Summers on Allen Proposal Approved by State College Borough Council
January 14, 2020 2:06 AM
by Geoff Rushton
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The 100 block of South Allen Street will be a temporary pedestrian plaza for eight weeks this summer, after all.

A month after the proposal was voted down 4-3, State College Borough Council voted by the same margin on Monday to approve the Summers on Allen project. Though it was defeated on Dec. 16, Councilman Evan Myers re-introduced the proposal at last week's council meeting, believing that with two new members taking council seats to start the year, the proposal could pass a second time around. 

That proved accurate, as Myers, Dan Murphy and Council President Jesse Barlow—the yes votes last time—were joined by new Councilwoman Deanna Behring to form Monday's majority vote approving the plaza. Janet Engeman and Theresa Lafer—who voted against last time—were joined by new Councilman Pete Marshall in voting no. David Brown and Catherine Dauler, who both voted no in December, left council at the start of the year.

Borough solicitor Terry Williams said even though it was voted on last month, there was nothing preventing the new council from taking it up again on Monday.

Proposed by Centre Foundation, which received a $135,000 grant from the Knight Foundation's donor-advised fund for the project, and Groznik PR, the plaza will create a pop-up park with landscaping, a mix of seating, a small stage and a kids play area from May 11 to July 3. The aim is to bring more people to the downtown during a traditionally slow time of year and create a community destination.

Several restaurants plan to apply for permits for expanded outdoor seating while the street is closed to vehicle traffic. Regular summer events that occur during the closure period — such as  Rotary Ice Cream Fest, Jana Marie Foundation's J.A.M. Fest, Happy Valley Music Fest and Central PA Theatre and Dance Fest — will be incorporated along with a slate of additional programming from the project organizers, Downtown State College Improvement District and other community partners.

Groznik said on Monday the plan is to incorporate a wide range of family-friendly activities and programming that will appeal to all ages.

"We anticipate doing a lot, a lot of things," said Brad Groznik, who with his wife, Andrea, also founded and manages the biannual Pop Up Ave urban flea markets on South Fraser Street. "Should we receive approval the first thing we’re going to do is have a number of community brainstorms… because without the community’s involvement, this thing is not going to be the success that we want it to be."

He added that they have reached out to organizations and performers about some events but could not schedule anything until plans were approved.

"It’s a little bit like trying to plan a wedding without a venue," he said.

The organizers have developed plans to accommodate deliveries with affected businesses. Alpha Fire Company and Centre LifeLink EMS also have signed off, saying their vehicles can push through the water barriers that will be at each end of Allen Street, and emergency lane is built into the design of the plaza.

Myers said the plaza fits with State College's strategic plan for strengthening the community while facing growth. 

"Making downtown a destination, making it more diverse, opening it up to be more walkable, with cars parked in central garages, these are all part of the State College Master Plan," Myers said. "We need to try things and not be tied to the past just because it’s what we’ve always done."

A number of residents and business owners spoke in favor of the plan at Monday's meeting. They said the project will be a step toward making the area more pedestrian-friendly, that they want more reasons like the plaza to spend time downtown, and that it will help the borough maintain a unique charm as high-rises and other new development continue to grow in State College.

Owners of two State College-based technology companies said projects like Summers on Allen will help create a vibrant downtown that will be attractive to in-demand talent they look to recruit, and can in turn help their businesses grow.

"We continue to find it a challenge to find the great young people we need to work at our company, let alone the ability to retain them over years," said Jim Erickson, owner of Blue Mountain Quality Resources and a 35-year borough resident who said he and his family have had fewer and fewer reasons to go downtown. "Our employees are young, highly educated and well-paid. They can choose to work anywhere in the country. These folks thrive in a vibrant urban environment and I know my young staff will certainly embrace and frequent Summers on Allen Street."

Jeremy Frank, owner of KCF Technologies, which employs 200 people in State College, said he has a similar experience in attracting and retaining employees.

"It’s something our people readily recognized as something that brings an attractiveness and engagement to people who come here to work," Frank said. "For my business that’s critical. We’re recruiting people to come here from other places and they have options."

For those not in favor of the street closure, the same concerns expressed throughout discussions in the fall remained, primarily centered on how closing the street to vehicle traffic and parking will affect businesses and their patrons.

Though a majority of impacted businesses appear to be in favor, it's unclear exactly how many are currently in favor and against. In submitting the application in the fall, Groznik and Centre Foundation included a list that showed approval from 20 of 22 businesses, with Woodring's Floral Garden and Rapid Transit Sports saying they do not approve.

Representatives of two other Allen Street businesses spoke against the proposal on Monday night. Stephen Albert, who owns Connecting Point, a computer servicing and repair business at 135 S. Allen St., said that when the street is closed for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, his business drops by about 90 percent. His customers also have to carry sometimes heavy equipment into his store and he is concerned having no parking on the street will deter them.

"It will shut down my business for the most part," he said. "For you to do this for eight weeks is going to be death to a business like mine... While there is alternate parking available, they won’t take it. They will avoid the downtown. To close it for eight weeks I think is excessive in length. To close it for that length of time is going to hurt at least some businesses like mine."

Bill Joseph, of First National Bank, 117 S. Allen St., said he is not opposed to the idea but is worried about customers with mobility issues, as well as safety concerns. He noted that armored carriers pull up as close to the bank as possible to limit the amount of time personnel and cash are exposed. He also said a robbery would put staff and pedestrians in danger and police could be slowed in their response time.

