Harrisburg residents are elevating a brand new plan for the town, formed by the identical historic racial and financial inequalities – PennLive

The last time Harrisburg had a plan to develop and improve its neighborhoods, homes, and open green spaces, gas was 42 cents and Richard Nixon was close to stepping down from the presidency.

Now, nearly 50 years later, the Commonwealth capital is once again poised to shape a new plan that could revitalize its chronically oppressed communities and reshape its future.

The so-called “HBG2020” plan, which is intended to conclude the city council's 45-day review period, largely addresses the issues that are central to the further revitalization of the city.

But the very comprehensive plan that could reverse and reconcile decades of unfair social, economic and racial structures has created discord that resonates with racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

Many of Harrisburg's key stakeholders – the residents – said they haven't spoken about what their city should look like in the years to come. Many see it as a continuation of the politics that promoted the racist structures that banned the city's predominantly black majority from the table for generations.

Growing numbers of residents indicate that the city's current plan is pushing for development and redevelopment, but with little effort to involve residents and without considering the impact such plans could have on residents.

"The plan the city is putting together is all about the developers coming in and giving land and for residential use or whatever they want, which benefits them rather than forming owner-tenant associations," said Joe Robinson, President of the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute.

"There is no vested interest in city dwellers owning some of these properties, which in turn ensures that the properties retain their value."

Many city dwellers say the current plan in front of the city council offers little detailed neighborhood development that would improve the quality of life, such as trees, street lights and pedestrian-friendly back roads.

More importantly, the city's residents say the plan does not include any calculation of how to reverse decades of exclusion from the real estate and owner co-op investment mechanisms.

"It's sad," said Joyce Gamble, director of Camp Curtin Community Neighbors United, which has campaigned for more community contributions and more redress for residents in the comprehensive plan for years.

"I think it's time for a change. People need to know what's going on in their own backyard. These are churches, parishes, business people. Everyone has to step up. I get tired of being overlooked and in your own backyard to be overlooked. "

City officials are largely pushing back such allegations from local residents. They say the comprehensive plan before the city council, which has been reviewed by the planning commission and other stakeholders, broadly addresses a wide variety of issues that are central to the further revitalization of the city.

"It's a guide," said Mayor Eric Papenfuse. "I don't think it's a game changer as it was never anything magical that would change the city in any way. It's a planning document. The real problem in Harrisburg is that we haven't had a consensus on a document for too long. I think , we are now going to advance a number of initiatives. "

HBG2020 broadly describes how public money is spent promoting economic activity and even developing parks, neighborhoods and streets, covering topics ranging from affordable housing to pedestrian walkways to bike paths.

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For example, the plan provides for urban areas such as Market Mews near Broad Street Market to evolve to encourage the development of a "pedestrian-friendly mixed-use core" for residential and commercial use. The plan includes other ideas, including refreshment kiosks in Riverfront Park, a mixed-use development in City Square along Market Street east of the train station, a gate in the city center and a new Meander Park on Allison Hill.

However, city residents say that such proposals do not take into account the scope of the revitalization. They oppose the plan to move much of the substance of future plans to outside developers and contractors.

"A major flaw in the plan is that it is not community-based," said Basir Vincent, co-founder of Young Professionals of Color in the Greater Harrisburg area and head of the Harrisburg Comprehensive Plan Community Working Group.

He campaigned for more transparency and public engagement in the comprehensive planning process and feared that this would now be worked through without meaningful contribution from the residents.

“If you look at the makeup of Harrisburg, it's a majority and minority town. People who live in the city don't have the same influence and impact on the plan, and that translates into priorities, ”said Vincent, who has been hosting informative virtual lunch sessions for residents for months. He has campaigned for greater resident engagement, but said the public health restrictions caused by the pandemic had further complicated an already complex process.

"There are many benefits to knowing how this plan could potentially elevate this community," said Vincent. "There are a lot of contracts that could come about. I think that makes a lot of people blind. There are a lot of outside contractors who then try to do other business with other outside forces to get things to Harrisburg instead of them To focus citizens and empower citizens to build the city from within. "

Growing numbers of Harrisburg residents say the city's new comprehensive plan is no way for more resident-owned homes and less landlord-owned homes.


