Amid Opposition, Allen Street Pedestrian Mall Idea Resurfaces at Council
Despite being met with harmonious opposition from local business owners on the block, Borough Council voted Monday night to send the idea of an Allen Street pedestrian mall pilot program to the Downtown State College Improvement District for further discussion.
The vote passes 6-1 at Council's general meeting Monday night in the Municipal Building. More than a dozen chairs were filled in a general seating area that is usually closer to vacant. Several business owners, officials and residents were in attendance to make their opinion heard regarding the idea of a pedestrian mall.
The project would start as a pilot only, to see if it would even be successful downtown, but many local business owners have heard the idea kicked around before. They didn't like it then and they don't like it now.
George Arnold, Executive Director of the Downtown Improvement District, said he and many of the local business owners on South Allen Street had the intention of taking the idea off the table completely. Arnold said during special events or other times when Allen Street is closed, retailers in the area are negatively affected – so much so that a pedestrian mall has the potential to basically freeze business in the area.
Foot traffic would be slowed and with construction taking up the far end of West College, a closed-off pedestrian mall could isolate customers and make downtown State College in the summer more of a ghost town than anything else.
There's the potential to isolate and eventually drive out local business in the area, Arnold said.
"You might as well say, don't come downtown," Bob Steinbach said. Steinbach owns Connections, on 130 S. Allen St. and was one of the many opponents of a pedestrian mall in the area. "Who is crying for this," he asked.
Mike Desmond, owner of Hotel State College, 100 West College Ave., addressed Council Monday night and spoke on behalf of many local business owners.
"Up and down the street, there's diversity. I think the 17 store fronts (on Allen Steet) are independent small businesses," Desmond said.
"I question really the process, I question the tone here – that retail owners may not be as valid or even have a greater voice," he said. "Often, the business community is not called on as an opinion, we're not treated as a resource,"
"Please treat business owners as respected partners," he said.
Desmond said there needs to be more discussion and consensus-building before Council should even consider moving ahead with the pilot project.
Councilman Peter Morris proposed closing the 100 block of South Allen Street to launch the pilot project, and said Monday there's no way to know if it will be successful until it is tried out.
"I don't see how we can sit in this room and reason about this – I don't think we know. I think a pilot project is the best way to find out," Morris said.
"In the summer of 2013 we close the street, encourage businesses to move out onto the street and see what happens. If it's done for the summer, I don't think it could be a disaster... I could be wrong," Morris said.
Council president Don Hahn said he was opposed to the measure, on the reason that downtown State College already has "a tremendous infrastructure that is intended to serve a much larger audience."
"I'm rather saddened that it seems to be under-utilizied in the summer," Hahn said. "I think that it's very important that some message goes out to the surrounding community that downtown State College, during the summer, is a great place to be."
A few local business owners, notably one of the owners of Freeze Thaw Cycles, 109 S. Allen St., supported the measure, saying it would make the downtown "more livable."
Opponents outnumbered supporters at the Council meeting Monday night, however. Matt Patterson, the owner of Jersey Mike's Subs, said even though he only opened his doors in January, he has a sense of the downtown – and it doesn't need a pedestrian mall.
"Honestly, I don't know what their intention is," Patterson said. "I don't know that that would positively impact my business ... It's taking away more convenience. It's not realistic."
No definitive dates have yet been set by the Downtown Improvement District for further discussion.