Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Second Thoughts: Decades ago, Harrisburg’s leaders quickly turned 2nd Street into an urban highway. Some people now think they made a big mistake.

Ray Davis has a traffic problem.

Davis, the well-known Harrisburg realtor, has lived on N. 2nd Street for more than a dozen years, watching the post-work traffic rush past his door each day, heading straight out of town for the suburbs.

“There are people who won’t live on 2nd because of the speed and volume of cars,” he said. “There’s some beautiful homes below Division that would sell for more above it, and the only reason is the traffic.” He also said the street, in places, lends a “dangerous, industrial feel” to the surrounding area.

He’s not alone in his belief that the road has affected the neighborhood’s livability, as well as its property values.

N. 2nd Street is one-way heading north and three lanes wide, with an additional two lanes for parking, from downtown to Division Street, where it turns into a two-way. Residents along this stretch refer to it variously as a racetrack, highway and speedway.

“People come flying up here at 80 miles an hour,” one woman told me. Another resident said he worries about his kids’ safety. “You feel like it’s risky to cross to the other side.”

For the people who live in the neighborhood, crossing 2nd around 5 p.m. can feel like a game of Frogger, the 1980s-era arcade game in which a player tries to guide frogs across a busy street without them turning into road kill. Still, it’s doubtful that most residents—much less those behind the wheel whizzing by—think much about how a once-quiet, wide road lined with grand buildings became a noisy urban freeway slicing through core city neighborhoods.

The issue, however, unexpectedly arose during the recent mayoral primary, when independent candidate Nevin Mindlin mentioned it during a debate. He said he wanted to restore 2nd Street to the people of the city by making it, once again, a two-way neighborhood road.

After the debate, I spoke with Mindlin at his Uptown home, on N. 3rd Street. For years, he’s lamented the existence of a high-speed thruway in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Currently, he said, 2nd Street is designed “to accommodate the suburban traffic that comes into town, sits in town for eight hours and then turns around and leaves.” Coupled with Front Street, its one-way southbound twin, 2nd Street severs an entire span of houses from the tranquil grid to the east. “It’s a six-lane highway, and the median winds up being a city block.”

Eric Papenfuse, the Democratic candidate for mayor, has now joined Mindlin in advocating the conversion of 2nd, from Forster to Division, back to a two-way street.

“It would make the neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly and connect them to the river,” Papenfuse said. “It would very clearly make Harrisburg a more bikeable, walkable and livable city.”

The conversion of 2nd Street isn’t currently a campaign issue. In addition, depending on the outcome of the city’s receivership, it may languish at the bottom of a priority list through a first term and beyond.

Excluding a handful of people who live on 2nd, most people you ask have never heard of the proposal—and usually think it’s crazy.

Is it?

American Dream

Much of Harrisburg’s infrastructure dates back an entire century. In the City Beautiful movement of the early 1900s, a handful of citizens, taking inspiration from the cities of Western Europe, set about improving the city’s roads and sewers and beautifying its public spaces. Some of their creations—especially the parks, such as Wildwood, Italian Lake, and the pathway along the riverfront—endure to this day more or less as they were conceived, as accessible public spaces.

The city’s streets, however, have changed profoundly. Largely in response to the proliferation of automobiles in the 1940s and ‘50s, Harrisburg bisected its close-knit neighborhoods with widened, higher-speed thruways. As a result, the city became less a place to walk around in and more a place to drive through.

“What we see is the thinking of the last generation—whoever dreamed up what the world ought to look like in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” Mindlin said. “Their world was automobile-centered. The goal was to give everybody access to the American Dream: an eighth of an acre, a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

Converting 2nd is one of several ways in which Mindlin hopes to restore the city of an earlier era: one that is safe and pleasant to walk in, in which neighborhoods prize the wants of residents over those of commuters. In addition to making 2nd Street two-way, he proposes converting Front to a parkway, with more stops and curbside parking. Division could be extended over a bridge toward HACC, tying the campus to the rest of the city, and a second parkway could connect Wildwood to the riverfront. City-bound traffic would park at outer crossroads, and mass transit would carry workers downtown.

“The goal is to intercept traffic at the points where it comes into the city,” Mindlin said.

Papenfuse also sees the 2nd Street conversion as part of a comprehensive plan for urban renewal. “The drive of urban living is that people want to be able to walk—to Broad Street Market, to the bookstore, to the river,” he said. He believes a discussion about the city’s traffic plan is one way Harrisburg can change “from a reactive mindset to a proactive mindset.”

