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Harrisburg Council overturns mayor’s veto following tense exchange over development strategy, policy

Harrisburg City Council in session on Tuesday

Harrisburg City Council overturned a mayoral veto on Tuesday, though the two branches of government agreed to work towards a policy that could give the city more leverage over future development projects.

By a 5-2 vote, council rejected the action by Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who recently vetoed a resolution that would vacate several “paper” streets on a parcel of land where the new federal courthouse now is rising.

Before the meeting, Papenfuse said that he vetoed the resolution to make a point. He wants council members to create a policy that would require developers to conduct a “public benefit analysis” when requesting street vacations.

Such a policy, he said, would give the city leverage as developers continue to plan projects in Harrisburg. In exchange for the street vacation, the city could ask for certain benefits, such as offsetting city-borne costs, making streetscape improvements, utilizing local labor or including affordable housing.

“It could help us with affordable housing policy in the city,” he said. “In Seattle, and many cities, they require a public benefit proposal on the part of the developer.”

Last month, council approved a resolution that would vacate “various unnamed paper streets” on the 4.2-acre site at N. 6th and Reily streets, where the federal government is building a 243,000-square-foot courthouse.

Usually, paper streets are narrow “baker’s” or “grocer’s” alleys that offer rear access to row houses. On the courthouse site, neither the houses nor the alleys exist any longer, but the public rights of way remain on paper.

On Tuesday, Papenfuse told council that, currently, the city holds little leverage over a developer outside of the normal planning and zoning process. Requiring an analysis for street vacations would give the city a tool to extract “public benefit” concessions for large projects, he said.

“It would be a power vested in City Council that is not granted through the land development process,” he said.

Papenfuse then summarized Seattle’s policy to council, using it as an example of an effective street vacation policy, saying that the process could be used to place leverage on developers to include affordable housing in their projects or to mandate the use of local labor.

“I know we have a lot of street vacations coming down the pike,” Papenfuse said. “I’m hopeful that we can develop a policy.”

Before casting her override vote, council President Wanda Williams criticized Papenfuse’s housing strategy, saying that he has supported past development proposals in the city that didn’t include an affordable housing element.

“I’m a little outraged by that veto,” she said. “I asked for an affordable housing component, and you sat there with your head down each and every time.”

Despite a lengthy, critical exchange with Papenfuse, Williams said that she would be interested in discussing a street vacation policy.

“I think we should work on this quickly,” agreed council member Dave Madsen, one of two votes, along with council member Westburn Majors, to uphold the veto.

Papenfuse admitted that his veto was unlikely to impact the federal courthouse project, which is well underway and slated for completion in spring 2022. But he said that he wanted to make a point that council should pass a street vacation policy.

“These are public streets,” he said. “Potentially, there are things that could be received in exchange, which goes well beyond the courthouse.”

This was Papenfuse’s second veto of a “street vacation” resolution. Early last year, he vetoed a street vacation resolution for the proposed site of an AutoZone store in Uptown Harrisburg, which council also overturned.

At that time, Papenfuse said he wanted to use the street vacation to pressure AutoZone to submit development plans that he considered to be more satisfactory. In fact, council just last month granted the AutoZone project two more street vacations, which should allow construction to begin soon on the project.

Members of the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania (MILPA), along with Harrisburg City Council members, pose for a picture following the unanimous council vote to back legislation allowing all residents to secure driver’s licenses.

In other action on Tuesday, City Council:

  • Voted 6-1 to approve an agreement transferring the Strawberry Square Arcade to the Strawberry Square Condominium Association, with Williams voting no.
  • By a 5-2 vote, approved a resolution to hire Harrisburg-based Maverick Strategies to continue to provide consulting and lobbying for Harrisburg. The agreement for the $5,000 monthly retainer expires on Dec. 31.
  • Unanimously passed a resolution hiring Ecological Solutions to provide lake management services for Italian Lake at a cost of $9,125.
  • Unanimously passed a resolution backing state legislation that would allow Pennsylvania residents, regardless of immigration status, access to a valid driver’s license. Following the vote, about 40 members of the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania (MILPA), who spearheaded the resolution and attended the meeting, cheered loudly, vocalizing their support for council’s action.
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