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AutoZone project creeps forward, despite continuing disputes over design, traffic

The proposed AutoZone site at 645 Maclay St. in Harrisburg.

The Harrisburg Planning Commission last night approved the land development plan for an Uptown auto parts store, despite a continuing disagreement over the design of the project.

By a 3-1 vote, the commission gave its OK to an AutoZone store on long-vacant land at the corner of Maclay and N. 7th streets, but the approval requires the company to tweak its design to address several city concerns.

Commission members agreed with the city’s planning bureau that AutoZone needed to make modifications to its plan—namely, reorienting the 6,816-square-foot building to bring it closer to Maclay Street and eliminating access from busy N. 7th Street.

“Having a building set back with a parking lot with two different ways in and out for cars, and creating more issues for people walking on the sidewalk, it’s just not a plan I can really agree with,” said commissioner Zac Monnier. “It’s not the right plan for the city.”

City officials have long complained that the proposed AutoZone design was too generic and better suited for a suburban strip mall, not a city block. They have especially disliked that AutoZone’s original proposal set the store back from Maclay Street, with parking in the front.

“I don’t want to have people coming into the city greeted by a parking lot and a set-back building, just like you see in the surrounding suburbs,” Monnier said.

David Tshudy of Pepper Hamilton, the law firm representing AutoZone, repeatedly pushed back on the requested changes to the company’s design, saying that city planners have no role in design decisions based on Harrisburg’s current land use ordinances.

“There’s nothing in the ordinance that requires the building to be situated any differently than what is shown on the plan,” Tshudy said. “The building is best where it is shown on the plan.”

The two sides also had a heated disagreement about AutoZone’s desire for a driveway to the site from N. 7th Street.

In April, the two sides held a meeting to iron out their differences. Tshudy said that he left that meeting believing they had agreed to retain the access point, but only for right turns in and out. City officials disagreed.

“At no time did we indicate that this was a design that the planning bureau would support or thought was a good design for this particular site,” said Geoffrey Knight, director of the city’s planning department.

Tshudy said that an AutoZone traffic study confirmed the safety of the design for vehicles and pedestrians, but city Engineer Wayne Martin criticized the traffic impact study as insufficient.

Martin said that the study only analyzed a small area, while the city required a broader impact study of a half-mile radius around the site. He also said that AutoZone purposely selected an intersection for the study that was known to have few problems, while the nearby intersection of Maclay and N. 6th Street has high rate of accidents—26 crashes and 29 injuries from 2013 to 2017.

“So, not only did they ignore safety, they intentionally ignored safety,” Martin said. “What they’re trying to do is shove a dangerous design down our throats without even considering the safety of our neighborhoods.”

Once more, Tshudy insisted the AutoZone followed all the city’s ordinances and would be reluctant to make any changes because, he said, they’re not mandated to do so by law.

“Again, there is nothing in the ordinance that would prohibit the 7th Street access,” he said. “In fact, the 7th Street access was originally designed to be a full-service access. A traffic study supported that that would be safe, a traffic study prepared on behalf of AutoZone. In order to extend an olive branch, we offered to have right-in, right-out only.”

In the end, the planning commission voted to approve the land development plan with the city-mandated changes, with Monnier dissenting.

Before it can break ground, AutoZone now needs City Council to approve its land development plan, assuming that the company decides to press forward considering the approved plan’s inclusion of conditions it doesn’t like.

“This is a difficult project,” Tshudy said, following the vote. “We clearly understand your concerns, and we’ll try to work as best we can with the city staff to address the concerns that are embodied in the conditions.”

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