By Joe Benish
On July 8, Harrisburg City Council approved a new zoning ordinance; the city’s first major revision in decades, that could end up stifling major new development in some of the city’s blighted areas at the same time when the city is trying to recover from its financial crisis.
In a classic example of “the Law of Unintended Consequences,” one of the major changes in the new zoning map would potential put a chilling effect on a major development project underway to revitalize the former U.S. Postal Service Building and its surrounding area at 815 Market Street, according to developer Adam Meinstein, President of Equilibrium Equities of Blue Bell.
Meinstein purchased the former postal facility with the vision and intent of transforming the industrially-zoned building and its surrounding 700 parking spaces formerly shared by the post office and the Patriot- News. Since purchasing the property he has pursued the mixed use concept by attracting several major businesses to the warehouse space and is marketing the former post office for both retail and office space.
Recognizing the strategic location of the facility adjacent to the City Transportation Center that includes Amtrak and passenger bus service, Meinstein paved and installed state-of-the-art parking equipment, lighting and security for monthly and daily parking. He currently leases about 400 monthly spaces, to state, city and other downtown employees, with about 25 percent of his parking used by transient/daily parkers who use the transportation center.
“Our vision for a true, mixed-use facility that includes industrial, business, retail and parking is coming together. While we are supportive of a new zoning ordinance for the city, the Zoning Code as passed absolutely fails to recognize the hard work and investments by our firm and our tenant s since the time the zoning plan was first brought forth,” Meinstein says.
Because the various uses Meinstein has successfully instituted at the site are not allowed under the new zoning, his entire project is a risk of becoming. ”some odd pre-existing, non-conforming use” that would put the entire future of the project at risk. Some City Council members agree. As a result, Meinstein engaged McNees Wallace & Nurick to prepare and put forward to City Council an amendment that would have allowed the project to proceed.
In its vote on July 8, some members of City Council agreed with Meinstein’s objections. City Councilman Brad Koplinski introduced an amendment that would have grandfathered Meinstein’s current activities into the new ordinance. Koplinski was joined by Council President Wanda Williams and Councilwoman Sandra Reed and spoke in favor of the change. However, other members of council voted against the change, saying the preferred not to single out one specific business for changes over others, this despite input from a number of businesses that the new zoning might require many appeals and exemption requests.
Meinstein was joined by a number of other developers, realtors, business owners and residents at two public hearings in June, where many expressed concerns about the haste in which City Council was proceeding to enact the new zoning. One member of the Harrisburg 2020 committee noted that the process was “backwards” from normal city planning, with Council speeding to enact new zoning and later doing a comprehensive two-year planning process for the city.
With Meinstein’s efforts to successfully transform a previously vacant and deteriorating property into new development that could, over the next several years, help transform the area between the train station and Cameron Street, some questioned the city’s motives in taking action now. One economic development official, who asked not to be identified, speculated that Meinstein’s success in providing affordable parking to downtown workers was in direct competition with the city’s new parking vendor, Standard Parking and could have been a factor. While Meinstein rejected that notion, others raised the question.
While the new zoning changes won’t go into effect for six months, Meinstein says he is working with his attorneys to see what can be done to allow him to proceed. In the meantime, he noted that he is currently leasing some 30,000 square feet of space to several major city companies, including Exhibit Studios and Chef’s Choice, a restaurant equipment company.
In addition, Weinstein recently provided free warehouse space to the city to save and store 80 murals from the Mulberry Bridge as it is being rebuilt. He also was able to accommodate Volunteers of America with more than 8,000 square feet of space after the non-profit’s facility OFF of Cameron Street was destroyed by fire.
“We came to Harrisburg and invested private dollars at a difficult time in the city’s history,” Meinstein noted. “To-date our efforts have been successful. In the short-term we will continue to work with the city to see how our future plans will be affected and try to work on a solution.” It would be a shame to lose the momentum we’ve started that could transform an important part of the newly zoned downtown, “Meinstein said.
Local economic experts, including some members of the Harrisburg 2020 committee agree. Since the objectives of economic development are to help grow existing business, retain existing business and attract new businesses, Meinstein project is considered a success because it does all three. His vision includes an urban, mixed-use neighborhood that will evolve, over time, into a thriving section, rather than another blighted neighborhood.
Meinstein also noted that the future development of the Transportation Center, which is landlocked, is directly tied to the future of his property. “There is a physical connection, and as the Transportation Centeremerges over the years into a truly intermodal facility, the surrounding properties and business will grow and expand. We want to be a part of that,” he said.