From her perch at Zeroday Brewing Co., a friend recently texted me with a question about Harrisburg’s parking system.
A fellow barstool-sitter wanted to know how long Harrisburg’s lease ran with Standard Parking. So, naturally, she texted me.
“Is it 75 years?” she wrote.
“No,” I responded back. “Forty years. Thirty-six more to go.”
Afterwards, I began to think about the passage of time, how I may or may not be walking the Earth by the time the agreement expires (conclusion: probably not). Then I pondered Harrisburg itself, how it might be different by then.
Predicting the future may be a fool’s game, but this fool is game, if only because I’m fascinated by the changes in this city, current and planned. In addition, I believe that Harrisburg has entered a new phase in its story, the fourth in my estimation (the prior ones being pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial).
I’m not certain exactly what we’ll call this new era, but I expect it will be driven by Harrisburg’s strong advantages (old, dense housing stock, walkability, beautiful setting, superb location), along with and facilitated by, a heavy dose of technology.
Parking will fade as an issue (in a way).
There’s a huge problem with a 40-year deal, and that problem is, whether or not you even realize it, you’re making a bet on the future. You’re gambling that the conditions on the ground at the time of the agreement will remain substantially unchanged throughout it. But will they?
My guess is that, with the parking deal, they will change. In fact, just four years in, we’re already seeing possible problems that were not evident in 2014.
The agreement rested on the reasonable assumption that demand for parking would remain the same or even increase over time. But that’s probably wrong.
No, I haven’t turned into a Harrisburg hater, one of the legions of trolls who seem to delight in (and exaggerate) every problem the city has. In fact, over the long turn, I’m bullish on both business in and visitors to the downtown.
However, I’m not bullish on the use of private automobiles.
I live downtown, so walk almost everywhere anyway. But, when I meet up with a friend who lives Uptown or outside the city—even as near as Midtown—they take Uber downtown, whereas, until recently, they all were driving and paying for parking. If, five or 10 years down the road, driverless cars become common, this trend will only accelerate.
So, my prediction—more people downtown, but fewer cars. This will be great for downtown businesses, but potentially disastrous for the parking deal.
Harrisburg’s population will increase substantially
Do I hear 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 more people?
In recent years, Harrisburg’s population has stabilized, which may be the first step in reversing decades of decline. This isn’t wishful thinking, but the result of simply seeing what’s happening around me.
Ten years ago, the city’s streets seemed empty, the sidewalks even more so, and downtown and Midtown were thick with once-grand buildings that had fallen to ruin. Change has come in a short timeframe. Many blighted buildings have been put back into productive use, and street life is returning.
The future seems even more promising. Over the just the past few months, Harrisburg University announced a mixed-used high rise, the new federal courthouse received funding and the first new house was sold at MulDer Square, to name just a few projects. There are now ambitious proposals for Paxton Creek, the train station area, Market Square and 2nd Street, which could revitalize entire swaths of the city.
Despite this progress, much of Harrisburg remains in poor shape, with empty lots, underused buildings and not enough people.
The upside here is that there’s great opportunity for infill and expansion. Harrisburg easily can accommodate tens of thousands more people, as long as the demand exists for that housing.
To accomplish this, though, the city will need to reach some type of psychic comfort with development and growth. Outsiders and investment should be welcomed, not treated with disdain.
The city/suburb, east shore/west shore split will ease.
Years ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C., the Potomac River divided that city and its suburbs much like the Susquehanna River does here today. Suburbanites claimed they were afraid to come into D.C. less they be mugged or worse, and early Internet bulletin boards were full of the same racist nonsense and fearmongering that you often see today in the PennLive comment section.
In Washington, much of that has faded. Today, there is far more fluid movement between city and suburb, with the entire area more comfortable in identifying itself as a unified region. Finally, the “National Capital Area” has, indeed, become exactly that.
But what about Pennsylvania’s capital region? As Harrisburg continues to redevelop, I believe that greater unity will be found here, too. The city once again will be regarded as the center of an integrated urban area, not as the hole in the doughnut.
Harrisburg has a destiny to fulfill. Someday, it will take its place as a gem of a small city perfectly situated on a grand river. It will just take some time, patience, capital and the good will, mutual support and understanding of well-intentioned people.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.