Depending on who you ask, the proposal to bring a national auto-parts chain to uptown Harrisburg is either a much-needed economic development boost or the first step in suburbanizing the city.
City Council inched closer to sanctioning the project tonight, when it held a public hearing on a resolution that would vacate unused alleys on the 1-acre lot at 7th and Maclay Streets owned by the Buonarroti Trust, a subsidiary of the Vartan Group.
Council will vote on the measure at a Dec. 18 legislative session. The street vacation would wipe the unused alleys off city planning maps, allowing the Vartan Group to consolidate two tax parcels in preparation to sell the lot to AutoZone, a Memphis-based auto-parts retailer.
The streets in question are narrow, one-way “grocers alleys” on the vacant lot that are not used by motorists, cyclists, or pedestrians, according to city planning director Geoff Knight. The planning bureau does not expect any residents to be inconvenienced once they are nullified.
AutoZone plans to build a full-service retail location on Maclay Street property, which has been vacant since the 1970s. Vartan Group CEO Ralph Vartan said tonight that it would be Harrisburg’s first, market-rate construction project by a national retailer in decades, other than a dollar store in Allison Hill.
Vartan added that there was no other interest in the Maclay Street lot at this time.
“We hope this will be the first spark to change that,” he told council.
The lot is six blocks north of the site of a new federal courthouse and state archives building — two long-awaited projects that are hoped to spur development along the blighted 6th and 7th street corridors.
But Mayor Eric Papenfuse urged council tonight to withhold approval for the street vacation until AutoZone presented final design plans for the lot.
Papenfuse said in September that he opposed the project on the grounds that it was better suited to a suburban strip mall setting. He later said his comments were misconstrued by the media, and that his opposition was based on the project’s proposed design, not the AutoZone franchise itself.
Tonight, he reiterated his claim that the location would be best served by dense, mixed-use development, not a single-story building with surface parking.
“Let’s not confuse business with design,” Papenfuse said. “We welcome AutoZone [but] this is our opportunity to get a design we are happy with as a city. Once you approve vacation, they more or less do what they want.”
Some council members bristled at the mayor’s directive. Council president Wanda Williams said that an auto parts store would be well suited to the industrial 7th street corridor. She also said that Uptown residents have expressed enthusiasm about the project, though none contributed public comments at tonight’s hearing.
Other council members said that the city was in no position to be choosy about proposals for new construction.
“This area is overall in need of economic development,” council vice president Ben Allatt said. “We’re lacking for retail presence in the city, and we have to be open to the development that can occur.”
Council member Shamaine Daniels argued that the city couldn’t make arbitrary planning decisions. Absent a conflict with Harrisburg’s comprehensive plan or zoning ordinance, she said, city council could not legally deny the project application.
Harrisburg’s comprehensive plan has been delayed by more than a year following disputes with a contractor. But Papenfuse said the draft document identified the 7th Street corridor as a site for dense, mixed-use development, and urged council to consider the project in the context of the larger neighborhood.
“This is an area of the city with great potential for redevelopment, but one-off plans like this are not as good as working on an entire neighborhood plan together,” Papenfuse said.
The Harrisburg planning commission has spent the past nine months editing the comprehensive plan to prepare it for final approval.
Council member Ausha Green said that the commission has already approved the application to vacate streets, signifying their implicit approval of the AutoZone project and its compliance with the draft comprehensive plan.
City Council members suggested they would support the street vacation permit pending more information about water management and utilities at the vacant lots.
They also asked a representative from Auto Zone to convene a conference call between AutoZone and city officials to discuss design options. The representative said he would issue the invitation to his client.
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified an Auto Zone representative as a Vartan Group representative.