Fighting blight in Allison Hill: Harrisburg residents hopeful for change

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HARRISBURG, Pa. -- In 57 years living in South Allison Hill, Peter Kehler has seen the best of his neighborhood, and more recently, the worst.

He keeps his block near South 16th and Hunter Streets clean and safe.

"My philosophy is we respect one another. We get along. There's no problems," Kehler says.

He realizes the same cannot be said about the rest of the area.

There's a reason South Allison Hill has earned a bad reputation among city residents. Concentrated crime, litter strewn across streets and sidewalks, and dozens of homes sit empty, dilapidated, and blighted.

It's a daily, sad reminder of what parts of the neighborhood have become, Kehler said, which is why there's no choice but to remain hopeful of what's to come.

On Wednesday, Harrisburg officials broke ground on a revitalization project years in the making; plans to redevelop the MulDer Square section of South Allison Hill. MulDer Square, whose center point is the intersection where Mulberry and Derry Streets meet, stretches eastward to South 17th Street and is surrounded to the north and south by Market and Berryhill Streets. According to Mayor Eric Papenfuse, MulDer Square is "anchored" by the YWCA and Boys and Girls Clubs.

The MulDer Square Redevelopment Project will begin on Hummel Street with the deconstruction of five Civil War-era row homes, all to get rebuilt as modern townhomes. Tri-County Housing Development, which is running point on the project, is already in the process of gutting and renovating three Victorian-style brick homes across the street.

Once finished, each home will be sold for homeownership, in the hopes of bringing more full-time residents into the neighborhood.

"(Tri-County HDC) is spending $150,000 per unit to fix them up and selling them for half that," said Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse. "This is how we are going to bring Harrisburg back. We're going to transform it block by block."

The process of acquiring, demolishing, and renovating the homes is costing $2.25 million, according to Papenfuse, paid for by a mixture of funds from Tri-County Housing Development, and grants from Impact Harrisburg and Dauphin County. The city also acquired a $3 million in grant funds to pay for infrastructure improvement in the Hummel Street area; sidewalks and streets to be repaved, and trees added to the streetscape.

"What you're going to see is other developers come in and say, 'I want to fix up that building and I want to fix up that building.' They'll want to be part of this exciting center of development," Papenfuse said.

None of this talk is anything new to residents' ears. This is not the first time someone has promised change in the neighborhood, which is why some are skeptical.

Papenfuse says this redevelopment plan is more focused than previous ones scattered across the neighborhood. The MulDer Square project will improve the area block by block, he says.

Peter Kehler, who is one of the leaders of the South Allison Hill Homeowners Association, says he is hopeful, as long as Hummel Street's future residents are actually homeowners who take pride in their home.

"We won't have to worry about people coming from the outside to clean up the place," Kehler said. "We'll have people who live here take pride in that and do that."