Legacy Park development bringing new homes to Mechanicsburg
After years of watching large housing developments spring up in suburban townships around Mechanicsburg, the borough is now home to one of the biggest new residential projects in Cumberland County.
Last week, Lancaster County-based Landmark Homes kicked off the first phase of its long-awaited Legacy Park development on what is known as the former Hess Farm.
Landmark plans to build 683 housing units and about 26,000 square feet of commercial buildings on the 185-acre tract, which is about a mile from the heart of downtown Mechanicsburg.
Company and borough officials say development of the borough’s last remaining farmland could help make Mechanicsburg a more attractive option for prospective homebuyers and for businesses.
The project has been in the works for more than a decade and is ramping up at a time when buyer demand is high, especially in Cumberland County, and the supply of existing homes for sale is shrinking.
“Absolutely there is a need for new construction starts,” said Edwin Tichenor, president of the Greater Harrisburg Association of Realtors and an agent with Camp Hill-based Turn Key Realty Group. “We’re in a tight inventory market that is getting tighter.”
The average home listed in Cumberland County sells in about two months. The fast pace, along with more competitive offers, has led to higher home prices. The median-sale price in Cumberland County last month was $210,000, up from $191,750 a year ago.
But Legacy Park could take a decade to develop and housing markets are cyclical, which makes it a potentially risky venture.
When the market shifts lower, if it shifts, Tichenor said he believes Landmark could adjust and build more affordable units.
Cumberland County vaulted to fastest-growing county in Pennsylvania over the last decade mainly because of strong housing growth in townships around Mechanicsburg.
Silver Spring, Hampden, Upper Allen and Lower Allen townships have been seeing the majority of building permits for new homes in Cumberland. Collectively, the four municipalities posted about 6,400 of the county’s 11,431 residential building permits between 2007 and 2017.
Mechanicsburg, in contrast, had 76 permits for new homes over that same span.
Landmark bought the Hess Farm in 2013 after other plans by developers failed to materialize.
The Legacy Park tract sits at the edge of the borough on South Market Street (Route 114), not far from Route 15 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
“We think it’s an area of growth,” said Cliff Weaver, Landmark’s president and CEO.
Not without risk
Kirk Stoner, the county’s planning director, said it’s good to see the large mixed-use project finally get underway, given the market demands for new housing.
However, projects of Legacy Park’s size are rare, he said, because of the risk for developers.
Finding first-time buyers
Large mixed-use communities tend to attract a wide range of buyers, including investors who buy homes and rent them, said Edwin Tichenor, president of the Greater Harrisburg Association of Realtors and an agent with Camp Hill-based Turn Key Realty Group.
But Realtors like Tichenor also are concerned about the future, a concern that starts with the dearth of millennials looking to buy their first homes.
“The number one obstruction has been student loan debt,” Tichenor said. “It’s not to afford a home, but to afford to save for the down payment.”
If that trend continues, there could be fewer buyers for people who want to sell their homes in a few years and buy something bigger.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the share of first-time buyers nationally has fallen from about 45 percent of all buyers to 32 percent, according to the National Association of Realtors. The Pennsylvania Association of Realtors doesn’t track state-specific data, but expects the commonwealth’s housing market has experienced a similar drop.
Efforts are in motion to reverse the decline. The state association, for example, is backing legislation in both the state House and Senate to create a savings account program for first-time buyers, helping them beef up their savings for down payments and closing costs. The program would allow first-time buyers to set up a 10-year tax-deductible savings account and have money deducted from their state income tax.
The savings program, according to the association, could boost home purchases in Pennsylvania by as many as 4,000 per year.
While this type of program may not matter now when the housing market is strong, Tichenor said it could help push more prospective buyers into the market during a future downturn.
“When supply is not tight, it will be an issue,” he said. “Who will plug the hole? It’s first-time homebuyers.”
For starters, large swaths of land are getting harder to find and more expensive to buy. Once developers control a property, it can take a long time to navigate the permitting process to build on the land and pay for improvements.
Even after a developer gets approvals, large projects can take a decade or more to complete, putting developers at risk of having to ride out a downturn in the housing market.
“It’s risky. It really is,” Stoner said.
Indeed, the majority of the land developed in Central Pennsylvania over the last decade was teed up for residential development before the 2008 recession, which delayed construction for several years. In fact, most of the residential construction on tap this year in Cumberland County represents new phases of previously approved subdivision plans, Stoner said, citing projects in Silver Spring and Upper Allen townships, as well as in the Carlisle area.
Stoner said he expects builders will continue to focus on building in existing communities, rather than propose new developments. Many builders remain cautious about developing land on their own after the last financial crisis.
But in Legacy Park, Landmark CEO Weaver believes the mix of housing types and price points will help the company weather any market slowdown. Legacy Park will be comprised of single-family homes, townhomes and apartments, including a neighborhood for people 55 and older. Some will be for sale and some will be rentals.
“Because we have a diversified product, we’re hoping to appeal to a number of demographics,” Weaver said.
The company hopes to begin selling the first homes in Legacy Park by spring 2019 but has not yet released prices.
Legacy Park by the numbers
Landmark’s Legacy Park development will occupy the last remaining farmland in Mechanicsburg. It also will be one of the largest new housing projects in Cumberland County, joining big mixed-use developments like Arcona in Lower Allen Township.
Here’s a quick recap on Legacy Park:
Size: 185 acres, with 64 acres preserved as open space
Homes: 301 single-family homes, 216 apartments and 166 townhomes. Landmark is planning to set aside about 100 units for people 55 and older.
Business: Legacy Park will have 26,000 square feet of commercial space on about 6 acres.
Timeline: Landmark expects the project will take at least 10 years to build out. The development will be broken out into eight phases of construction.
What’s first? Site work to prepare the land for building construction is expected to take up most of this year. The first homes are expected to be available for sale by spring 2019.
The first phase will include construction of 325 homes as well as the installation of a traffic signal at Shepherdstown Road and Market Street.