Harrisburg’s draft comprehensive plan faced a cool reception from business leaders and city administrators last night, as the city Planning Commission hosted its first hearing on the document following a months-long dispute between the city and the plan’s author.
During a three-hour hearing in City Council chambers, members of the business and development community said the plan stepped on the toes of property owners and private developers. They feared that the proposals it laid out in its land use chapter would restrict investment in the city.
Private citizens and representatives from neighborhood associations were more supportive of the plan. Those who spoke out favorably commended its goals to connect parks and neighborhoods and to redesign roadways for pedestrians and cyclists.
The plan, developed by the Harrisburg-based Office of Planning and Architecture, aims to guide development and urban planning in the city for the next 20 years. The project was delayed more than a year after OPA’s principal, Bret Peters, feuded with the city about compensation and proposals in the plan.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who has not shied away from criticism of Peters and his plan, wants the Planning Commission to discard the consultant’s draft entirely and adopt a new draft written by the city’s Planning Bureau. He said their in-house plan includes many of the best ideas from Peters’ draft, but is less specific and ideological.
“[Peters’] plan is a recipe for disaster. It’s unworkable and unsalvageable,” Papenfuse said. “It’s unreadable, redundant, disorganized and not ready for prime time.”
Other business professionals in attendance offered more specific criticisms.
Attorney Charles Courtney spoke on behalf of his client Adam Meinstein, who owns the former U.S. Postal Service building at 813 Market St. The draft comprehensive plan recommends dividing that property between commercial, residential and business uses. Courtney said that the specificity of the plan limited his client’s discretion for how to develop the property.
“We need to have a broader view,” Courtney said. “If and when that property is developed, all the stakeholders will want to work together and not have it hamstrung by language in the comprehensive plan.”
Kevin Kulp, president of the Harrisburg Senators, said that the plan would be catastrophic for businesses on City Island. It calls for the elimination of all surface parking on City Island and for parking to be relocated to a garage on the island and overflow lots in downtown Harrisburg.
“We don’t have enough parking as it is, and we need every bit of it,” Kulp said.
The plan also drew strong criticism from Brian Davis, executive director of the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority, and Jackie Parker, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development.
Geoffrey Knight, director of the city’s Planning Bureau, said that the plan Harrisburg adopts needs to guide development, not direct it. He said that implementing the current draft could lead the city into thorny territory with property owners. If an owner did not want to develop a property according to a mandate in the comprehensive plan, Knight said, the owner would have to seek a waiver from the Planning Commission, which is the first body to consider land use proposals.
Some residents came out in support of the plan. Joyce Gamble, leader of Camp Curtin Community Neighbors United, said her organization supported the plan and hoped to work with the city to shepherd it to approval. Zach Monnier, a North Street resident, said he appreciated proposals that would localize property ownership and make renters stakeholders in their neighborhoods.
Peters, who was the chief author of the plan, only spoke once during the meeting to clarify his data collection methods. During a phone call today, he rejected the charge that he did not prioritize private business interests in his draft. Raising the aggregate real estate values in Harrisburg is central to the plan, he said, and will benefit property owners as well as residents. He also said that Harrisburg needed the kind of specific planning that made many attendees at Wednesday’s meeting balk.
“Laissez faire real estate and planning have been practiced in this city for 50 years, and it hasn’t worked,” Peters said.
Planning Commission members will consider the input from Wednesday’s meeting when they next convene on Feb. 5. They will then decide if and how they want to amend Peters’ draft document. They may also consider the separate plan submitted by the city’s Planning Bureau, which the Planning Commission already reviewed and rejected over the summer.