The Harrisburg Planning Commission this week gave its blessing to a new downtown high-rise for Harrisburg University, a building design that knocks another two floors off of the project.
The land development plan, approved unanimously by the commission on Wednesday night, envisions a 17-story building totaling 386,200 square feet of space at the corner of Chestnut and S. 3rd streets.
“I think this is a very good project,” said commission Chairman Joe Alsberry, before casting his vote in favor.
Last year, HU floated a concept for a building exceeding 30 floors, which would have made it the tallest building in the city. Last fall, the height was cut back to 19 floors and now has been approved at 17.
With Planning Commission approval, the land development plan now must be approved by City Council before HU can break ground.
The building (rendering left) consists of three parts: an academic portion that would house mainly health sciences programs, a separately owned hotel and a restaurant. The university envisions a two-year construction period.
In its vote on Wednesday, the city Planning Commission approved the consolidation of the four parcels that make up the building site: 222 Chestnut St. and 24, 26 and 28 S. 3rd St. Currently, 222 Chestnut St., the largest parcel, is a surface parking lot, while the 3rd Street parcels all house 19th-century commercial buildings, which would be demolished during the site-clearing process.
HU’s attorney and architects, who attended the meeting, were satisfied with the approval, with one exception.
As a condition for approval, the city’s Planning Bureau suggested that HU make changes to the building façade so that it would have a more “consistent” design, with less visible concrete.
City Planning Director Geoffrey Knight also noted how much the building looks like HU’s existing, 15-year-old tower on Market Street.
“We’d like architecture that is a bit more aspirational than the design indicates,” he said.
Knight emphasized that the city supports the project, but would prefer certain façade improvements for the sake of the city streetscape and skyline.
“We want to make sure it’s something that will age well,” he said.
HU attorney Diane Tokarsky of McNees Wallace & Nurick pushed back hard on the suggestion that design changes were needed.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “There would be a significant cost to the university to begin redesigning the façade of the building.”
City Solicitor Neil Grover clarified that the city can’t force the university to change its design.
Nonetheless, Tokarsky strongly objected to the condition placed on the approval. She said that she wanted an all-clear from the city, stating that any conditions not explicitly met could negatively affect the university’s next steps, including finalizing financing and putting construction work out for bid.
“We need to be able to say, ‘This is our building. This is the cost of our building,’” she said.
Planning Commission members discussed stripping out the condition that suggested the façade changes, but, in the end, opted to leave it in as part of its approval.
“I’m excited about this project overall,” said commissioner Anne Marek. “The only sticking point goes back to this façade conversation.”
In the end, HU representatives said they’d willingly continue the conversation with the city, but within limits.
“We would be happy to have further dialogue,” Tokarsky said. “But we need finality. We’re not redesigning this building.”
A Harrisburg University spokesman yesterday declined further comment for this story.