Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Lack of parking at new federal courthouse has local officials worried.

A rendering of the federal courthouse at 6th and Reily streets in Midtown Harrisburg.

As the construction of a long-awaited federal courthouse in Midtown Harrisburg inches forward, there remains one vital question that project managers haven’t resolved.

Where are patrons going to park?

Final land development plans for the $192 million project at 6th and Reily do not include proposals for any new parking structures. According to Mayor Eric Papenfuse, that’s a big problem.

The U.S. General Services Administration estimates that as many as 800 employees, jurors and other patrons will visit the courthouse on a given day.

They’re certain to strain nearby street parking, which is already in high demand among residents and some commuters.

What’s more, the construction of the courthouse will eliminate 60 existing parking spots in a surface lot, located on a parcel that was subsumed into the new building site.

The dilemma came up at a City Council work session tonight, where council members warned GSA representatives that the new courthouse could wreak chaos on Midtown’s parking supply.

Construction on the courthouse began in June and is expected to wrap in 2021.

Papenfuse explained that GSA won’t build new structures because federal agencies don’t guarantee parking for their employees. Instead, they rely on private developers or parking authorities to meet demand.

That works in most cities, Papenfuse said, but not necessarily in Harrisburg.

“The city’s in no position to float bonds to run a parking garage, and nobody is guaranteeing any revenue suitable for a private developer to build a garage,” he said. “We really don’t have a plan.”

Unlike their federal counterparts, state agencies often do reserve employee parking by leasing out blocs of parking spaces.

Those leases are a boon for parking operators, who can count on reliable income for large chunks of their real estate. They’re also used to secure financing for the construction of new infrastructure.

Without a similar guarantee for the 200 staffers at the federal courthouse, or more economic activity near the site, developers may see the construction of new parking infrastructure nearby as a risky investment.

The average cost of each space in a new parking garage is $25,000, according to parking industry experts. Then there are annual operating costs.

“They’re not going to build a garage without a long-term commitment that meets the overhead,” city Solicitor Neil Grover said. “But the courthouse is a long-term thing, and eventually there will be enough things going on that a developer will be interested at some point.”

Since Harrisburg was shut out of the bond market during its financial crisis, the city has no choice but to sit and wait for a developer to emerge.

“If we had a credit rating, we would build a parking structure,” Papenfuse said. “We would assume that risk was safe. But we looked at the numbers, and there’s no possible way anyone will loan us the money.”

A developer who did want to build new parking would have limited options for real estate. Much of the neighborhood is zoned for residential use, which precludes the construction of parking garages.

Unless Harrisburg granted a zoning variance, a new garage would have to go the nearby commercial or industrial zones, which are both in walking distance to the site, Grover said.

Papenfuse said the construction of new parking infrastructure near the courthouse would not violate the city’s contract with its private parking operator.

Standard Parking leased Harrisburg’s parking assets under a 40-year deal in 2013, but that agreement did not preclude the construction of new infrastructure to meet increased demand in the city, Papenfuse said.

Council members tonight were adamant that GSA and the city address the problem before it stressed an already-tight parking supply.

Council member Westburn Majors also expressed a preference for a multi-level parking garage. The anticipated demand for parking would require a vast expanse of real estate for a surface lot, he said, which could displace existing properties.

Project managers said that they continue to study options for off-site parking. Garages south of the courthouse, including ones in downtown Harrisburg, could be feasible sites if there was a shuttle service, according a representative from Dawood Engineering.

They could become feasible options if GSA provided shuttles to the courthouse.

City planning director Geoffrey Knight said Harrisburg could also help by building new bus stops and bike-share stations near the courthouse.

Council is slated to vote on the final land development proposal at its Dec. 18 legislative session.

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