The Single Biggest Problem With the Harrisburg Draft Zoning Plan

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There is a lot to like about the city of Harrisburg’s new draft zoning plan. Raised height limits, lowered parking requirements, ease of administration, and the expansion of the downtown.

There is one problem though which overshadows all of the rest

-The Riverfront District 

Probably Harrisburg’s greatest asset is its extensive riverfront property. Not only is it graced with excellent vistas, but it also has easy access to a valuable bike/pedestrian route that traverses the city’s employer dense, eastside, north/south axis. 

The added value of that asset to the land adjacent to it will not be realized though. In an effort to preserve existing character the draft plan puts almost all of the riverfront’s adjacent property entirely within what is called the Riverfront District. This district requires 50 foot setbacks and 45 foot height caps even though the development of this land to its highest and best use would be higher density, vertical growth. 

To many in Harrisburg this is sacrilege. The city’s first zoning code was introduced in 1950 and all of the properties built well before that date were subject to a gentleman’s agreement of perfect height and setback alignment that was clearly, strictly adhered to. 

It’s is well past time break that agreement. Not to go all “People’s History” but The Lives of the Rich and the Famous, Front Street, always meant that fewer, wealthier individuals got to enjoy the excellent views, cooling breezes, and park-side access. 

Instead of satisfying what would be an obvious market demand, by setting the rules of the real estate market in this way, many properties actually loose value and are harder to fill with tenants or owners. Jeb Stuart at Todaysthedayhbg captures this in his most recent column (but draws all the wrong conclusions).

Even more at hand is the recently disclosed plans of River Plaza to demolish the next door Italianate-styled Christian Brinser Mansion completed in 1913 at 2301 N. Front Street for surface parking, the first time in many decades that a Front Street home would be lost. While it has been known that pressures could be waged upon the homes on the west side of N. Second Street for Front Street accessory parking,

Some old mansions make great offices, others don’t, and as historic properties, they can be difficult to augment and pricey to restore.None of this property should be allowed to be made into surface parking, but that is what our current restrictions turn into a viable choice. In many instances those large setbacks to make for pastoral lawns, have just been turned into parking lots too.

My ideal district here would designate those deserving of preservation, to avoid potential raising by zealous owners, but also allow greater density and height. Parking mandates should be lowered and the setbacks should be lessened as well so that lot parking can be required to be in the rear. If there is a desire for stricter aesthetics requirements too, so be it. 

Being so close to multi-modal transportation options would lower, if not fully eliminate the parking requirements too. Last year’s Origin/Destination Study by TCRPC revealed that by a large margin the number one trip destination was Harrisburg city. 

By allowing more of those commuters to live on affordable, desirable real estate, and potentially take their cars off the road at peak hours, you are shortening everyone’s commute and putting money back in everyone’s pockets.

Neighbors will complain about the added vehicles to street parking. They did when Mary K. tried to build her excellent multi-unit project on the riverfront and those NIMBYs eventually won. The spaces they use don’t belong to them though. They are public, and defeats like that show why it is too hard to do good development in the city.

Any worries about parking or density would be overshadowed by the net positive benefit that having a greater number of residents potentially out of their cars and walking/biking around town would bring.


This entry was posted in Economic Development, Harrisburg / South Central, Land Use, Transportation.

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