“It’s about planning. It’s about re-engaging the community,” he said.

Both Mindlin and Papenfuse are aware the proposal may not be universally popular. Papenfuse acknowledged concerns about cost, and insisted that federal funds would be required. “We’re not proposing spending money we don’t have,” he said.

Mindlin criticized earlier efforts at city planning for being “top-down.” He said he would seek a “community-driven discussion” about how to develop the neighborhoods and roads.

Papenfuse agrees. “Planning has to be done based on neighborhood input,” he said. “Before any decision will be made, we need a community conversation.”

Of course, this raises the possibility that the community, as a whole, will prefer to keep 2nd Street the way it is. It’s not clear the American Dream, as it relates to swift traffic, has changed. Suburban commuters aren’t the only ones exploiting the car-friendly roads through town; city-dwellers drive them, too.

But Mindlin is right on his basic point: Harrisburg’s streets look the way they do because of a few people whose priority was something other than maintaining walkable, quaint neighborhoods that served the people who lived there. Their focus, instead, was to solve the novel problem of traffic. And the solution, like many things in the 20th century, happened very fast.

Matter of Months

On Oct. 19, 1955, the League of Women Voters hosted Harrisburg’s first televised mayoral debate. The candidates were Leo Werner, a Democrat, and Nolan Ziegler, a Republican. Werner ran a negative campaign, connecting Ziegler to the political machine of Harvey Taylor, a boss whose career spanned half a century and included a long-held state Senate seat and offices in Dauphin County. “We are fighting,” Werner said, “to end a dictatorship that has controlled our city and county for more than 40 years.”

Ziegler promised to fix the city’s traffic. He pledged to eliminate two-hour parking at meters, instate a citywide ban on double parking and designate one-way streets to improve traffic flow. He also announced he’d been promised the services of “outstanding experts” in traffic who would offer their guidance to the city for free.

Ziegler won. So did every other Republican candidate, including two candidates for City Council.

In February of 1956, a month after taking office, Ziegler appointed the city’s first traffic engineer. City Council voted unanimously in favor, and an engineer was hired at an annual salary of $7,600. This made him the highest-paid official in the city. (Ziegler’s salary was $7,000).

The engineer’s name was Eugene Simms. He came from New York City, and he seems to have had Harrisburg’s governing body in thrall. The record of City Council ordinances that spring and summer is replete with actions pertaining to roads and traffic: from the hiring of a secretary for Simms (March, $3,000 per year) to the appointment of a Supervisor of Plans and Surveys (April, $3,500) to the creation of a new account in the budget for “Traffic Engineering” (May) and the purchase of 750 new traffic signs, 1,600 gallons of traffic paint, 34 traffic lights, 26 pedestrian signals and 950 parking meters (June, July, August).

In a matter of months, Simms’s traffic team, drawing on a seemingly bottomless fund, conceived a complete transformation of Harrisburg’s roads. Front Street would run one-way south, and 2nd Street one-way north. Truck traffic would be sequestered into east-west and north-south routes. An obelisk at the intersection of 2nd and State, which effectively created a roundabout at the foot of the Capitol, would be removed. (It was relocated to a grassy median off Division, near Italian Lake Park, where it still stands.) Both roads would intersect with Forster Street, itself recently transformed from a quaint, leafy neighborhood street into a much wider, six-lane highway.

The changes were aimed at creating a swift, seamless network of routes through town, with seemingly little regard to how noisy, high-speed traffic running over acres of new asphalt would impact some of the most desirable and historic parts of Harrisburg.

Not everyone was pleased. Residents on 2nd Street circulated a petition claiming that “incidental speeding” on the one-way roads “would endanger pedestrians, especially children.” But the promise of an end to congestion, and of improved parking downtown, outweighed the inconvenience to the residential neighborhood. The Simms team plowed ahead, and, on Sept. 16, 1956, the new system of one-way roads was unveiled.

In early October, a man wrote a letter to the Patriot congratulating the city on its achievement. “Never have I experienced the relieved pleasure of going north to the City line from either Front and Market Sts. or from the Square in less time than from 30 to 40 minutes,” he wrote. Now, he said, a commute from downtown to the city’s northern boundary took him just over 10 minutes.

Speed was not only a benefit, however. It also replaced congestion as the new traffic problem. In the weeks after the one-way conversion, reports of reckless driving abounded. During the rest of September, Ziegler made frequent appearances in the paper, issuing stern warnings to speeders and promising policies to curtail abuse of the roads.

