We all know the metaphor about the slow-motion train wreck—a disaster that everyone can see coming from far off but can’t seem to do anything to stop.
So, traveling northbound, I give you the new federal courthouse, quickly rising up in Midtown Harrisburg.
And, traveling southbound, I give you Harrisburg’s evergreen problem—parking.
I don’t consider myself much of a prognosticator. Heck, I got caught up in both the tech crash and, a few years later, the housing bubble. But even I can see this train wreck a’comin.
Back in 2010, the U.S. government, after years of searching, announced it finally had selected a site for its new federal courthouse—a slab of blighted land at the edge of Midtown.
As I recall, most people rejoiced at the news. On a chilly April morning nearly a decade ago, local pols and activists declared this to be the “right site,” one that would serve as a catalyst for redevelopment in the area and that didn’t require the wholesale destruction of a downtown neighborhood to accommodate the courthouse’s substantial security footprint.
After a shove from Harrisburg’s congressional delegation, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) finally broke ground last year, and the building is now taking shape at N. 6th and Reily streets.
All good, right?
That’s what I thought until about a year ago, when the city government began to fret about parking around the new courthouse, which is slated to open in early 2022.
It turns out that GSA typically offers on-site parking only for its most senior staff—in this case, its judges. Nearly everyone else has to depend upon, in the words of the federal government, “market-based parking solutions.”
So, here we have an almost $200 million construction project, an amount that, incidentally, could buy entire neighborhoods in Harrisburg, without enough parking for most full-time staff, for jurors, for visitors. The courthouse needs some 500 spaces, but is being built with just a few dozen on site. Whose idea was this?
Each city is different. Harrisburg is not Boston or Philly or another place with robust mass transit and countless “market-based parking solutions.” For that matter, Midtown Harrisburg isn’t even downtown Harrisburg with its numerous parking garages, thanks to former Mayor Steve Reed—the Johnny Appleseed of structured parking.
Midtown parking is already stressed, especially within two blocks of the new building, which is as distant as court officials want to be from their hundreds of privately owned spaces, according to a request for information issued last March.
Meanwhile, Harrisburg itself can’t help much. The city’s recent financial crisis prevents it from accessing the bond market. Therefore, it can’t borrow the $10 million or so needed to build an adequate parking garage.
It’s too bad, too, because Midtown desperately needs more parking. So, a municipal garage could have done double duty by offering more parking to an area that gets busier by the day. The city even knows where it would like to put one, on a blighted block just west of the site—if only it could.
Let me be clear: I fully support the new courthouse where it is located. I think that the corner of N. 6th and Reily is indeed the “right site,” and early indications are that the project—though still just a bunch of steel girders sticking into the sky—is already helping to revitalize the area.
But I find it unconscionable that a project of this size, cost and importance could be built without a solid plan of how people are going to, you know, get to it.
That responsibility falls on GSA and its tenant, the U.S. courts. Parking should be regarded as much a part of a project’s critical infrastructure as the roof, the courthouses, the offices, the halls and the bathrooms. Sure, the federal government may have the ability to dictate its own rules—and it evidently doesn’t want to offer parking. However, that doesn’t change the reality that, to do business in this new, beautiful, secure building, people will need to reach it.
Perhaps, in the end, some kind of parking Clark Kent will throw off his glasses and come to the rescue. Or maybe a solution will be cobbled together through a combination of smaller surface lots, downtown shuttle buses and, I don’t know, e-scooters.
However, there’s no escaping the fact that this massively expensive project was undertaken with the vague hope that someone, somehow, would deliver enough parking for it. And, as I’ve said numerous times before in this column, hope is not a strategy.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.