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State College Considers Street, Sidewalk Changes to Improve Social Distancing During Pandemic

by on June 16, 2020 6:43 PM

As Downtown State College opens up and tens of thousands of Penn State students get set to return to campus in August amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the borough is looking at ways to increase social distancing in public spaces downtown.

At Monday night's borough council meeting, planning director Ed LeClear gave a brief presentation on the "State College Pedestrian Safety  & Social Distancing Project," a conceptual overview of potential ways to temporarily utilize street space to widen walkways.

The project has two potential components. One would convert the 100 block of South Allen Street to one-way southbound for vehicle traffic, remove the parking lanes and widen the walkways on both sides of the street.

The other would eliminate the south side parking lane on College Avenue and the parking lane on Beaver Avenue in order to widen the walkways for the length of both streets in the downtown core, between High and Atherton Streets.

LeClear said the borough's engineering, parking, planning and communications departments have been working on the project. Many other municipalities have already undertaken similar measures, and borough staff have been looking at examples of best practices nationally.

"I think we all know we’re limited by a very linear downtown and with very narrow streets, relatively speaking, and with limitations because both Beaver and College avenues are PennDOT rights of way. So we lose some control of what we can do there," LeClear said.

He did not propose specific technical improvements and said more details would be presented in July.

"We wanted to talk about this at a 30,000-foot level conceptually," LeClear said.

For Allen Street, the cost is estimated at about $21,100.

College and Beaver are more complicated. They would involve completing PennDOT's design, engineering and permitting requirements — a process that could take several months and cost about $25,000. The College Avenue parking lane conversion is estimated to cost $178,190 and for Beaver Avenue it's estimated at $87,950. The projects also would include a $32,314 contingency.

LeClear said in response to a question from Councilwoman Janet Engeman that the estimates do not factor in lost revenue from the removal of parking.

Along Beaver and College avenues, PennDOT's rights of way would require a concrete or fillable plastic barrier between the walkway and roadway. 

LeClear said the two potential plans were developed after working with the Downtown State College Improvement District and surveying downtown business owners. Out of 86 respondents about 60 percent said they supported some temporary changes to improve downtown safety.

"This was not an overwhelming response and I think all of council knows these topics have been a point of very strong opinions on both sides for decades," he said.

DSCID is "generally supportive" of the proposed measures, LeClear added, but is not in favor of making any other north-south streets, outside of Allen, one-way.

"This was very much understood to be a temporary measure, only for the life of the COVID emergency," LeClear said. "[It’s] also something we would be testing. So if it was not working or created unintended consequences we could remove those restrictions quickly." 

The borough is also looking at temporarily relaxing zoning regulations on private property to allow for a reduction in required parking spaces, and through the temporary use permit process allowing for temporary outdoor dining and retail utilizing private parking areas for outdoor dining and retail. Those would primarily apply to shopping centers in the borough and outside the downtown, such as Westerly Parkway Plaza, Hamilton Square and the plaza at 1341 S. Atherton St. where businesses like Papa John's and Talbot's are located.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said she had no problem trying the Allen Street project but did not think it was reasonable to spend the more than $300,000 on the College and Beaver changes.

She added that she believes Penn State students “are going to take up every inch that we allow them as pedestrian space,” and that she does not have much confidence they will abide by social distancing and masking guidelines.

"I do not believe based on the behavior they’ve shown on the last two weekends that they will use those masks they will supposedly be provided, and certainly not off campus," she said. "Maybe they will stay safer than I expect, but I think the idea we can get 6 feet or 4 feet or even 2 feet between people properly masked is a fantasy."

"I’m perfectly fine okaying the attempt on Allen Street and using it as a test zone but I vehemently dislike the concept of spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars on what I think is a wasted effort. With that many students in town, there’s no way that we can make it safe to walk on our sidewalks. It’s just physically not possible even if we closed down the street entirely."

Councilmen Evan Myers and Peter Marshall both said the borough should still develop the plans for Beaver and College so they are ready if it is determined they are needed.

"I think at the very least we should prepare ourselves for that," Marshall said. "I know how congested College Avenue can get with pedestrians. We may very well have to do something."

Community member Leslie Laing said she did not believe widening walkways would prevent the spread of COVID-19. The money, she said, could be used toward a permanent homeless shelter.

"I think ... we should value human life over the expansion of sidewalks," Laing said.

Marshall said protecting people from COVID-19 is valuing human life.

"We have no vaccine or anything for COVID," Marshall said. "The only things we can do to slow the infections are social distancing and masks. We are thinking about people and the safety of people in State College by allowing more room for pedestrians."

State College previously allocated money from its Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act Community Development Block Grant Funding to rent and mortgage assistance, homelessness programs and other human services programs, Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said.

Centre County is now eligible for $14.7 million in CARES Act funding allocated by the state, which Fountaine said must be used for projects specifically related to COVID-19 response. State College submitted a list of four projects to the county for consideration, including $355,000 for the street and sidewalk proposal. The borough also requested $250,000 to be paired with money already set aside by the Redevelopment Authority for small business grants; $225,000 for personal protective equipment and facility modifications; and additional funding to hire contact tracers.

"We don't have any expectation that all of that would be funded and those are not in any priority," Fountaine said. "That is just the list that was submitted."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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