On Sept. 27: “We have a new club. It’s called the Second Street Speeding and Reckless Driving Club. The police are taking all applications. In fact, we picked up a dozen new members last night at $22.50 each.”

The problem persisted. On the same page as the October letter praising the new street plan, an anonymous letter sounded a note of dismay. In the weeks since the conversion, its author wrote, an increasing number of vehicles had been using 2nd Street as a “speedway.” In addition, trucks had taken to using the street as a shortcut to Route 22. “There is no reason to ruin one residential section of a community just because others have been ruined,” it said.

In short, the system of one-way streets had done what 2nd Street residents predicted. It had created a racing strip in front of their homes. It would be hard to describe this result as a failure. The new system aimed to move traffic faster, and that is exactly what it did.

In a Handbasket

What happened under the Ziegler administration was not unique to Harrisburg. Cities across the country transformed their roads to accommodate the growing volume of cars.

A movement towards restoring slower-moving streets would not be unique here, either. In the past decade, a number of mid-sized cities—among them Sacramento, San Jose and Lubbock, Texas, as well as Lancaster and Carlisle—have undertaken the conversion from one-way to two-way roads.

Lancaster, for example, recently secured federal funding to convert a stretch of Mulberry Street, which is currently a one-way boulevard through a residential neighborhood. Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Lancaster’s director of Public Works, told me that Lancaster, much like Harrisburg, initially created its one-way streets to get commuters “into the work center and home after.” As in Harrisburg, the result was more traffic at a higher speed. “Our one-ways are the fastest-moving streets in the city,” Katzenmoyer told me. “We wanted to improve it for residents and businesses.”

If Harrisburg were to embrace the 2nd Street conversion, however, it would not just be following the lead of these cities. It would also be following through on its own long-term transportation plan.

“This concept is not a new concept,” Papenfuse told me, and he’s right. A number of people besides the mayoral hopefuls have been thinking about transforming local traffic for a long time.

I spoke with Bret Peters, an architect who has been coming up with designs for the Harrisburg streetscape for more than 15 years. Peters’ firm, Office for Planning and Architecture, or OPA, occupies a building just off State Street, in the shadow of the Capitol dome. He told me his “light bulb” moment came when he was in high school.

“I realized that secondary cities ought to be the places with the highest quality of life,” he said. “Big cities have amenities, but they’re tough.” He lived for a time in New York and Chicago and recalled how in a large city an errand as simple as going for groceries could be an ordeal. Harrisburg, by contrast, with its river setting and smaller scale, was well positioned “to create a very high quality of life for a lot of people.”

Peters has come up with a number of concepts for transforming Harrisburg’s traffic flow. In the mid-1990s, he developed a piece of the design for what would become the so-called Southern Gateway, which aimed to improve the way vehicles entered the downtown from I-83. His concept, which involved an extension of 3rd Street to the highway, grew into a large-scale planned urban district and became a major project of Mayor Steve Reed’s. But the proposal also made political enemies—“It meant certain people couldn’t have surface parking lots,” Peters said—and when the economy collapsed in 2008 and Reed lost re-election, it fell apart.

Peters also became interested in a second, less ambitious streetscape project of the Reed administration: the Northern Gateway, also known as the 7th Street Corridor Widening. Like the Southern Gateway, the 7th Street project would provide an appealing exit and entry point, this time at the city’s northern end, where traffic passes over the Maclay Street Bridge.

Joe Link, the city engineer under Reed, explained that the project emerged from conversations concerning 2nd Street’s future.

“We’ve got an interstate highway running through the city,” Link said, referring to Front and 2nd streets’ combined six lanes. “The discussion at the time was that we would also like to convert 2nd Street to a two-way. We had a residential community going to hell in a handbasket. We thought, if we did this, the property values would go up.”

Peters wanted the project to go further. Like Mindlin, he envisioned a restoration of the city’s roads as connectors of urban neighborhoods. Front Street, as a parkway, would be the city’s “collective front yard,” where people could bike and walk dogs. 2nd Street would be a residential community, with a tree-lined median dividing two-way traffic and benches and fountains at the corners. And 3rd Street, absorbing some of the cars from the slowed-down 2nd, would reclaim its position as the prime commercial corridor. “The ideal would be to spread traffic throughout the city,” he said.

