Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Mayor vetoes city council planning provision for AutoZone.

AutoZone will purchase the vacant lot at 645 Maclay St. from Harrisburg-area developer The Vartan Group, pending approval of its proposals by the city.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse has issued the third veto of his administration, this time against a City Council action that paves the way for a new car parts store in Uptown Harrisburg.

Papenfuse overturned council’s December vote to void unused alleys on a lot at 7th and Maclay streets, which is currently owned by a Vartan Group subsidiary.

The street vacation would wipe so-called “paper streets” off of city planning maps, allowing Vartan to consolidate two tax parcels and sell the property to AutoZone, a Memphis-based auto parts retailer.

AutoZone hopes to build a full-service retail location on the property. The 1-acre lot is currently vacant, save for decorative shrubs spelling out the Vartan logo.

Voiding the paper streets is just the first step in the project’s development process.

Once it purchases the property, AutoZone must submit land use development plans to Harrisburg’s planning commission and city council.

Papenfuse made clear his opposition to the project this fall. He said the site would be better served by dense, mixed-use development than a single-use retail structure.

He urged council in November to withhold the street vacation until AutoZone submitted satisfactory design plans. But council voted 7-0 to grant the vacation request.

Today, Papenfuse said that vetoing that action will give council a second chance to exert pressure on an out-of-town corporation and establish review criteria for similar requests in the future.

Amid an uptick in development projects in recent months, council members have called on developers to make meaningful investments in the local economy, whether by employing local laborers on their job sites or by including affordable units in housing projects.

Papenfuse thinks that council can use street vacations as a valuable bargaining chip with developers. Any leverage council has now will disappear when the project advances as a land use proposal, he said.

Under Pennsylvania’s municipal code, a city cannot deny a property owner’s land use proposal if it conforms with zoning codes. Doing so arbitrarily would open the door to costly legal appeals.

But since the municipal code does not dictate standards for voiding paper streets, city council can use its approval power to coerce terms from developers, Papenfuse said.

For instance, council could ask developers to abide by certain labor conditions or to include a certain number of affordable units in their development plans in exchange for a street vacation, Papenfuse said. But any process council adopts “would need to be clear and fair to all.”

“I think there is an opportunity for city council to establish a review criteria for street vacations linked to the land development process that will help the city achieve some of its goals with regard to contracting and affordable housing,” Papenfuse said. “Historically, I don’t think there has been a clear process, but now we’re going to see renewed development… I would argue they should put a process in place.”

City solicitor Neil Grover declined to comment on the mayor’s legal argument.

The Maclay Street lot is six blocks from the site of a new federal courthouse and state Archives building — two long-awaited projects that are hoped to spur development along the blighted 6th and 7th street corridors.

In November, Vartan Group CEO Ralph Vartan said the AutoZone store would be Harrisburg’s first, market-rate construction project by a national retailer in decades, other than a dollar store in Allison Hill.

The city’s planning bureau endorsed Vartan’s request to vacate the alleys bisecting the lot. Since no property owner can obstruct public streets, even unused ones, it’s unlikely the AutoZone project can proceed until the streets are void.

City council has scheduled a vote to overturn the mayor’s veto at a legislative session tomorrow.

Continue Reading