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Borough Residents Divided on Proposal for Taller Buildings on East College Ave

by on April 13, 2015 10:03 PM

State College is sharply divided about a proposal that would allow taller residential buildings on the 500 block of East College Avenue.

A public forum on the proposed “Collegiate Housing Overlay” held at Monday’s State College borough council meeting featured a lively mix of criticism and support, though the scales seemed to tip in favor of the opposition.

The proposed overlay has been a topic of discussion at various State College boards and commissions since last summer, when developer Jeff Haas first brought his idea to State College Borough Council. 

At Monday’s council meeting, Haas described his vision for a new zoning amendment that would encourage “ecofriendly, attractive, high quality buildings” at a “main gateway to downtown.” 

According to borough planning director Ed LeClear, the zoning amendment would require buildings on the 500 block of East College Avenue to have ground floor commercial space. Buildings could be up to nine stories tall at 102 feet, as opposed to the current zoning that caps buildings at seven stories and 65 feet. Incentives built into the ordinance would encourage developers to use sustainable building materials and practices and include graduate student and professional housing.

Borough resident Peg Hambrick was the first to fire off some harsh words for the proposed ordinance, calling it a “patchwork quilt amendment” that doesn’t plan well for the future of State College. 

Hambrick said she’d rather see the borough planning commission spend its time on the “long overdue” comprehensive zoning update instead of focusing on one or two blocks at a time. She also raised concerns that there aren’t enough economic opportunities to support the kind of professional housing that the borough council has been pushing for.

“If we really want to attract young professionals, we need economic development first so that there are job opportunities here,” Hambrick said.

Janet Engeman – who is running for a council seat – also voiced concerns, saying the borough is in desperate need of a comprehensive look at zoning. She also wants to see a traffic impact study for the kind of developments allowed under the overlay proposal.

But planning commission chairman Michael Roeckel (who spoke in favor of the amendment as a borough resident) pointed out that the comprehensive zoning rewrite is a lengthy, multi-year process that hasn’t even begun.

“If the rewrite was something that was going to be done soon, it would make sense to wait,” Roeckel said. “But this is going to take years to finish. Do we not want to do anything until then?"

Pat Vernon, another familiar face at council meetings, also voiced support for the proposed overlay. He said the State College government is clearly in need of increased revenues, as evidenced by the tax increase passed by borough council a few months back. Vernon sees the proposed overlay as a way to expand the borough’s tax base while also preventing “student suburban sprawl.”

“If you need more tax revenues, your properties can only go up,” Vernon said. “Vibrant downtowns make vibrant communities.”

Borough council will debate the collegiate housing overlay on May 4, at which point the council may choose to pass, vote down, or delay making a decision about the proposal.

Borough planner Megan Tuttle also briefed the borough council about the possibilities for the former Verizon Building at 224 South Allen Street.

Tuttle said that the Discovery Space children’s museum first approached the borough about moving into the 10,000 square foot space, which kicked off the borough’s effort to figure out the building's future. The Discovery Space has requested the space for either free or at a discounted rental rate to allow it to expand the museum and programming options.

Penn State, which currently rents the building for office space, has also asked the borough to consider a new proposal. Tuttle said Penn State wants to use the space to house its new "InnovatePSU" initiative, which would be a community resource to support start-ups and entrepreneurship.

According to Tuttle, borough staffers have also discussed a “public-private partnership” inside the former Verizon Building – which could theoretically include the Discovery Space, a commercial entity and/or residential housing. A community organization called Third Revolution has also expressed interest in the space as a potential entrepreneurial center for students and business leaders.

Council members seemed torn about the different proposals, recognizing that each one could be beneficial to downtown State College.

“Can we do it all?” council member Evan Myers said. “Everything that’s been proposed seems to bring a lot of value.”

The borough council will return to the conversation about the Discovery Space on May 4, when council members may make a decision on the building.


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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