In 1974, Harrisburg could only use federal funds to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Agnes than devising a plan for using public funds.

In addition to the hurricane, the city faced another double blow: the combined loss of the steel and rail industries in the region. These factors, combined with structural racism in the banking, government, business and housing sectors, quickly plunged the city into economic and social abyss.

Rev. Earl Harris, past president of the Interdenominational Ministers Conference of Greater Harrisburg and attorney for the city, said that for decades the vitality and economy of the city has been determined and controlled by outside interests, mostly developers and contractors from the West Shore. Apart from their respective financial gains, they had little interest in the city.

Harris fears the city will introduce largely the same thing with the comprehensive plan.

"The city of Harrisburg is a living organism," he said. “With the exception of two, every census tract is below the poverty line. How do you deal with this cancerous organism? You can't just handle one piece. You can't think of it as a silo. You have to look at everything. The streets. The provision of services. Housing, education, the people … treat everything at once and holistically instead of trying to treat part of it. "

City dwellers say the comprehensive plan addresses issues individually or in silos, rather than their overall impact on the city as a whole.

Past efforts to bring decimated areas back to life – like housing developments, building hotels or downtown restaurants – had little impact on the overall lives of residents, Harris said.

"That's exactly what this map should do, when you look at it all, because if it doesn't, it's a failure," Harris said. “The planning that has been carried out in this city for 40 years is project after project after project. It is not holistic or systemic and does not value its people. "

A key point of contention with residents is the idea that the current comprehensive plan does little to regulate home ownership or urban property ownership. The plan provides for "affordable housing" but few mechanisms that would provide a way for residents to have a legitimate interest in the homes and buildings in their neighborhood.

"When developers come in and look at empty land, it's a transaction. It's about having the privilege of throwing money and saying I can do what I want," said Rob Shoaff, an architect, who lives in Midtown and advocates more public contributions to the comprehensive planning process.

"In very rural areas this is not a problem because who is around? When you deal with urban issues and issues related to social and social justice, this is a problem. It is starting to affect life in the area. Developers ask never: "What do children think here, what are their visions, what about the people who have lived here all their lives? What are their problems?"

Papenfuse has pushed for a zoning change to improve affordable housing in the city.

"This kind of zone change has really been waiting for the comprehensive plan to be completed," he said. “The comprehensive plan should form the basis for reviewing the zone code. I'm very excited to go back and make changes to the zone code. "


The current discord with the comprehensive Harrisburg plan is caught in a thorny backstory.

As part of its recovery plan, the city should prepare a plan for future development and revitalization in 2014.

With state funding, the city of Bret Peters and his company kept the office for planning and architecture, which, contrary to its name, is a private company.

The Commonwealth provided the city with $ 200,000 to help complete the task.

Peters, town planner and professor at Penn State and Harrisburg Area Community College, created the plan largely based on residents' input. He began a month-long process of involving residents through meetings in church basements and community centers to develop a plan that focused on the idea of ​​residents' property.

"That idea was a cornerstone of the plan," said Peters. “We heard many people in town say they enjoyed their neighborhood and liked their neighborhood, but absent rental properties created eyesores and poor management and dilapidated conditions in their neighborhood. If they could get absent landlords out of town or under control in their neighborhood, it would go a long way in making their neighborhoods better places. "

Indeed, the concept has become a politically charged issue. Across the country, most of the black communities raged after the riot after the racial justice demonstrations. At the center of the national conversation is the idea that black communities are destroying their own neighborhoods.

But that's a simplistic perspective.

Robinson said that, like most cities, the people who live in Harrisburg have little interest in their city, and when it comes to urban renewal, that factor makes all the difference.

"Sometimes people say they don't know why these people upset and burn down their own neighborhoods," Robinson said. “But they reject the reason people aren't engaged. They don't remember that none of these buildings belong to any of the residents. That's no excuse … but there's nothing in this neighborhood that's ours. "

Residents say the plan authored by Peters and delivered to the city gave them a vested interest in the city's future. The plan provided a path towards property and resident cooperatives.

