For months, the city’s Planning Bureau, preparing a new comprehensive plan, has asked Harrisburg residents that question and has received hundreds of suggestions, from the prosaic to the fanciful.
From time to time, I’ve expressed my opinion on the topic, perhaps most directly in a 2013 column called “Right-Sizing Harrisburg,” in which I advised casting aside grand, Reed-style ambitions and focusing instead on “doing small city well.”
I continue to believe that, as Harrisburg continues to rebuild, it should play to its natural strengths as a small, Victorian-era city on a gorgeous river. This, I believe, would make the city most appealing to both new residents and visitors.
So, how are we doing? Actually, not bad, I’m happy to report.
Almost three years have passed since I wrote that column and progress, while uneven and always too slow for my taste, is noticeable.
Many of the city’s most significant historic buildings, blighted and largely abandoned until recently, have been restored and reoccupied. Rehabilitation of structures like the Barto Building (now LUX), the Millworks, the Harrisburg Midtown Arts Center and the Moose Lodge Temple show that people want to live, work in and visit gracious historic structures in Harrisburg, just like they do everywhere else.
Their survival stands in stark contrast to decades of misguided “urban renewal,” whose philosophy seemed to be that Harrisburg could only save itself by destroying itself, that it had to replace elegant rows of brick, stone and mortar with cold blocks of steel, glass and concrete. Or that it had to more closely resemble the suburbs. Unfortunately, much of downtown was lost to the “raze it and they will come” mindset, but some of the charm of the historic center remains.
So, a few developers finally woke up to the benefits (aesthetic and financial) of preservation, but what about governments?
Well, the state finally seems to be on board, reversing decades of ruinous policies that destroyed entire historic neighborhoods around the Capitol and turned much of Harrisburg into one big traffic island. The recent redevelopment of Front Street and support for the city’s plan to return much of N. 2nd Street to two-way traffic are both pro-community and pro-small city, making two of Harrisburg’s main thoroughfares less forbidding and better integrated with the city.
The Papenfuse administration seems to get it, too. It has focused on infrastructure and quality-of-life issues, long neglected at the expense of dubious, imposing projects like museums, colleges, art centers, parking garages and big office buildings—often publicly funded via mountains of debt and destructive to the existing, 19th-century cityscape. Despite the city’s tight budget, the administration has found creative ways to finance the installation of new LED lights, to begin years of long-ignored street paving and to improve sanitation services.
So, that’s the good news. What about the bad?
To be attractive to outsiders, a small city must look good, and, in that regard, Harrisburg still needs work.
As I just said, some developers are doing their part, but others aren’t. This city has too many dilapidated structures and empty lots owned by people who have the means to fix and improve them. Also, much of Harrisburg’s building stock remains stuck in the hands of slumlords and negligent commercial property owners who seem intent on sucking the last penny out their buildings before they crumble to the ground.
Then there are the problem businesses.
Lately, the city has been trying to shut down several bars that it deems troubled, which it believes act as magnets for crimes both major (shootings, drugs, assaults) and minor (vagrancy, loitering, panhandling).
No business—whether a bar, a convenience store, or heck, an ice cream parlor—has the right to be a destructive force on a neighborhood. Businesses should add to the quality of life where they’re located, or at least not damage it.
Personally, I don’t care what happens to these businesses as long as they stop contributing to the city’s blight and retarding its progress. There are tons of bars in Harrisburg, most responsibly run, and only a few seem to have constant problems.
Making Harrisburg into a more livable, attractive and enjoyable small city—one where people want to live and visit—is hardly rocket science.
Developers need to develop, respecting the historical context of the city around them; building and business owners need to act responsibly, understanding that they exist not in isolation but within a community of people; the municipal government needs to focus on the basics, such as infrastructure and quality of life.
I’m impressed with the progress this city has made in just a few years. The difference between then and now is real and substantial. Nonetheless, much more needs to be done for Harrisburg to achieve its destiny as a lovely, vibrant small city perfectly located on a wide, gorgeous river
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.