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Developer Seeks Ordinance Changes to Expand State College Business District

by on September 04, 2014 6:00 AM

A developer and architect who want some fairly dramatic changes to current zoning rules have taken their campaign another step forward.

They're pushing for ordinance amendments that would to allow an expansion of the downtown State College commercial area. That's intended to increase retail space and professional housing along College Avenue.

On Wednesday, for the second time in two months, the State College Planning Commission listened to details of a proposal from Jeff Haas, owner of 538 E. College Ave., the site of Kildare's, and Alan Schlossberg with architectural firm Perkins Eastman.

Haas and Schlossberg have proposed ordinance amendments to create what would be known as the Collegiate Housing Overlay, which would alter restrictions on building height and the number of parking spaces.

Haas and Schlossberg say the changes would help ensure completion of the borough's long-term downtown master plan, which includes redeveloping College Avenue from Garner Street to University Drive.

"We're trying to move this particular district of the downtown from a fairly low value for the development community and borough to a more modest or high performing value for both perspectives," says Schlossberg.

The Collegiate Housing Overlay draft proposal would allow unique requirements for apartment building sites with ground floor retail space, including building façade guidelines and developer incentives.

For example, in exchange for a site that includes underground parking, an emphasis on professional and graduate housing, increased sidewalk space on College Avenue, or a certified environmentally friendly structure, developers could be rewarded with an increase in building height, an increase in overall square footage, and/or a reduction in the required number of parking spaces.

Under the proposal, building height would move from 65 feet to 97 feet as a base maximum, with the opportunity to build up to 155 feet, or 13 stories, if the developer incorporates some of those incentives. The more professional housing the developer includes, the higher the developer could make the building.

The proposal also adjusts the Floor Area Ratio requirements, or FAR, which is a ratio of the total floor area of a building divided by the total area of the lot where the building will be located. For example, Schlossberg says on a 1,000 square-foot lot, a FAR 5 would mean a developer could design a building with a maximum of 5,000 square feet. Under the proposal, developers can increase FAR in exchange for incentives, such as wider sidewalks or more units designated as professional housing.

In terms of parking, generally the borough requires 1 space per 800-square-feet in a commercial district. Under the proposal, the base requirement would be 1.5 spaces per professional unit and a minimum of one space per three student beds with additional alterations in exchange for incentives.

Even with incentives, the proposal allows no less than one space per professional unit and no less than one space for every four student beds.

In July, Schlossberg said the targeted area is currently fragmented and not pedestrian-friendly due to higher vehicle traffic and a shortage of pedestrian crossings. The district also features apartment buildings with adjacent parking lots and little commercial activity. He says improving sidewalks, crosswalks and intersections and adding more commercial opportunities in the district could expand State College's downtown pedestrian-friendly experience.

By making adjustments to height and parking restrictions, Haas and Schlossberg say developers could create buildings featuring first-floor retail space, a few levels of parking and then several levels of residential space, which would eliminate the need for exterior surface parking lots and maintain levels of revenue through more rental units.

Wednesday's meeting was informational and gave planning commission members another opportunity to ask Haas and Schlossberg questions about the proposal.

"I like the idea, I think we just need to think about the numbers," says Chairman Mike Roeckel.

The planning commission and the borough's planning staff intend to further review the proposal.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government.
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