Peters said his original plan was designed to reverse decades of redlining and the exclusion of black and brown communities from economic investment in their own communities.

Peters largely proposed increasing resident ownership by promoting condominiums that would allow the owner to live in one of the units while generating income from renting two apartments in the building. This equation was consistent with the prevailing population of a city like Harrisburg, which has an owner-to-tenant ratio of around 2: 1.

"Not everyone wants to own a home when they live in a core community like Harrisburg," said Peters. “When you first move in, you won't buy. You will rent. We need a lot of high quality rental properties here. Lots of rental options. "

That calculation, he added, would have grossed nearly $ 2 billion for the city's economy.

But the plan was doomed amid contractual negotiations and delays, and things between the city and Peters kept getting worse. By 2017, the city had terminated its contract with the company and began looking for another company.

What happened between the city and Peters led to a lawsuit, but arguably more important, that fueled community outrage.

By July 2019, the city commissioned Wallace Montgomery to provide “comprehensive plan editing and formatting services” for its comprehensive plan. Peters said he was impressed with what he called a near-identical substance from his original proposal.

Remarkably, however, the cornerstone of Peters’s plan – ownership of city property – had largely been replaced by the concept of affordable housing.

Peters filed a lawsuit against the city alleging the city misused its proposal and violated copyright law. His contract granted the city exclusive use of the plan, but not a license to modify the plans or drawings. According to Peters, this is up to the professionals to ensure security and integrity.

"The city had no experience with it," said Peters.


Aside from the treaty battle between Peters and the city, and the delays the residents opposed, it became clear that the city was once again paving the way for outside money to gain control of city real estate.

As the city waged its contractual battle with Peters, residents seething at the thought that the idea of ​​owner-occupied and cooperative housing, the ability of a first-time homeowner to bid on a house next door or invest in their community, had been removed from the table.

"When people get involved in their community and they see that they own and that they have a say in the development and that they can become owners, you have sustainability," Robinson said. “The plan Bret proposed was people employment, rehabilitation, maintenance, pride, property and maintenance. You don't have to lose the historical value of real estate. They just don't have someone to destroy them like developers usually do. "

Papenfuse said the fallout with Peters' company was purely business – the architectural firm's failure, he said.

"They basically stopped working and didn't finish the product and asked for more money," said the mayor. "We had an incomplete comprehensive plan and had to hire another company to do the job and complete the plan."

The charge that residents were left out of the current plan? Papenfuse also refutes this.

“Pure spin from Bret Peters. Not at all, ”he said. "I don't think he trusted the community and was constantly pushing his ideas onto the plan.

"The current plan, as finalized and reviewed by the planning committee, takes the voice of the community into account far better than Bret's plan ever."

Peters' lawsuit filed in June was dismissed by the US Middle District Court in Pennsylvania.

In his statement, Judge John E. Jones said the court could not make a claim for copyright infringement “if the alleged unauthorized use was clearly within the scope of the original license and the only alleged inappropriateness was continued use of the following work product Fee dispute. "

Jones dismissed the case as unfounded.

The comment and review period for the proposed plan should end last week. The city has presented the plan to stakeholders such as the county and school district. The mayor said everyone involved approves the plan.

"We haven't received any substantial feedback," said Papenfuse. "I think everyone wants to get on as quickly as possible."

Vincent remains concerned that the new plan has been hastily implemented.

"It took me many years to unpack all the layers," he said. “There are functional challenges and it is a challenge to make a robust document. They find that there are dysfunctions within city government that make a complex process much more difficult. "

Prior to his death last week, Reginald Guy Jr., co-founder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Leadership Development Institute and one of the area's most formidable civil rights activists, voiced concerns that the new plan ignored the politics that led to Harrisburg social and economic erosion.

Guy said the original plan contained many of the elements essential to the holistic revitalization of the city: residents' desires, education, health care and economic development.

"It was based on the needs of the residents," said Guy. “It set the community up for economic vitality. It's not a plantation-style experience where the rich man I refer to as the West Shore landlord comes over and picks up the better parts of Harrisburg for a commercial building development. There is a world full of differences. The new plan will open up a lot of land, but without any economic benefit for the residents. "

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