How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time, according to PennDOT Deputy Secretary Jennie Granger, who used the metaphor to describe a $90 million restoration of Harrisburg’s Paxton Creek.
Granger spoke this morning at Harrisburg Regional Chamber & CREDC 2018 transportation briefing, a ticketed breakfast meeting at the Hilton Harrisburg Hotel. She outlined objectives of the long-anticipated restoration project, which aims to widen the Paxton Creek and lower its floodplain elevation, making hundreds of blighted, industrial acres more attractive for development.
“This could have a monumental, positive impact for the city and the commonwealth,” Granger said. “From Herr Street south, there’s a lot of potential for redevelopment.”
However, PennDOT first needs a “project champion” to emerge from the gaggle of state agencies, city and county offices, and private sector stakeholders invested in the restoration, Granger said. She emphasized the need for private dollars to fund the full project.
Paxton Creek, which runs for 6.2 miles from Wildwood Park to the Susquehanna River watershed, was a key part of the City Beautiful movement in the early 1900s. It was channelized as a canal in 1914, after rapid urban development in the 19th and early 20th century degraded the creek’s ecology and structural integrity, leaving it vulnerable to flash floods.
The threat of flooding has since deterred development near Paxton Creek, particularly along the Cameron Street industrial corridor.
PennDOT’s chief goal in the restoration project is to lower the elevation of the creek’s 100-year floodplain from 317 feet to 314 feet.
“Three feet doesn’t seem substantial, but it will have major impacts,” Granger said.
In all, 147 property parcels are partially affected by the flood plain, and an additional 73 are totally affected, Granger said. A PennDOT study found that the elevation reduction could increase property values by 15 percent absent any other improvements, she said.
One of those sites is the former Harco Steel Corporation, a 23 acre parcel on Cameron Street, which CREDC purchased for $500,000 in March. The Paxton Creek Master Plan calls for renovating the site as Paxton Creek Park, with amenities such as community garden plots, a grass play court, picnic areas and walking trails.
Like many parcels on the Cameron Street corridor, the former industrial site will need extensive remediation before it can be repurposed.
PennDOT’s Paxton Creek Master Plan, published earlier this year, put a $60 to $90 million price tag on the project. That figure includes all engineering and design work and repairs for structurally deficient bridges.
A second, more comprehensive study, which analyzes the creek’s impact between Herr Street, South Harrisburg and the Susquehanna River, has been delayed due to summer flooding.
PennDOT hopes to complete the due diligence study by January 2019, at which point it can lay out next steps in the years-long project.
Earlier this summer, the Harrisburg Redevelopment Authority received a $2 million state RACP grant to fund preliminary work on the Paxton Creek Project. Mayor Eric Papenfuse said this morning that the city is still deciding whether to use it on bridge repairs, channel reinforcement or property acquisitions.
“We have a lot of options for how to spend that money,” Papenfuse said. “It’s a small amount, but it’s a start, and where we deploy it is key to the overall strategy.”
Granger also provided a brief update on the Harrisburg Transportation Center renovation, one component of the Paxton Creek Master Plan. The train and bus hub’s observation room will get a new roof and full renovation in early 2019, she reported.
However, long-term plans to renovate the station’s concourse, lobby and bathrooms are on hold while PennDOT negotiates building ownership and leasing with Amtrak.