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James Building Replacement to Provide Bridge Between Town and Gown

by and on February 20, 2019 5:00 AM

The James Building is one of a few Penn State locations in the heart of downtown State College, but soon the university plans to tear it down and replace it with a building that will serve as a bridge between the town and the university. 

Happy Valley LaunchBox, the business accelerator that is a signature program of Invent Penn State and is currently housed on Allen Street, will move to the new location on South Burrowes Street. The move will more than triple its space and provide a more welcoming environment to encourage people to stop by and see what is going on, according to university planner Neil Sullivan.

Sullivan presented the plan to the State College Planning Commission on Feb. 6, hoping to get a zoning text amendment to reduce the number of parking spaces to go along with the project.

Sullivan said the university has hired an architect and it recently came up with a unified vision for the project. Penn State hopes to start construction this fall or early next winter and hopes to have an opening in the summer or fall of 2021, but the parking issue must get worked out first.

“First and foremost, we want this building to be — we call it the lighthouse building — a beacon where the university and the community can come together and once they are there, we want them to be able to share knowledge, share ideas and really help take research and ideas and grow businesses that will be a benefit for the region, as well as the State College area,” said Sullivan. “We also think that this building can be the embodiment of an interpretation of a modern-day land-grant mission where we can take the practical application of science and engineering and really roll up our sleeves and help test ideas and take the manifestation of ideas to a real-world application.”
Sullivan said the building could be used in many different ways to encourage collaboration.

“This building is going to help create dialog in its design, where people can come together for event space and come up with collaboration spaces so that they can share ideas,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan added that the hope is to inspire people to come in and see what is happening inside the building.

“We want it to have a feeling of openness, of welcome-ness, so that people walking by the building will feel welcome to just kind of pop in and see what is going on and see about Penn State’s mission, as well as business in the area,” said Sullivan. “We want this building to be cool. You know, we want people to walk by and say cool things are happening here and we are really excited about the architecture team we hired, Kieran Timberlake out of Philadelphia. They do have a lot of experience building these sorts of buildings and we want this building to be something we can be proud of and just be exquisitely designed and we feel we have the right team on board to get this done.”

Plans call for the structure itself to be six or seven stories tall, up to 99 feet high. The number of floors depends on the height of the ceiling, and Sullivan said that different floors will have different heights, but it will all be determined in the future.

Penn State plans to have LaunchBox using two floors, or 30,000 square feet, with the other 65,000 square feet being flexible space, potentially for academic or administrative offices.

The initial plan is to include two levels of underground parking with about 70 spaces, but Penn State is hoping for a zoning text amendment that would allow it to build only one level of underground parking with 35 spaces.

Sullivan said the university has numerous parking areas that are a five-minute walk from the site. He also highlighted the many transit opportunities to the building through buses and campus shuttles, along with the borough parking structures nearby.

Sullivan said that most LaunchBox employees already use borough parking spaces and that most Penn State-associated people have parking spots elsewhere and can walk or take public transit.

“And when people are on the street and walking from their parking to the building, we feel that this will help to contribute to a more vibrant downtown State College that we are happy to support,” said Sullivan.

He said the university has a set budget for the building and that by spending less on the underground parking, the money can be put into the building above ground. He said that early numbers show that the second level of parking would take up about $5 million of the $52 million project budget.

A concern for the Planning Commission on the zoning amendment is what would happen if the usages for the building change and there was a need for more parking. Borough planner Ed LeClear said that if the usage changed, the zoning for the new usage would have to be met before changes could be approved.

Zoning Commission member Mary Maddon noted how many downtown areas are changing zoning requirements as people in business development areas are changing the way they commute, with ride-sharing and biking to work becoming more common.

“It is happening in a lot of different places, especially in a lot of college towns. If people really want parking, the market is going to figure it out. If a builder says I have to have parking to lease this place, then they are going to figure it out and it is a big burden for the municipalities to guesstimate, but I think it is increasingly common for downtown areas to say, ‘We are going to get rid of all of our commercial parking requirements,’” said Maddon.

The building also is expected to be highly efficient with LEED certification.

The existing 30,000 square-foot, two-story brick building was constructed in 1920 and the university says it and its infrastructure “are at the end of their useful lives.” It has been home to The Daily Collegian since 1988.

Penn State began leasing the building in 1988 from the Rider family. In 2009, the university reached an agreement with owner Charles Rider II to exercise an option to buy the property, six years ahead of schedule, for $4.4 million.



This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.



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