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New proposal looks to create summer pedestrian plaza on Allen Street

by on October 17, 2019 8:47 AM

STATE COLLEGE — A proposal discussed at the Oct. 14 State College Borough Council meeting would turn the 100 block of South Allen Street into a pedestrian plaza — with amenities and entertainment — for eight weeks next spring and summer.

If approved, the “Summers on Allen” project would be in place from May 11, the day after Penn State’s commencement weekend, to July 5, when set up begins for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. The idea is to create a space in the heart of downtown for community members to interact and bring more people downtown during what is typically a slow time of year.

“We’re proposing to transform the 100 block of Allen Street with seating, landscaping, a kid’s play area and a stage for performances,” said Brad Groznik, who presented the proposal to council.

Groznik and his wife, Andrea, are managing the plan with support from Centre Foundation and the Downtown State College Improvement District. The Grozniks are founders of the popular biannual Pop Up Ave urban flea market and Groznik PR, a local public relations and event management company.

Centre Foundation received a grant from the Knight Foundation for the project and in 2018 made a proposal for a six-week pedestrian-only plaza in the summer. That proposal was withdrawn after organizers determined more community engagement was needed. Groznik and Centre Foundation considered a proposal for 2019 but elected not to move forward because of planned roadwork a block east that closed Pugh Street at times this summer.

A public hearing on the new plan is scheduled for borough council’s Dec. 2 meeting, with a potential vote on Dec. 16.

Allen Street is periodically closed to traffic for events throughout the year, and the idea of turning the block into a pedestrian plaza isn’t a new one, but it hasn’t been able to gain traction in the past. In 2012, Borough Council voted to send a pilot project for an Allen Street pedestrian mall to the Downtown State College Improvement District for further discussion. A number of business owners, however, expressed concerns about the measure, believing it would have a negative impact.

This time around, however, Groznik said that of the 22 businesses on the block, 20 have given their approval for the plan. Rapid Transit Sports and Woodrings Floral Gardens did not approve, Groznik said, but he could not speculate on why.

Seating for about 100 people would consist of Adirondack chairs and cafe tables and chairs. Landscaping would be done by Boalsburg-based Landscape II, which transforms the street for Arts Fest.

Restaurants with appropriate permits would create fenced-in areas for outdoor seating of their own.

Groznik showed a fly-through animation explaining the concept but noted the plans are still subject to approvals and could change.

A committee of six to eight people representing borough government, businesses, Penn State and the community will participate in planning for setup and events. Groznik said some possible weekend events include a community dinner, a wellness weekend with yoga and fitness competitions and a local music showcase. Potential weekday events include a family board game night, kids craft time, salsa dancing lessons, Rock Band karaoke contest and a mini-golf tournament.

“We’ll host several brainstormings with the community on what would draw them downtown in May and June,” Groznik said. “And we’ll reach out to nonprofits, businesses and organizations to partner on events and programming.”

The period also covers a time that included several downtown events this past summer — Jana Marie Foundation’s J.A.M. Fest, Happy Valley Music Fest, We Are Weekend, Rotary Ice Cream Fest, Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest and Central PA 4thFest.

He added that they don’t believe there should be constant programming and that the community should also be able to find their own ways to use the space.

Councilwoman Cathy Dauler said she is “intrigued” by the proposal and recommended that, based on other communities with pedestrian plazas, the organizers look at ramping up the programming.

“It’s my understanding the programming is pretty critical to the success, so I urge you to bear that in mind,” she said

To attempt to minimize impact on businesses that receive deliveries on Allen Street, several accommodations would be made. An extended loading zone would be in place in front of the Corner Room on West College Avenue until 10 a.m. each morning. Loading zones would be created near the barriers at College and Beaver. Other loading zones on College and Beaver would remain in place and deliveries would continue on Humes Alley and Kelly Alley.

Businesses, meanwhile, have agreed to arrange major deliveries by 10 a.m. and reduce deliveries on Calder Way by using loading zones on College and Beaver.

DSCID cleaning crews and volunteers will keep the street clean and will empty garbage cans twice a day, Groznik said. They also will be tasked with pruning and watering the landscaping.

A hired security guard will be on hand between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. each night.

Groznik said Alpha Fire Company and Centre LifeLink EMS have approved the set up and that fire trucks and ambulances are able to push through the water barriers that will be at each end of the street. An emergency lane also is built into the design of the plaza.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer was critical of the proposal, complaining that the loss of parking spaces on Allen Street and a few on College Avenue will impact her personal morning routine of going to the Corner Room. She also said all of the activities Groznik mentioned could be held at Sidney Friedman Park “without making every loading zone in the area a disaster.”

“It’s a nice idea, but gridlock, it’s going to be a horror,” Lafer said.

She continued that she believes because part of the closure occurs during the school year, children won’t be around to use the play area. The Knight Foundation grant, she said, should be used to enhance existing programs and spaces instead of closing off a street “and putting a bunch of stuff in there.”

“It’s nothing new. It’s nothing special. It’s merely disruptive,” she said.

Lafer also added that she thinks some businesses that signed off on the plan were “bullied,” but did not explain how or why. Others didn’t care because they rely on walkin traffic, she said.

Councilman Jesse Barlow said he thought it was unlikely that business owners were bullied into agreeing.

“I’m frankly very supportive of this idea and I’ve talked to some merchants there and they don’t strike me as people who are easily coerced,” Barlow said. “They’re, for the most part, very supportive of this idea.”

Councilman Dan Murphy was supportive of the plan and applauded the work that has been done to address questions that have been raised when the idea has been suggested in the past.

“I love the idea,” Murphy said. “I have been eagerly awaiting opportunities for us to expand the opportunity to gather in public spaces in our downtown corridor, where I believe the 100 block of Allen will provide us that opportunity.”

Council President Evan Myers said that part of the borough’s strategic plan is to encourage more outdoor activity as a way of making downtown a destination.

“This community, this council has long considered closing some streets for more than the brief periods of time that we currently do, so this provides a great test to do that,” Myers said. “Many, many other cities have managed to do this successfully, so I think State College can figure it out too. To echo what Mr. Murphy said, I think this is a wonderful idea and I encourage you to continue.”

Councilwoman Janet Engeman said she was concerned about closing a portion of South Allen Street because it is one of only two thoroughfares that directly connects College Avenue and South Atherton Street. She also said she was concerned that the way the street barriers appeared in Groznik’s presentation looked as if people with disabilities would have difficulty crossing the road or entering the plaza.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said assuring accessibility would be a key part of the plan review before it moves forward.

Councilman David Brown did not offer an opinion, but only asked Groznik who he believed will benefit from the pedestrian plaza.

“I believe this will create a significant draw downtown for families living in the Centre Region, to come visit downtown in the month of May and June,” Groznik said. “I believe businesses will see an increase in sales. We feel this will create an opportunity for people to come downtown, experience something new and unique and also participate in a lot of the activities and resources that are here downtown already.”

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Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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