A State College developer on Monday night detailed plans for a proposed affordable housing project on South Atherton Street that has drawn concerns from neighboring residents over its encroachment on an adjacent public park.
Progress Development Group, an affordable housing-focused subsidiary of HFL Corporation, is looking to acquire 1306 S. Atherton St., the former location of RBR Recumbent Bicycles, and construct the 36,000-square foot, four-story Parkland Apartments building with 26-units priced for renters based on state and federal income guidelines, HFL Executive Vice President Ara Kervandjian said during Monday’s borough council meeting.
To do so, PDG has proposed a long-term lease with the borough to use “a crucial and necessary portion of Nittany Village Park,” which sits directly behind the Atherton Street property.
Residents of the Tusseyview neighborhood became aware of the proposal last fall and have recently spoken out, urging the borough to work with PDG on a plan that would not infringe on the park area or to find another place for the development.
Kervandjian said the development would use only about 16%, or 5,500 square feet of the nearly 34,000-square-foot park area.
As part of the lease, PDG would “enhance the Nittany Village Park significantly,” Kervandjian said, with new play equipment, play areas and landscaping, all of which would be paid for and maintained by PDG.
A portion of the building and five of the property’s 29 to 34 parking spaces would be located in the current park area. Landscaping would be used to shroud the parking and rear of the building.
A previous iteration of the plan had 13 spaces in the park area, as well as a retaining wall that has since been removed.
“Over the last two weeks we listened and heard some community comments about if we could take into consideration possibly reducing the parking area that’s being extended into the site,” Kervandjian said.
Parkland Apartments would have a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, an amenity space with a community center, a supportive services office for tenants and on-site rental office. Kervandjian noted a bus stop is located in front of the property and that the location is within walking distance to pharmacies, shopping and the downtown.
“What we want to do is achieve a goal to meet the borough’s objectives of providing quality affordable and attainable housing for single parents, individuals and retirees in support of State College Borough’s strategic plan,” Kervandjian said.
PDG will seek federal Section 42 Low-Income Housing Tax Credits through the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency for the project, Kervandjian said. Developers can receive up to $1 million in tax credits a year for 10 years through the program, which requires a commitment that the property will be used for affordable housing for at least 30 years.
Brian Hudson, the recently retired executive director of PHFA who spoke on PDG’s behalf on Monday, said the process is “very competitive” and applicants are scored on a number of factors, such as the population being served and access to transportation.
Rental rates are set by PHFA based on the renters percentage of the area median income, which is determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and varies based on the number of people in a household. At least one unit must be made available to a renter who has 20% of the median income and the remainder to those with 50% and 60%.
Kervandjian said the program “is one of the biggest win-win programs that’s out there for any family,” because unlike other low-income housing programs, it allows for renters to increase their income several times over and still be eligible to remain in their home.
PDG has developed 146 affordable housing units across five new properties since 2014. Among them is the 12-apartment Atherton Place, located across the street from the proposed Parkland Apartments site, which has been fully leased since it opened in 2016.
Rents at Atherton Place in 2020 ranged from $185 to $1,015, with an average around $800 to $1000, Kervandjian said. Tenants include a mix of retired individuals or those on Social Security Disability Insurance, working adults and single-parent families.
PDG also has developed affordable housing at the Bellefonte Mews, Limerock Court and Pleasant Pointe in College Township and a new 18-unit building on Cherry Lane in Ferguson Township that is expected to be completed in September.
“We do need affordable housing and I do appreciate the fact that you have been building really nice affordable housing for many years now,” Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said. “…I think that it is one of the best possible uses that we could have for that area along Atherton Street, particularly as I know that we have problems both north and south of there with people planning to put up the highest possible buildings stuffed with the largest number of students that they can, and I don’t want to see that next to the parklet.”
Hudson said that he has seen communities all over struggle with being able to provide affordable housing. Public-private partnerships like the one proposed by PDG, he said, have routinely worked to the benefit of all involved.
The developments, Hudson said, have created a sense of community, increased tax bases and had other positive economic impacts such as small businesses growing around the housing to serve the residents.
“Every community that I’ve worked with that has donated land … that went along with workforce affordable housing did not regret their decision to do that because they provided safe, decent affordable housing for their residents, they were creating new communities and it has been a win-win situation that occurred,” Hudson said.
The proposal was met with a generally positive reception from borough council members.
Lafer said that the developers should ensure lighting on the property would not spill over into the surrounding neighborhood. She and Councilwoman Janet Engeman also requested that hard path access in the park be developed for wheelchairs and strollers.
Councilman Evan Myers said he still needs to hear more details and public comment but also said the project seems like a “win-win for the community.”
“It provides that kind of housing that is in our strategic plan that we need,” Myers said. “We certainly need it, given the waiting lists that we have to get in these types of things. It provide us this kind of housing close to town where people work and you can easily get there… And also you’re going to enhance a neighborhood park that, every time I’ve gone to that park, is in need of enhancement, let me just put it that way.”
Councilwoman Katherine Yeaple said she values both open space and affordable housing and asked if Kervandjian had sought out any other properties for the project.
“It’s very difficulty to find any land in the borough that’s of the size and scope to be able to build the type of Section 42 housing that we’re talking about,” Kervandjian said. “We need to have a minimum of a specific number of units to even be considered to get tax credits available to us to be able to develop a building like that.”
He added that redeveloping the “dated piece of real estate” that is the RBR property and making improvements to the park will be “an enhancement for both properties.”
A potential lease for the Nittany Village Park land has not yet been formally drafted and no land development plans have been submitted to the borough for the project.
Council took no public comment on the presentation on Monday night, instead scheduling time for community members to weigh in during the June 7 meeting.