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Harrisburg’s Central Allison Hill: It would only take a decade

Beau Brown - (Photo / Submitted)

Ten years goes by so fast.

Sept. 11, 2001, which was 15 years ago, seems like yesterday. By the time you snap your fingers, it will be 2026.

Though it was not until 2010 that Midtown would officially be selected as its new home, it was almost a decade earlier, in 2004, that the need for a new courthouse was announced in Harrisburg. Soon after, tens of millions of dollars flowed into this downtown extension.

Midtown is now an organic, Harrisburg submarket — or borough if you look at it like the five boroughs of New York City — that boasts pride of ownership, offers joyful entertainment, education and a lifestyle. It would serve as an excellent model to those interested in transforming Allison Hill. We just need to get connected.

I maintain and defend the position that I think Harrisburg’s Allison Hill, with its beautifully designed grid, rolling landscape, skyline views, the historic Mount Pleasant and its architecturally ornate Victorian homes – plus the good people throughout – has some of the best real estate opportunities in America.

There also is Bellevue Park. I’ve walked Bellevue hundreds of times, and as someone who travels all over, there is no doubt that this meticulously landscaped neighborhood, consisting of 251 single-family homes spread over 132 acres, is one of the most magnificent in Pennsylvania. 

Few suburban neighborhoods, anywhere, could compare. It is Mountaindale in the city. 

With all that being said, let’s dig a little deeper into how Central Allison Hill could be transformed. For the first time, I will reveal an interesting project that shoulda, coulda, woulda, but didn’t. 

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Before I do, I must insist that we not call this deal a failure. Let’s call it a practice run.

Also, I’ll answer the question you might be thinking, that I already asked myself. Do I really mean to say Allison Hill could be turned around in about a decade? Under certain conditions, yes, I believe so.

Many of you may have never heard of the whirlwind redevelopment project that went under the working title Allison Commons, but I know there are still a few in public office or around town that remember it well. 

Had it been successful, I contend that from the time it would have been publicly announced through a professional marketing campaign, to ground being broken, Allison Hill would have had its own flow of tens of millions of dollars.

Within the entire 5-acre block between Derry and Holly streets and 17th and 18th streets, Allison Commons would have been its own version of Midtown’s courthouse catalyst.

In nine months, I went from listing one building for sale to getting a call from a creative investor named Charlie to discuss an idea, being picked up in a limo by a prominent inner-city developer to further the idea and negotiating with almost all of the property owners. We created renderings, lined up credit tenants, cold called every public entity that could assist us and presented the project to over a dozen leaders.

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From there, things started to fall apart with that developer, so we presented the project to a real estate investment trust who agreed to pick it up, but then the deal fell apart.

It was a very exciting learning experience.

We had a national grocery store, a bigger Sunoco, a CVS putting it on their radar, a professional day care, a committed restaurant and a unique classroom designed to teach life skills to troubled inner city youth.

There were 250-plus estimated jobs. Poof, gone.

Okay, now let’s forget for a moment that it all fell apart.

Imagine that it succeeded.     

Would the energy and spirit be as strong today in Allison Hill, as it is in Midtown? 

If a Lois Lane, Clark Kent and a photographer named Jimmy were part of a dedicated Allison Hill writing team for local media, what would the buzz would be right now? How many ribbon cuttings?

No matter what the negative perceptions may be, there are thousands of people within this core area that want to work, and would work. There are walkers, bikers, riders and drivers within immediate proximity to any redevelopable property in Allison Hill that would be eager to make application to a newly created job. 

Back in the day, when you didn’t have a car, and the bus didn’t come your way, I bet you remember having to walk to grade school during a blizzard or tornado, uphill both ways.  

Many Allison Hill residents would do the same exact thing to go to work. To any job creating entity seeking a location requiring a pool of available workers, this is an important fact to know.

Among the thousands of residents, if there were just 100 new full-time jobs paying $24,000 to $35,000 per year, and only 50 new part-time jobs paying $15,000 per year created in Allison Hill, those residents would go to work, get paid and put a good portion of their paycheck right back into their community.  

That in turn would encourage more business investment, which creates more jobs, produces more goods, provides more services, promotes home ownership and allows for positive growth. In its simplest form, that is how a connected urban market stabilizes and grows.

A Google image search of the phrase “Buy Local” will provide illustration of community reinvestment in action.

Through pride of ownership, an active citizenry and additional city tax revenues, crime to a large degree would be pushed out. A connected city would work to push out crime everywhere.

Loss of value in quality real estate would have been less severe, perhaps by now rising or at least stable, meaning the recapture of an individual homeowners’ net worth not only in the this market, but because we are one, throughout the whole city.

If this project was successful, many people in the community would be empowered, just like in Midtown. Parts of the city that no one in 100 years could have imagined being turned around, would be experiencing competitive activity. 

If someone out there performed an extensive feasibility study on this submarket, then published and marketed it, I would bet $100 to a nickel that layers of pessimistic characterizations would fall away like the retaining wall did next to the Mulberry Street Bridge.  

I don’t mean a comprehensive plan study orchestrated by a government, which has its own valid purpose.

I am talking about a feasibility study performed by true entrepreneurs, as representatives of a free-market philosophy. 

Speaking of recent Harrisburg perceptions, how would the lack of parking meters in Allison Hill play a role in the study?   

Although half of this same block (2.75 acres) is currently available, this specific project may never happen again at this location. Can it be expertly orchestrated, altered and replicated within proximity? I believe so.

Can a free-market approach versus a heavy central planning approach alter the course of Allison Hill? 

While the majority of local leaders privy to this deal were quietly on board, it is my humble and calm opinion that I say again … unexplainable political motives shredded Allison Commons.

Does that mean give up? No. Never give up. Let’s learn from it. Let’s do it better. Let’s cooperate.

If there is anything to learn about how leading and managing the process of putting the next game changing project like this together should function in the city, it is that silly politics stifle innovation, and should absolutely, not be tolerated moving forward.

Had there been an energetic cheerleader, and if all of the players in the game truly cooperated, expressing the attitude that the city needs an investment like this, rather than the investment needing the city alone, Central Allison Hill would have had a multi-billion dollar REIT with local management, dedicated to a new beginning.

Energy attracts energy.

It can happen again.

We started and ended this endeavor in 2006. 

It’s now 2016.

There’s your decade.

Beau Brown is an associate broker with Bennett Williams Commercial.

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