A national auto-parts chain is poised to build a new location on a vacant lot in Uptown Harrisburg, much to the chagrin of Mayor Eric Papenfuse.
Memphis-based retailer AutoZone is in the final stages of purchasing a 1-acre lot at 7th and Maclay streets from the Buonarroti Trust, a subsidiary of the Vartan Group development company, confirmed Nicole Conway, Vartan executive vice president and general counsel, on Thursday.
AutoZone plans to build a full-service retail location on the lot, which has been vacant since the 1970s.
AutoZone already operates franchises in the Harrisburg suburbs, including in Lemoyne and Swatara Township. A new location in Harrisburg would make it the city’s first national retailer for car parts and accessories.
The sale of the lot at 645 Maclay St. is pending the approval of project proposals, Conway said. She did not disclose a price.
AutoZone has already petitioned the city to vacate unnamed alleys on the property. Eliminating these “paper streets” – so called because they exist only on maps and not actually on the site — would consolidate two tax parcels into one, developable tract.
The measure could come before City Council by the end of the month.
AutoZone must also submit a land use development proposal for approval by the Harrisburg Planning Commission and council.
The project would give new life to a long-vacant property and bring jobs to the city. But Mayor Eric Papenfuse stands strongly against it.
“It’s inappropriate, in my opinion, for the gateway to Harrisburg,” Papenfuse said.
The city’s “Northern Gateway” encompasses the area east of Midtown Harrisburg, close to the interchanges to I-81 and state route 22. Its proximity to major highways lends the area high visibility from motorists travelling in and out of the city.
Vartan founder John Vartan began buying property in the area in the 1980s, hopeful that it would become a prime target for development. Today, however, much of the corridor remains either empty or blighted.
“Unfortunately, there has not been much interest in development on that corridor,” Conway said.
The most recent developments in the Northern Gateway area have been government projects closer to Midtown – the federal courthouse at 6th and Reily and the state archives building at 6th and Harris. The Vartan Group also developed the mixed-use 1500 Condominium project on 6th Street in 2012.
Conway said she was “confused and a little disappointed” by the mayor’s opposition to the AutoZone project. She disagreed with his claim that an auto parts retailer was a poor fit for the location, where neighboring businesses include gas stations and industrial properties.
She also said that AutoZone would be the first national retailer to undertake new construction in Harrisburg since the 1970s.
“The fact that a national retailer wants to come in and build new is big,” Conway said. “It says to another retailer that [Harrisburg] is a good place to locate, and we hope it will bring additional business into the area.”
Conway added that the project would not use any public subsidies, such as local tax abatement or state grants.
“This is straightforward, market-rate construction with no giveaways from the city,” she said.
AutoZone approached Vartan about the property in late 2017, Conway said. It was the first serious inquiry about the lot that the developer had received in years.
Even if the mayor opposes the project, there’s not much he can do to stop it. The project would conform with the “commercial general” zoning designation, and Conway said that AutoZone has complied with the city’s planning process.
The mayor could theoretically veto any land use development proposal that council passes. But, since if the proposal complies with city zoning code, it would be subject to a costly legal appeal.
AutoZone did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse submitted the following comment after this article was published: “The city of Harrisburg is most assuredly open for business. I support all responsible development projects. This is a gateway corridor for the City and deserves something extraordinary that will help spur the adaptive re-use of the nearby abandoned Hudson Building. This particular design is much better suited for a suburban strip mall than a growing, progressive City looking to emphasize neighborhoods and safe streets over cars and commuters.”