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Planning Commission has Mixed Viewpoints on College Heights School

by on February 20, 2014 9:43 PM

The State College Planning Commission has mixed viewpoints in terms of what recommendation it will provide Borough Council in regards to the future for College Heights School.

The Planning Commission Thursday night discussed the pending sale of College Heights School by the State College Area School District to Penn State University.

The borough recently received notice from the school board that the district has entered into an agreement with Penn State for the sale of the College Heights School for $400,000. The borough has first right to refusal on all school district properties located within the borough, which Borough Council is currently considering.

As part of that consideration, a state code requires borough and county planning commissions to make recommendations when it comes to the sale of a school property. The borough has six months to decide if it wants to exercise its right to take ownership of the property.

The Planning Commission discussed possibilities for the property, with member Anita Genger saying she does not want to see the property go to Penn State.

"Penn State isn't the ideal buyer here, for one thing they own more than half of the borough already and they have plenty of land," Genger says. "There's plenty of other places to put office buildings."

Instead, Genger says she would rather the borough purchase the property so that the borough can determine the use as she considers it a historic landmark for the community.

Specifically, she proposed the borough keep the property and share use with a non-profit group. She also suggested the borough consider a plan that turns the property into housing for those on a fixed-income, such as the elderly or disabled.

Additionally, member Jon Eich says a non-profit, for which he previously served as a board member, is also interested in purchasing the school building.

Currently, the building is not used as a school, but as office space for the school district. The university intends to use the property for University Press offices.

The College Heights School was built in 1931 and was once an elementary school. The property, located at 721 N Atherton St., includes a 14,000 square-foot structure sitting on two acres of prime real estate.

The Planning Commission also discussed the possibility asking the school district to amend the sale agreement with Penn State so that the university agrees to keep the building's façade as is and agrees not to construct any new buildings at the site.

"I really support the historic preservation of that building. I would like to do whatever we can to keep the façade," says member Zoe Boniface. "If Penn State bought it, I think I like the idea of putting some easements into the agreement to protect the borough for the preservation of the façade."

The commission is set to further discuss the matter at its March 5 meeting before making a final recommendation to Borough Council.

The school is located in a residential zone, which permits public schools as well as conversion of an existing school district building by "special exception" to one of the following:

- Private day or residential school

- Professional office

- Medical office

- Elderly or disabled housing

- Personal care boarding home

- Public or private library

- Performing arts center, museum or gallery

- Day care

- Neighborhood center

The borough's Zoning Hearing Board can approve a special exception if requested.

The school board says it has informally approved the sale, with the expectation that it will take formal action during a regular public meeting once the borough makes a decision.

The school board says the College Heights building was not on the market, but the district receives periodic inquiries from prospective purchasers and has provided tours of the property to all potential buyers.

The district says Penn State's offer is the only offer that has been made for the property. The district says the offer was in line with the most recent appraisal of the property from October 2012, performed by Chris Aumiller, a state certified appraiser.

The market value assessed in 1995 was considerably higher, the district says, but the condition of the building as evaluated by the appraiser in 2012 more accurately reflects its current condition and value.

The district says the 1995 reassessment considered the College Heights School as a commercial building without regard to the residential zoning restrictions of the location, meaning the reassessment focused on the income-generating potential of the property only.

Land for the school building was sold in 1922 to what was then known as the School District of the Borough of State College by Adam and Rebecca Krumrine for $1. The deed stipulated that the plot "is to be used for school purposes and a school building is to be erected ..."

Earlier this month, through a voice vote and without opposition, State College Borough Council agreed to further review the matter. Several council members said the borough should create opportunities for the public to weigh in on the issue before council makes a decision.

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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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