Peters is a professional designer, but he speaks of his concepts for planning and design with something like civil-servant piety. “Your job is to take your expert knowledge to the society around you,” he said. “I have an intellectual and personal interest in making people happy where they live—people who live in an environment they have no control over.”

He thinks about how the look of a town affects its residents’ psychology. He showed me drawings for his 2nd Street design, which included a “whole experiential sequence” of planted trees that would bloom in spring and show a variety of colors in fall. He talked about neighborhood “differentiation,” created by the placement of landmarks and trees, and how it would affect people’s “cognitive map” of their city.

“This city is so easy to fix,” he said. He blamed a mix of ignorance and political opportunism for obstructing good design. “There is a class of people who stand in the way of progress in this city,” he said. “I call them the fourth-tier politicos—people who are trying to get noticed. Everybody wants their piece.” He claimed that the involvement of numerous parties in the Southern Gateway—all wanting credit—bogged the project down and, ultimately, helped defeat it.

The Northern Gateway, however, after years of delay, was finally undertaken in the fall of 2011 and completed earlier this year under Mayor Linda Thompson. By then, it was divorced from anything resembling a comprehensive traffic plan. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, on Jan. 8, Thompson touted the road’s re-opening as a boon to commerce in the area.

“This is a business corridor,” Thompson said. “We’re excited about the opportunities it’s going to bring for the plantation of new business development.”

But the project’s intent was not really to attract business, and the abandonment of its original purpose shows. The route remains virtually empty most hours of the day. The expanded northbound lanes can’t actually absorb traffic because they collapse into a single right turn lane over the Maclay Street Bridge. Past Maclay, 7th remains one lane wide in each direction, making it an unappealing link to Division for cars needing connection to I-81. (Expansion of the bridge, as well as an extension of 7th to Division and even a Division Street Bridge over the railroad, was part of the discussion at the time. But the costs of acquiring properties along N. 7th were prohibitive, and the planning process for the bridges and railroads would have added “10 or 15 years to the project,” according to Link.) As long as 2nd Street remains a three-lane thruway, it will continue to attract the bulk of commuters.

The 7th Street Corridor, meanwhile—a widened roadway with little traffic, no lights and no stop signs—does have at least one obvious use. A reporter proposed it at the January ribbon cutting, asking Mayor Thompson if the expanded road would become a “drag strip” for speeders.

“There you go, inciting the public,” Thompson replied, smiling. “You better not be on this drag at 2 o’clock in the morning because I’ll be there in an unmarked car, ready to ticket you for speeding.”

She almost sounded like Ziegler.

This Is a Community

The work of engineers, designers and planners rests on a pair of fundamental assumptions. The first is that the way a city looks will affect how its citizens behave. The second is that, in a modern city, the scale and stakes involved are too large or complex for citizens to comprehend themselves. Experts are required.

Katzenmoyer, the public works director in Lancaster, told me that the current traffic pattern on Mulberry Street is an example of how infrastructure affects behavior. “The lights are timed for people to go 25 miles per hour,” she said. “But they’ll speed up just to get to the red light.” She also referred to the “induced traffic” phenomenon. “When you build to accommodate volume, it tends to increase both volume and speed.”

But, she added, people tend to have a poor understanding of the relationship between driver conduct and road design. When Lancaster held public meetings to discuss the conversion, several residents were opposed, because they expected the two-way street to produce congestion. “We had to explain, that’s traffic calming in itself,” Katzenmoyer said. “If it slows down, people will go seek another route.”

I thought of one 2nd Street resident I asked about whether he’d support the two-way conversion. “Hell no,” he said initially. “There’d be traffic backed up all the way up the road.”

I explained that any conversion, if it happened, would likely mean diverting traffic to alternate routes. “In that case, yeah,” he said. “That’d be awesome. That’d be beautiful.”

On a typical workday, around five in the afternoon, cars accumulate on 2nd Street on their way out of the city. They zip past with something like the sound of running water, or of a blow-dryer strafing an open palm. They gather at the red lights, at State Street, Forster, Verbeke and Maclay, sometimes 30 or 40 cars deep, until the signal releases them to spread again over the road.

In half an hour, it’s all over. The gaps in traffic are long enough for joggers to dash through, and drivers can parallel park in relative peace. On a good day, the whole sequence will pass without gridlock, horn-honking or lengthy delays. From the perspective of commuters, the system is working smoothly.

But that, according to Mindlin, is precisely the problem.

“This is a community,” he told me. “They wouldn’t want their community taken over by people running in and out.”

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