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Community Members Express Support, Concerns for 'Summers on Allen' Proposal

by on December 03, 2019 12:00 PM

State College Borough Council will vote in two weeks on a proposal to make South Allen Street a temporary pedestrian plaza for two months next summer, and at a public hearing on Monday community members offered their input.

While the majority of comments received by council expressed support for the project, some addressed concerns about the impacts of the extended closure. 

Groznik PR and Centre Foundation have proposed "Summers on Allen" to create a pedestrian plaza on the 100 block of South Allen Street from May 11 (the day after Penn State's spring commencement) to July 3. Central PA 4th Fest and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts immediately follow that, effectively making the closure a full two months.

Brad and Andrea Groznik are managing the plan with a $100,000 grant Centre Foundation received from the Knight Foundation for the project. The Grozniks are founders of the popular Pop Up Ave flea market, held twice a year on South Fraser Street.

The plaza would have landscaping by Boalsburg-based Landscape II, which transforms the street for Arts Fest, and a mix of seating for 100. Restaurants with appropriate permits would create fenced-in areas for outdoor dining.

A kids play area and a small stage also are included in the plan. Regular summer events like Jana Marie Foundation's J.A.M. Fest, Rotary Ice Cream Fest, and Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest would be incorporated and other events scheduled, such as a community dinner, a local music showcase, and a mini-golf tournament, to name a few of the possibilities mentioned by Brad Groznik in October.

The street would be blocked by water barriers, which Alpha Fire Company and Centre LifeLink EMS said they can push out of the way if needed, and an emergency lane would be built into the design. A delivery plan developed with input from businesses would create a 75-foot loading zone until 10 a.m. each day on West College Avenue in front of the Corner Room as well as loading zones between pedestrian nodes and water barriers at the Beaver and College intersections. Deliveries on Humes and Kelly alleys and other existing loading zones College and Beaver would remain in place.

The street closure plan has received support from 20 of 22 impacted businesses. One of the businesses that opposes it is Rapid Transit Sports, 115 S. Allen St.

Matt Kisenwether, of Rapid Transit, said the business is against it for a number of reasons, the biggest being that it will simply make it more difficult for customers to get to the store.

"We are one of the few stores downtown that gets busier when the students leave. We also have many elderly customers and customers with physical issues," Kisenwether said. "By closing the street you are making it harder for them to get to our store."

He also cited Groznik's comments from October that the organizers expected to allow the plaza to be a passive area at times and not have events scheduled for every day of the closure. 

"If you’re making it harder for my regular customers to get to my store, you’re increasing traffic issues by closing one of the main through streets in the downtown, and you don’t have events planned to bring people to the street, then this is going to be very bad for all of the businesses on Allen Street," he said.

Kisenwether said council should, if they approve the plan, have "an exit strategy" to scrap the closure before the end of the two months if it is apparent it is not working.

The other business that opposes the plan is Woodrings Floral Gardens, 145 S. Allen St. Rosalie Bloom Brooks, a longtime resident who works at Woodrings, said that whenever there is a street closure "it has a chilling effect on business," and that it creates a "reluctance to visit downtown."

District Judge Carmine Prestia said he was not only concerned about parking and traffic impacts but also safety. An Alpha Fire Company member, Prestia said there have been three fires on South Allen Street since 1970, and while apparatus may be able to get into the area, he questioned whether there would be enough room for equipment to battle a blaze.

He also asked whether allowing outdoor restaurant seating would make it "a taxpayer-funded food and drink court," and said he did not believe the overnight security guard organizers plan to hire would be sufficient.

Rob Schmidt, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said by his count just 19 parking spaces would be lost to the closure and that there is more than enough public garage parking available for most of the summer.

According to conditions suggested by borough staff, organizers would be required to pay some or all of the lost parking meter revenue, which is estimated to be $7,635. 

Schmidt also said he viewed the restaurant seating as geared toward general outdoor dining. Even if the Summers on Allen project is not approved, he said DSCID is considering requesting a pilot for outdoor dining downtown during the summer.

He also noted that most of Penn State's 48,000 students will leave town by May 10 and only a fraction of that return for summer sessions.

"We need a reason for people to come downtown," he said.

Resident Jon Vickers Jones said he led an effort in 2004 to turn the block into a pedestrian plaza but it was met with resistance by local businesses. Now, he noted, the majority support the temporary closure. He cited the many successful town-center plazas in Europe and suggested Allen Street businesses would ultimately benefit from a pedestrian plaza.

Allen Street resident Liz Bennett said it's an experiment worth trying because with fewer cars around the plaza, more people will be inclined to walk and spend time in the area.

"If it doesn’t work out you don’t have to do it again," she said. "But we have had other closures on Allen Street pretty often. There’s all sorts of things we close Allen Street for and somehow downtown still survives."

Resident Ian Boswell said places like Charlottesville, Va. and Boulder and Fort Collins, Colo., have successfully implemented appealing pedestrian plazas.

"Businesses seem to do very well there," he said. "They’re always a nice place to go that doesn’t have a lot of cars, that encourages pedestrian activity. It’s much nicer to concentrate parking in the garages, I think, and then encourage more pedestrian activity."

James Tierney, a borough resident and Penn State economics professors, said it is places like those mentioned by Boswell that he has seen several friends, also young professionals, move to in recent years because "it doesn't seem like things are happening for us," in State College.

He added that Church Street in Burlington, Vt., is another example and that it took years to develop into the success it is today. So while  one summer trial on Allen Street might have only a small return, it shows the borough is looking to the future instead of the past, Tierney said.

"Even just an 11-week thing to try something out, to say 'hey, we’re in your corner,' I think will help a lot of people like me that are a little younger feel more included," he said. "I… want to encourage you to vote with future State College in mind, rather than 1970s State College in mind."

Jason Huber is a regular vendor at Pop Up Ave, which has been granted closure of the 100 block South Fraser Street twice a year. Most often, he said, customers tell him they just found the flea market while walking around and seeing the street was closed to traffic.

"...We’ll ask people whether or not they intended to come to Pop Up Ave, if they saw it through advertisements, and oftentimes the answer is emphatically no," he said. "Probably 70-80 percent of the people just kind of stumble upon it."

Schmidt said DSCID is not in favor of a permanent pedestrian plaza on the 100 block of South Allen Street, and he said State College is not the same as places like Burlington or Boulder, which have "different dynamics." But, he said, trying a temporary plaza would be worthwhile.

"Because it works there doesn’t mean it’s going to work here," he said. "There’s been a lot of places where it hasn’t worked. But this is an eight-week pilot program to try to make it work."

Council is expected to vote on the proposal at its Dec. 16 meeting.

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