Front Street, and its relationship to Riverfront Park, the City’s “front porch”, is perhaps Harrisburg’s most iconic trademark.
Once lined with residential homes of architectural note, factors such as the arterial emergence of the Front Street highway corridor, suburban flight, and the desire for more of a cohesively laid out residential area, resulted in Front Streets’ shift away from single family homes.
With this change in land use was the coincidental ravage beginning in the late 1960’s of the Dutch Elm Disease that killed many of the stately elms consistently planted on both sides of the street, which had been a marvelous canopy of green leading from the city line southward. While attempts have been made over the years to reestablish tree plantings, they have been inconsistent in spacing and species types. Also, underground utilities may have precluded the ability to restore the sentinel of trees as before.
It can be debated whether the elm tree canopy should be recreated versus a variety of ornamental and shade trees, no matter how haphazardly planted, with openings to provide unobstructed views of the river and islands. Both have merit and can be open for dialogue.
But what should be ironclad is the protection of Front Street’s unique appearance where the shift away from single family homes can be compatible with the street’s historic character and beauty.
Riverfront Park originally consisted of several open reserves running from Paxton Street to South Street, the latter two streets being the northern and southern boundaries of the borough. This linear stretch was expanded north to Herr Street when annexed by the borough in 1838. Above Herr Street to Calder Street was the “Hardscrabble” neighborhood and north of that was primarily rural with scattered Front Street homes along the river bank which, as farther south, was unimproved and used as dumping grounds.
The Warren Manning plan of 1901 through the original City Beautiful Movement proposed a unified Riverfront Park northward to the city line which, at that time, was Division Street. In so doing, this plan would rely not only upon funds for acquisition as approved in the original bond issue, but also upon the generosity of adjacent Front Street property owners and others who owned at that time, and subsequently donated, riverbank lands. Later donations of land included that of the McKee Graham estate in 1923 including the riverbank between Division Street and what had become the Harrisburg Academy several blocks to the north. And from there to city line, annexed in 1917, the park’s northward march was completed in response to the donation in 1912 by James McCormick of the 101-acre McCormick’s Island.
So Riverfront Park became the anchor for the ensuing park development and the initial key to the “urban necklace “ parkway system now known as the Capital Area Greenbelt.
While it is acknowledged that important challenges for the future will be the ongoing maintenance of the Park, and particularly of the removal of scrub trees growing up from the riverbank which block views of the river as well as repairing the iconic river steps that are deteriorating in many places, the character of Fronts Street must be preserved.
Balancing commercial and office requirements with the inherent architectural character of the street has been a goal through its long-term designation as a Special Planned Development (SPD) zone and now under the proposed zoning as a Riverfront (RF) zone.
The SPD Zone language has been very clear about respecting the street’s architecture as excerpted as follows:
“Any existing building, to achieve an appropriate and viable adaptive reuse that meets modern commercial/office needs (such as HVAC facilities or meeting space) that will result in reinvestment and accurate rehabilitation of Front Street mansions, may be altered, expanded, or enlarged, so long as the improvement does not alter the view of the original building or structure as seen from Front Street.”
Under the proposed code, the Riverfront District is not classified as a commercial zone but as a “Special District” the purpose for which is “to recognize the historical importance of Riverfront Park and to preserve the character of development along Front Street and the portion of State Street between Riverfront Park and the Capitol. Development standards, signage, and off-street parking requirements are designed to minimize impacts and are more restrictive than other zoning districts as a result.”
These provisions could be viewed as an invitation to consider the extension of the city’s municipal historic district to include Front Street from Reily Street, the northern terminus of the present district along Front Street, northward to city line.
Had the district already been in place, the several year-long controversy over the demolition of three mansions in the 2900 block for a mid-rise condominium project may never have been as protracted as what ensued. Even more at hand is the recently disclosed plans of River Plaza to demolish the next door Italianate-styled Christian Brinser Mansion completed in 1913 at 2301 N. Front Street for surface parking, the first time in many decades that a Front Street home would be lost. While it has been known that pressures could be waged upon the homes on the west side of N. Second Street for Front Street accessory parking, it would be unprecedented in recent memory that a historic Front Street building would be lost. It is interesting that the 60-yearold River Plaza, controversially built in the early 1950’s as being too massive for the neighborhood, now finds itself in need of more parking six decades later.
It is most surprising with the level of historic preservation activity that the city has enjoyed over the past several decades that historic district status has not already been conferred on this most significant street.
After dealing with a string of controversies, including the United Way’s proposal a number of years ago to demolish what is now the Milestone Inn for its new headquarters (ultimately aborted through public outcry), it may now be the time to further protect what helps make the city unique by giving Front Street and Riverfront Park the municipal historic district status it deserves.