Appalachian Land & Conservation Services Co., LLC

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As I See It

May 3, 2005

Keep the Mansions, But Make Them Condos

By Josh First

Patriot News

Mary Knackstedt's proposal to demolish three signature and historic mansions on Harrisburg's attractive gateway community of Front Street in order to build a modern structure raises tough questions about urban redevelopment.

Republican and Democratic administrations, the environmental community, and "green developers" like myself have long touted urban redevelopment and "smart growth" as a major solution to the very real problem of suburban sprawl development. After all, redeveloping inner cities into attractive places to live and work will ensure that surrounding undeveloped green spaces are used up only when necessary.

That's the theory, anyhow. Knackstedt's redevelopment proposal challenges the assumptions behind the theory and poses some questions that must be dealt with fairly and honestly.

Harrisburg is no different from so many other historic cities nationwide with many formerly magnificent, but currently dilapidated historic buildings, surrounding suburban sprawl, and just a couple of key residential "anchor" communities. One of those few anchor communities is Uptown, which Knackstedt will alter forever if her proposal is fully implemented.

But Harrisburg cannot afford to lose Uptown's appropriate redevelopment momentum led by local entrepreneurs like Alex Hartzler and the late John Vartan, whose love for the city and passion for combining good deeds and good business led to rediscovery of the city's greatness by so many families.

While Knackstedt's proposal addresses some of the public's concerns about aesthetic appearance, she has maintained a tin ear regarding traffic safety, environmental issues and overall neighborhood function concerns -- the core of public interest in the mansions' disposition. Even in farm country you can't just do whatever you want with your property; there are always some public interests that must be considered. All the more so is this true inside a key neighborhood.

A balance must be struck between Knackstedt's private property rights and the demonstrably significant public interest in preserving the appearance, function and safety of Harrisburg's main gateway corridor. So many families' investments and futures depend on getting this particular project right. That balance means that Knackstedt should be able to do something with the mansions, and also that the community should have a lot to say about it.

Knackstedt recently was generous enough to spend two hours with me and a handful of other interested citizens. She graciously led us on a tour of all three buildings and answered most of the questions we asked. I grew up in the building trade and from the basements to the attics, I saw nothing indicating that the mansions are in such a state of disrepair that they should be demolished.

In particular, the historic federal-style home that Knackstedt lives and works in is in such outstanding condition that I offered to purchase it from her (my wife and I have been trying to purchase a large home in Uptown for years and hers is perfect). Tearing this one down or gutting it is unnecessary and would be a crime, in my opinion.

The other two (stone) mansions have lost some or much of their residential utility and charm, but each can be turned into condominiums in their current condition. Even better would be for Knackstedt to follow the trend of some other cities that have successfully grappled with this same historic preservation vs. economic development (urban redevelopment) conundrum.

In places like Boston and Washington, historic facades and entire blocks of historic buildings have been incorporated into new, modern construction in such a way as to preserve the feel, appearance, and function of the neighborhood without sacrificing private property rights, and while also promoting economic development. It's a successful mix.

That kind of design seems like a logical and fair solution to Knackstedt's proposal. Gutting and redeveloping the two stone mansions, and then linking them together with three or four floors of modern construction that incorporates Knackstedt's currently proposed design elements would be a significant win-win solution and would meet everyone's goals. CURRENTLY, IT LOOKS like the situation is headed toward a lose-lose result, where everyone loses. The situation calls for leadership, vision and good will.

After all of the hard work by so many to keep the city alive, Harrisburg deserves nothing less. Being an aesthete herself, Mary Knackstedt knows that better than anyone.

JOSH FIRST is president and CEO of Appalachian Land & Conservation Services Co.

Copyright 2005 The Patriot-News. Used with permission.
Appalachian's president, Josh First, was actively engaged in getting this legislation passed for two-and-a-half years.  For more than a year he served as the coordinator of the Abandoned Mine Lands Campaign, and then spent more time drumming up grass roots support for the legislation as a member of the coalition and as a contractor for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.  "I am proud to have worked closely with such a fine group from the environmental and coal field communities," said First.  "This is a win-win for both the environment and for coal operators, who will now get the support they need to aggressively re-mine abandoned mine lands and simultaneously reclaim them and beautify them."
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P.O. Box 5128

Harrisburg, PA 17110

Phone: (717) 232-8335