Calder Way, which is adjacent to the bank, will be accessible to vehicles while the Allen Street plaza is in place.

Attorney Faith Lucchesi said she is counsel to several businesses who oppose the plan.

"Right now you want to close down a major portion of the shopping district of downtown State College for programming that we don’t even know what it is yet. It’s a big risk to the businesses who are there and they are frightened. As this continues to drag on, they are getting more and more frightened because summer is tough on the businesses downtown. I had one client already who at a staff meeting said 'I’ll stop taking my paycheck because I don’t want to have to fire employees.'"

Marshall, meanwhile, cited an informal survey he conducted in the last week in which nine businesses said they strongly supported the closure, six were opposed because of financial risk, and one had concerns but was willing to take the risk.

"Do something more, do more programming but don’t shut the street down," Marshall said. "Because what you’ll be doing to businesses that have been here for over 40 years, they’re afraid. I don’t think we should make that judgment. The borough is taking no risks with this. The risks are with the businesses. The ones I worry about are the businesses that depend a lot on non-student customer bases. Even if the program is very good, I wonder if it’s going to be good enough to meet the objective of this [to bring more people downtown and increase business]."

Marshall also said he was concerned about traffic impacts from cutting off access to Allen Street, one of only two downtown streets that provides a direct connection between College Avenue, Westerly Parkway and South Atherton Street.

Matt Kisenwether, of Rapid Transit, 115 S .Allen St., said traffic was one of several problems he has with the plan and urged council to conduct a traffic study before approving. Kisenwether, who believes business will decrease at his store, said not enough information has been provided about the plaza layout, what will be in front of stores and the budget for the project. He also asked if the children's play area will be near a bar with outdoor seating and alleged that "the whole reason the street is closing" is for outdoor alcohol consumption, which is why, he claimed, the organizers were hiring an overnight security guard.

Molly Kunkel, Centre Foundation executive director, said they were not hiring the security guard because of alcohol concerns, but were doing so at the request of the borough because there will be fewer people around overnight. 

She added that until the project was approved, it was difficult to provide exact figures but that about 50 percent of the budget is for equipment and landscaping, 30 percent is for project implementation and management, 10 percent for paid programming and 10 percent for security and borough reimbursements. 

Conditions of the plan approval include reimbursing the borough for up to $7,635 for lost parking meter revenue, up to $1,030 for supplemental refuse containers and their installation, and up to $655 for public works street crew costs. 

Geoff Brugler, owner of Appalachian Outdoors, 123 S. Allen St., spoke in favor of the plaza, noting a trend in declining business each summer. He said there is "plentiful" parking, with four parking garages within three blocks, and that downtown merchants offer validation for free parking.

"I’m here to say let’s give this a try," Brugler said. "Business is really challenging and I think we really need to expand our vision and looking at a few things differently...There’s no way we’re going to know unless we give it a shot."

The Downtown State College Improvement District's Retail Advisory Committee "strongly support[s]" Summers on Allen, chair Amy Frank, who owns The Makery, said.

"We will work closely with Groznik PR and the Centre Foundation to define what success is and create the appropriate governance  to assure the program is successful in whatever capacity is determined," she said.

Lafer said that because Centre Foundation is working with a grant that runs out after next year, she believes if Summers on Allen is successful it will put the borough "in a hole," that would require it to use tax money to fund the plaza in future years.

"I will probably be on the losing side of this vote and I hope you will be very successful," Lafer said. "You will not get me to vote a single penny tax increase to continue and I hope fiscal responsibility will keep anyone else from voting a single penny tax increase to keep it."

Kunkel said they are not asking the borough to commit any tax dollars to funding it, adding that there are start-up costs associated with this year's plaza that would not be incurred in the future.

Lafer also said that Centre Foundation should focus on using the money for programming at existing venues like Friedman Park, The State Theatre and Bill Welch Plaza, and temporary closures of less-traveled streets like Humes Alley.

Murphy said that studies of pedestrian plazas show they are successful in areas that already have businesses and amenities.

"The fact this is being proposed in the business district is the point," Murphy said. "You don’t create pedestrian plazas in places like this that people aren’t already going," but try to bring more people to areas where there are businesses.

He added that the organizers have been working with borough staff dating back to a 2018 proposal that was later withdrawn when it was determined more community engagement was needed.

"In my two years on council this is one of the most thoroughly vetted plans that has come before us," Murphy said. "The organizers have been working with staff for the past two years to address the concerns that have been brought up at every point."

Behring said she wants to see what the metrics will be for measuring success — which the organizers must provide by March 1 — and she encouraged partnerships to make the plaza work, but overall said she believes the plan helps the borough toward meeting community goals. 

"From the constituents I’ve heard from, most are in support and would like to see me vote in favor of this," Behring said. "It meets the goals we’ve spelled out as a community for ourselves, many of which we’ve heard tonight as well. We all talk about wanting to be a walkable city and so this is really a great way to see if we can make that happen."

Jay Meashey, former chair of State College's Community Development Block Grant Citizens Advisory Committee, said he believes residents expressed their desire for projects like Summers on Allen when they voted in November's borough council election, when Behring was the top vote-getter.

"Allen Street belongs to the borough and by extension to the citizens of the borough. It doesn’t belong to one business owner or even collectively to all the business owners," Meashey said. "I think the voters of State College are informed and intentional people, and two months ago they made their decision for the borough council. Elections have consequences and I hope one of the consequences is that the borough moves forward in a purposeful, thoughtful way."

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