburg State Hospital site

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The annex comprises four lots in the area of Cameron Street and Elmerton Avenue in the city of Harrisburg and Susquehanna Township.
The annex comprises four lots in the area of Cameron Street and Elmerton Avenue in the city of Harrisburg and Susquehanna Township. - (Photo / )

The state Department of General Services is backing a recommendation to sell all four land parcels connected with the former Harrisburg State Hospital, a move that could trim $5 million in annual expenses from the state budget..

That was the message from department officials as they announced Tuesday that the agency had submitted a report on disposition of the site to the Pennsylvania General Assembly for review, comment and approval.

The 161-page report on the DGS Annex by Lancaster County-based RGS Associates Inc., commissioned by the state in January 2016, can be read here.

"The Department of General Services fully supports the top recommendation to sell all four parcels together in order to put forth the most appealing opportunity for potential developers and enable them to develop the property in a way that will be most beneficial to the community," state General Services Secretary Curt Topper said.

The annex comprises four lots in the area of Cameron Street and Elmerton Avenue in the city of Harrisburg and Susquehanna Township. A total of 295 acres would be available for sale, including 140 acres that made up the historic former state hospital campus off Cameron Street. All but 4.5 acres of the property are in the township.

There are 45 buildings on the site, which account for more than 2 million square feet of space.

After factoring in utility separation and asbestos abatement, the report concludes that the combined potential market value of the four lots could be $2.03 million, based on a Business Journal analysis of the report.

Not only are state officials anxious to get that land back onto the tax rolls, they — and the report's authors — note that it also would save the state millions of dollars in expenses each year.

"Retaining the DGS Annex Properties with a cost to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in excess of $5 million annually is not a logical economic path to continue," wrote RGS Associates project team leader Mark Hackenburg.

Those taxpayer dollars could be "put to better use elsewhere in state government," Topper said.

Other state agencies have continued to use the site since the hospital closed in 2006. Approximately 800 employees still work at the DGS Annex, officials said, but many already have been transferred away. In early 2016, more than 850 employees were moved into the former Verizon Tower in Strawberry Square in downtown Harrisburg.

"Our intention is to take the remaining workforce that is using the DGS Annex and to reduce our physical footprint by moving them into more modern and efficient workspace," Topper said.

Historical issues

The report also calls on the state to "strive to achieve an outcome that strikes a balance between historic preservation and new economic development opportunities."

The Harrisburg State Hospital operated from 1851 until 2006, and the site includes aging buildings — some dating back to the 1850s — that are costly to maintain, the report points out.

It recommends that the state consider placing a restrictive covenant on the property that affords protection and preservation in perpetuity for three historic elements on the site:

• The dedication stone for the original 1851 Main Building.

• The 1854 Dixmont Cottage (Building #7)

• The 1854 Dix Library (Building #9).

Those buildings are historically significant for their connection to Dorothea Dix, a 19th century advocate of mental health care whose efforts led to the hospital's creation, as well as the establishment of mental health hospitals nationwide.

The report also calls for efforts to protect and preserve other historic buildings on the campus — particularly the main Lot 13 — which is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

But the report also says it must be recognized that "not all historic structures are realistically able to be retained nor are all suitable for adaptive reuse," adding that "it’s unlikely that any single development entity can afford to retain all or even most of the dated and inefficient structures.

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Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rogerd@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @rogerdupuis2.

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