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State College Planning for Fairmount Redevelopment Area

by and on September 04, 2019 11:19 AM

With State College Area School District's Fairmount Building to be potentially out of commission in the next year, State College Borough is discussing making the area around the building a new redevelopment district, with a goal of expanding this part of town as transition area that could be an arts, cultural and civic hub for the community and encourage opportunities for professional and workforce housing in the heart of town.

The proposed Fairmount Civic District Certified Redevelopment Area was presented to the planning commission at its Aug. 22 meeting. Originally the plan was part of the larger Fairmount Civic District Area that was discussed as far back 2007, but it was broken off into two phases — the first being the Allen Street Civic District, which includes the plans for the 200 block of South Allen Street, including the former Verizon Building.

The Allen Street Civic District, now known as the State College Town Centre project, moved forward this summer as borough council authorized the Redevelopment Authority to transfer two parcels to Highland Holding Company, which was selected in 2017 as the project developer. Plans included a new seven-story building with a cafe, hotel, apartments and a rooftop restaurant on the site of the current metered parking lot next to Cozy Thai, and a six-story building at 224 S. Allen St. with a restaurant incubator and food hall, community tenant space and co-working or office space. Other properties could be added to the project if they can be acquired.

Phase 2, or the Fairmount Civic District Certified Redevelopment Area includes the area of West Foster Avenue to the north, South Allen Street to the east, West Fairmount Avenue to the south and South Fraser Street to the west.

Along with the Fairmount Building, it contains 23 tax parcels for a total of 12.4 acres, including public right of ways, sidewalks and alleyways. The talks come in preparation of the potential purchase of the Fairmount Building by the borough from SCASD.

The 105-year-old Fairmount Building was long ago the home of State College High School. More recently it was home to the Delta Program, which in August moved to a new building at the high school's north campus on Westerly Parkway, as well as some smaller programs that for now continue to operate there.

“We have this potential surplus property with the Fairmont School. Originally, staff thought that SCASD would be getting rid of this property relatively soon, but it turns out they might need it and hold on to it for a little bit longer. We still don’t know how long that is going to be. The Redevelopment Authority is doing their work to prepare for that,” said borough planner Jenna Wargo.

She said they are preparing to have an architect look at the property and to conduct a feasibility study.

The borough has the right of first refusal on the Fairmount Building and the redevelopment plan is a way to be prepared if the borough does move forward, said borough planning director Ed LeClear. If the school is to be purchased, there would then be a development proposal to go along with the plan.

“If we end up in a situation where we may end up purchasing properties in the district, and again this is all set up to be ahead of the game as far as dealing with the Fairmount school, we would then discuss a proposal at that time,” said LeClear.

LeClear said the school district is planning on using the building for some programs for at least another year, at which point the borough might purchase the building. But they are working to get enough information to decide if they would purchase the building.

“We have an appraisal on it and understand that the school district will be operating out of it for at least another year, and has programs that will still operate even through Delta is moving to the north campus. We are trying to anticipate having enough information so we can go to council and make a good decision,” said LeClear.

SCASD Superintendent Bob O'Donnell said last week that the district has not had any formal discussions yet about the future of the building.

"There’s a lot of thought but there’s not been any official planning with the [school] board," O'Donnell said. "There are people in the community who have reached out to express interest and ask questions, but no, we’ve not engaged in any process for where Fairmount goes from here. We do not need the facility for any of our programs [in the future]. It does sit next to our [Memorial Field], so we have a deep interest in regard to what happens on that site. We will explore all the options and look for direction from our board regarding where we go with that." 

The 2013 Downtown Master Plan recommendation for the area along Allen Street is to “enhance the area as a civic district with appropriately scaled mixed use buildings which would create a transition between the 100 and 300 blocks of downtowns and contribute to a downtown environment.”

“This is going to be a hot topic area and something that we are going to have to think about when we create this plan and what is an appropriate use and what can go in this area,” said Wargo.

Per the Pennsylvania Urban Redevelopment Law, certain steps must be undertaken to certify a redevelopment area.

First, the planning commission must prepare a plan for the redevelopment area. Then the redevelopment authority would submit a redevelopment proposal to the planning commission for review. The planning commission would then make a recommendation to borough council to approve, deny or approve the plan with modification.

There would be a public hearing for the proposal before the borough council could approve or reject the proposal. Then, the redevelopment authority would be authorized to take action on the proposal.

All proposed developers would need to be approved by the borough council.

“We have just finished this process with the Allen Street Civic District. Council just approved the development agreements with Highland Holding Group and now the ball is in their court and we are going to start focusing on Phases,” said Wargo.

The Redevelopment Act defines a redevelopment area as “any area, whether improved or unimproved, which a planning commission may find to be blighted because of the existence of the conditions enumerated in section two of this act so as to require redevelopment under the provisions of this act.”

In order to certify a development area, the planning commission must find that at least one of the following blight conditions exist in the area: unsafe; unsanitary or over-crowded conditions of the dwellings; inadequate planning in the area; excessive land coverage by building in the area; lack of proper light and air and open space; defective design and arrangements of the buildings; faulty street of lot layout; or economically or socially undesirable land uses.

Wargo said that planning staff recommends certification based upon inadequate planning of the area, social economically undesirable land use and lack of proper open space and defective arrangement of building, lots or streets.

StateCollege.com's Geoff Rushton contributed to this story.

 



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.


Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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