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Business parking program proposed for Harrisburg, meets resistance from City Council

Cars parked along Reily Street in Harrisburg, near the future federal courthouse.

Which comes first: the parking chicken or the parking egg?

On Tuesday night, Harrisburg City Council and the administration debated this question as they discussed whether to establish a business parking permit program in the city.

The idea would be similar to the current program for residential parking permits, said Richard Kotz, the city’s parking administrator. For a fee, city businesses could purchase annual permits for street parking in designated zones, which would be outside of residential parking zones and outside of any metered area controlled by Park Harrisburg/SP+.

The proposal is meant to be an economic development driver for the city, Kotz said. It might also reduce the need for surface parking lots for businesses, while raising some money for the city, he said.

“These districts would provide another economic tool that would attract new businesses into the city as well as retain existing ones that may be expanding,” Kotz said.

Almost immediately, council members pushed back on the proposal. They asked for greater detail, such as how many districts the administration would propose and where it would locate them.

“First, do you know how districts we’d be looking to see in the city initially?” asked council member Ausha Green, the chair of the public safety committee.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that the first step would be to establish the program, setting up its general structure. Specifics, such as where they districts would be established, would come after and would be subject to approval by council, just like residential districts currently are.

“Whatever proposals we have would come before council,” he said. “There would be a process where they would be vetted and discussed. This is merely allowing us to establish a business parking permit concept similar as what we have with the residential parking now.”

City Solicitor Neil Grover explained that Harrisburg’s residential parking zones have been established incrementally, over a series of many years.

“First, you create a program,” he said. “We’re really at a threshold question of should the city have a business parking permit program. It’s a long-term process.”

If established, the program would be a pioneer, the first such business parking permit program in the state, he said.

Several council members kept pressing the administration for additional detail. Council President Wanda Williams seemed skeptical that the administration didn’t have certain areas or businesses in mind.

“You must have an idea where you want to put particular districts,” she said. “I’m asking you: Where is that information?”

Council member Ben Allatt voiced concern that business districts could encroach on residential areas, creating more difficult parking for residents. He said that he’d like to see a “multi-pronged solution” that addressed both residential and business parking.

“We have multiple issues, and we’re only addressing part of that by this,” he said. “I’d like to see a comprehensive look at how we’re looking at parking also from a residential aspect.”

Papenfuse said that Kotz is “actively working with residents” to improve and change residential parking districts.

“That is going on simultaneously,” he said.

Several council members referred specifically to areas of Midtown, where parking is already difficult due to state workers parking on the street, with the possibility of even tougher parking after completion of the federal courthouse and the new state archives, both on N. 6th Street.

“It’s possible we need a new residential district,” Papenfuse said. “We could expand the existing one.”

Council member Westburn Majors said that he thought that the idea had merit and that the city should consider establishing the program on a trial basis.

“Usually, when you have an idea like this, there’s a pilot of a section or two,” he said. “In my mind, there are one or two areas of the city where an initial pilot like this would work well.”

Williams pushed back repeatedly on the proposal, insisting that she needed more information before casting a vote.

“Obviously, you were sitting around thinking about this,” she said. “Where is the map? Where is the zoning that you’re considering?”

She said she wanted “something on paper” that showed that some businesses needed permit parking, as well as where in the city that would be. She also said that, before acting on the proposal, she would like to hear from Park Harrisburg/SP+, which manages the city’s parking garages and metered parking, to see if they believed the proposal would impact their business.

Grover again insisted that the program had to be set up before any parking districts could be created, including for a pilot.

“You have to create standards,” he said. “There’s nothing there yet. Right now, the answer is you can’t put a business parking permit program in the city of Harrisburg. You just can’t do it, anywhere in the city. If you want to make that an option, you start with this and then you go to the next step.”

In the end, Green agreed with Williams that members should have more information before acting on the proposed ordinance to set up a business parking permit program and that they should hear from Park Harrisburg/SP+.

“I can see how this could really be beneficial to businesses that need that extra parking,” Green said. “But I think there are also concerns brought up by council tonight.”

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