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Blueprint: Riverside treasures

Philip Dobson didn’t hesitate when a real estate agent asked
if he wanted to buy the Cameron mansion, a stately Victorian landmark on North Front Street
in Harrisburg
that hasn’t been on the market for about 50 years.

Philip Dobson didn’t hesitate when a real estate agent asked
if he wanted to buy the Cameron mansion, a stately Victorian landmark on North Front Street
in Harrisburg
that hasn’t been on the market for about 50 years.

“How often do you have an opportunity to buy a national
treasure?” asked Dobson, a Dauphin
County real estate
investor.

In January, he paid $925,000 for the building at North Front
and State streets. He plans to move his office there.

“You can’t even put a price on a building like this,” Dobson
said. “Every room has a fireplace. Every fireplace is different. Some of them
are extremely elaborate. It’s incredible.”

The Cameron mansion is the second property Dobson bought
along North Front. In 2007, he and a business partner, Joshua Kesler, purchased
a mansion in the 300 block.

Front Street is Harrisburg’s
front stoop, where the capital shows off some of its finest architectural gems
and offers sweeping views of the Susquehanna River.
Grand old mansions serve as prime office space for lawyers, lobbyists,
architects and other professionals.

Preservationists have worked to conserve the look and feel
of Front Street
even as developers have targeted it for new construction.

The latest battle involves the Pennsylvania Housing Finance
Agency, which has looked at expanding its four-year-old headquarters in the 200
block. The plans could call for demolition of a former mansion next door. 

Similar conflicts have played out on Front Street north of the M. Harvey
Taylor Memorial Bridge. The northern section of Front Street is more residential.

Developers should expect neighbors to take an interest when
plans affect such a high-profile area, said Jack Kay, president and chief
executive officer of York-based Susquehanna Real Estate.

“I think you have to go in with your eyes open,” Kay said.
“If you’re developing a strip shopping center on a busy commercial street
somewhere, that’s one thing. Here, you’re dealing with something special, and
you just have to be willing to acknowledge that.”

Susquehanna is developing an office and upscale residential
project, called Tracy Manor, in the 1800 block of North Front Street. The project involves
renovation of a building and construction of a new one about seven stories
high.

Executives spent a year explaining their plan to community
groups before approaching the city for permission to begin work, Kay said. The
final design reflects concerns that sight lines to the river be maintained
through the site.

Overall, Kay said, city officials did well in balancing
competing demands.

“The concerns that were expressed by the various review
bodies and authorities were, yeah, they want investment and development,” he
said. “But no one wants to diminish the aesthetic appeal of Front Street … No one wants to turn it
into a canyon of concrete.”

The broad strip paralleling the Susquehanna
River has been a desirable location since the 19th century, when
descendants of city founder John Harris began building homes there.

Some of the homes remain. Others were knocked down.

The resulting gaps, mostly south of the State Street area, have been filled by
modern office buildings.

Some of the new structures have blended in among the mostly
three-story roofline, said David Morrison, former head of Historic Harrisburg
Association.

He praised the Keystone
Plaza, built in the late
1980s on a site that used to house a 19th-century inn.

The building mirrors the Dauphin County
courthouse across the street. Together, the two structures create a gate-like
entryway to the city’s main business district for people coming across the Market Street
bridge, Morrison said.

Another building that blends in well is the home of
insurance company Millers Mutual Group, Morrison said. Erected in the 1940s,
the building sits back from the corner of Forster and North Front streets and
resembles a large mansion.

The seven-story home of the Pennsylvania Housing Finance
Agency drew a mixed review from Morrison. “It could have been a lot worse,” he
said. “It could have been a lot better.”

Front Street’s main attraction is the park between the
street and the river. But for most of the 19th century, the river was a dumping
ground, and buildings dotted what is now green space.

At the turn of the 20th century, city leaders organized to
clean it up and create a park, Morrison said.

The only buildings remaining on the west side of Front
Street are the Tudor-style home for the Civic Club of Harrisburg and the old
waterworks building, now an office complex whose tenants include advertising
agency Neiman Group.

Front Street vistas were among the attractions for Jeff
Roof. In 2003, he bought a former home in the 500 block of North Front and
moved his investment firm there from Camp Hill.

The location is accessible to clients on both sides of the Susquehanna River and has parking, said Roof, president
of Roof Advisory Group.

But city taxes and the occasional disruption caused by Front Street
festivals sometimes overshadow the benefits.

“It’s been a mixed experience,” Roof said. “We enjoy the
location. We love the view. For the dollars spent, we could get a better bang
for our buck elsewhere, quite frankly.”

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