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HFL Chairman Speaks: 'We Cannot Discriminate against Students'

on November 10, 2010 7:50 AM

It isn't looking to sell the land. In fact, it doesn't plan to do anything at all.

Now that State College officials have effectively blocked an HFL Corporation redevelopment proposal for 254 E. Beaver Ave., the downtown-based company has no plans whatsoever for the property, HFL board Chairman Henry Sahakian told StateCollege.com.

"If they don't want it, they don't need the tax money, that's fine with us," Sahakian said Tuesday, referring to the eight-level apartment building that HFL had proposed.

Of borough officials who have panned the student-oriented concept, Sahakian said he thinks "they are looking at the wrong reason."

"They are turning it down because they are saying a concentration of students in that area will create more problems," he said. "The problems are not created because there's a concentration of students. We do have a concentration of students on the east side of Garner Street; there is no rioting going on there."

In truth, Sahakian suggested, the root of most student misbehavior in town is not housing density but drinking.

He also tweaked some relative newcomers to State College for coming "in from the outside and (criticizing) us." Sahakian, a longtime businessman and developer in town, has lived in the region since 1960 and has helped develop a variety of student-oriented housing in the downtown. HFL's recent apartment projects include two newer buildings on the 100 block of South Garner Street.

"I live here because I love this town. I cherish what this town is all about, and the university," Sahakian said. "I just have a different view than a lot of other people who have not been here in this town for that long. They  have not seen how this town has evolved and developed.

"They can come in from the outside and criticize if they want to," Sahakian said. "But the inner workings of where we were and where we are today -- State College is still considered one of the safest towns in all of the United States. ... If they don't like it here, they shouldn't come here."

HFL's property at 254 E. Beaver Ave. is situated at the southwest corner of East Beaver Avenue and Locust Lane. It sits on the western edge of the area known unofficially as "Beaver Canyon," a stretch of off-campus student housing between South Garner and South Pugh streets.

It has seen occasional civil disturbances -- sometimes called riots -- in the past decade. But a review of police data suggests that crime and misbehavior, on a per-apartment basis, are no more likely in the buildings there than they are in the student residences elsewhere in town.

The apartment buildings surrounding 254 E. Beaver Ave. range in height from four to 12 stories, with a collective average of 7.6 stories, Sahakian noted. The HFL proposal includes six stories of apartments, one floor of commercial and community space, and one level of parking.

In all, the building would have included 42 four-bedroom apartments and generated $175,000 in annual property-tax revenue, including $37,000 for the borough, Sahakian has said. It would have replaced the former Kappa Sigma fraternity house that sits on the property now. Most of the three-level former fraternity is vacant and boarded up, though its street-level space houses Canyon Pizza, the Grillers restaurant and Sozo Institute of the Arts.

To enable the HFL project, the borough would need to rezone the land from its current, small-scale residential category to a more commercial designation -- similar to the surrounding apartment properties. HFL has requested such a change.

But so far, the borough Planning Commission has been unable to agree on how the land should be rezoned. Many commissioners, voicing angst about housing density and its effect on the nearby Highlands neighborhood, seemed unwilling to endorse any redevelopment there that would be higher than five stories.

A majority of the Borough Council has staked out a similar position, though its discussions on the subject are ongoing. Right now, it's looking at a new, residential-office-overlay designation that would cap redevelopment at 254 E. Beaver Ave. at five stories. The overlay designation would extend east along the south side of Beaver Avenue to South Garner Street, limiting any future redevelopment of the Beaver Canyon apartment properties there.

Because those properties between Locust Lane and South Garner Street won't be redeveloped in the foreseeable future, Sahakian said adoption of the ROO would be, in effect, a "spot zoning of our property" at 254 E. Beaver Ave. He would rather see a simple extension of the commercial zoning that already neighbors the HFL property.

The ROO designation would have no impact on HFL's redevelopment prospects there, he said.

And inhibiting the ample development of student housing, Sahakian said, is just unfair. He said about 65 percent of borough residents are students.

"We cannot discriminate against students," Sahakian said. "Students are a big part of this community."

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