The handwritten suggestions on 5×7 notepaper are posted for all to see at a beHBG comprehensive plan public meeting. Some of them make sense, expressing decades of frustration.
“More PARK renovations in the inner city. Harrisburg has to work for the kids.”
Others? Well, one of the submissions is nothing but a tot’s scribble in red marker. And there’s this, in a child’s handwriting: “I would like to see NFL team & stadium.”
Sorry, kid. Harrisburg will never work that well for city youth. But the Harrisburg comprehensive plan process is giving voice to dreams that have been silenced for years. Whether those dreams come true is another matter, but planners hope the process creates a new normal for transparency and dialog that bridges the festering trust gap among city leaders and residents.
Harrisburg City Council kicked off the comp plan process in early 2015 for a simple reason—because the state requires it. Also because the city’s previous plan is 41 years old. Remember 1974? If you wanted to watch M*A*S*H, your butt had to be on the sofa at precisely 9 p.m. on Tuesday. Meanwhile, your new AMC Gremlin sucked back 13.2 miles per gallon in gas.
At that time, 68,061 people lived in the city of Harrisburg, down from historic highs in the 100,000 range. Today, 49,082 residents rattle around among neighborhoods livable and not-so-livable, navigating streets that flow one way or split for reasons that might have made sense in another era but today only serve to divide.
First, a note on what the comp plan is and isn’t.
It isn’t a tool for improving schools, bringing down taxes or whitening teeth. It may have some of those effects, but it’s focused on improving the physical environment and, therefore, projecting a stronger, healthier city to the world.
The theory goes like this: When people can navigate easily from one section to the other, social and geographic divides fall. When run-down lots turn into neighborhood gathering places, connections are made. When vacant buildings are reused, jobs are created.
“What points of the city have real value for the future?” asks Bret Peters, partner with Office for Planning and Architecture, the Harrisburg firm selected by a steering committee that launched the process. “Where there are structures with potential, you have redevelopment and reinvestment.”
It’s about integrating existing city elements, says Peters. Build a bridge from Division Street to Industrial Road, and Uptown connects easily with HACC and Wildwood Park. Make Market Street two lanes its full length, studded with redevelopment projects, and Allison Hill flows easily into downtown.
The plan envisions a city that’s easy to bicycle and walk, has transportation hubs, and offers a green waterway not just at the riverfront but also along a pristine, flood-free Paxton Creek.
In Peters’ office behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there is a war room of sorts, where posters lining the walls display more than 40 transformative concepts—parks and greenways, fresh-food markets and rehabbed housing, repurposed schools and reinvigorated warehouses.
There is also, in this room, a giant map of the city pinned with more than 120 red, blue and yellow pushpins. Each pin represents a forum, neighborhood gathering or community meeting where planners solicited ideas and presented the comp plan as it took shape. Residents of all ages—including that tot who couldn’t write letters yet—submitted ideas on notepaper. Planners pureed those initial ideas into concepts that residents could vote on, in person or at behbg.com.
Community outreach and transparency are hallmarks of the process, says city Planning Director Geoffrey Knight, “hopefully insuring that we were in as many places and in front of the community in as many different ways as we possibly could have been.”
Some residents have been skeptical, assuming that planners are “supposed to have X number of meetings” and then craft the plan to their liking, Knight says. His team is “trying to disabuse the public of that notion.”
“We’re trying to find organizations and individuals and entities that traditionally haven’t interacted with the city all that much,” says Knight. “We do realize that over the last 40 or 50 years, there’s been a lot of apathy and mistrust built up. That’s been well-earned, because governments at the time just didn’t feel that public outreach was as necessary as we realize now, today, that it is.”
Of course, the ideas that rise to the top are no surprise. How many decades have city residents cried out for less crime, less blight, more greenery, fewer divides between the Hill and downtown, and for God’s sake, more grocery stores?
The next steps put comp plan ideas into practice, say planners. To prevent dust from piling up on the final document, the community must be vigilant and “continue pushing to say we want to start getting these in,” says Knight.
And for the funding that must, in nearly every case, materialize to turn ideas into reality? Knight sees three ways around that hurdle. First, grant funding spigots open more easily when projects are part of a comprehensive, well-thought-out, current plan, not a yellowed document that conjures Gerald Ford wearing wide ties.
Second, prioritize existing funds. “We are a fairly resource-constrained municipality, but we do have money to pave roads or do demolitions,” says Knight.
Instead of following an ad-hoc basis, allocate funds according to their fit with the plan. When an underground utility is replaced, paint bicycle lanes during resurfacing, and the task is done with “marginal costs.”
Third, use the plan to guide developers, urging them to build and invest in the areas where their interests intersect with the plans.
Same goes for integration among governments, says Peters. One of the plan’s more ambitious concepts is a revitalized industrial park on South Allison Hill, the area between 17th and 19th streets where that faded beauty, the Coca-Cola plant, and other industrial remnants now stand vacant.
That area is also at a prime location with direct access to I-83—the same stretch that PennDOT just happens to be widening and dramatically revamping in coming years, says Peters. It’s a “generational opportunity” to tell PennDOT “this is the community and the kind of area we’d like to see, and this is how we need roads to be designed coming in and out of the highway.”
“What we’re trying to do is create an export economy in this neighborhood where people are exporting goods and services, where people are coming in off the highway, buying things, and leaving,” says Peters. “Nobody views this neighborhood as a destination at the moment, but we want to turn it into one.”
But is any of this realistic or just Jetsons-style dreams?
Knight says much of implementation is simply “on-the-ground stuff in deferred maintenance that there’s money out there for.”
“Some of these concepts aren’t pie in the sky,” he says. “They might be a water taxi or splash park or skate park.”
And even though decades of mistrust prompt some to say that the city has more pressing needs, Knight paints the comprehensive plan as, “by nature, an optimistic exercise.”
“It’s meant to work on the premise that, if we do fix things up in five years, 10 years, where are we as a community?” he says. “You have to have those ideas and projects that think a little bit more long-term. We have addressed immediate needs that people care about, and where will we go from there?”
Harrisburg’s Comprehensive Plan process should be wrapped up later this year, according to the following timeframe:
- March 1: Final document is completed and issued for public comment. It’s also sent to Dauphin County and adjacent municipalities for review.
- Mid-April: Harrisburg Planning Commission reviews the plan and votes to recommend its adoption or not.
- June: Harrisburg City Council votes on whether to adopt the plan.