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Plans for New Hotel Draw Criticisms and Concerns

Neighboring residents and several State College Planning Commission members expressed criticisms and concerns on Thursday over aspects of the final plans for a new hotel on the former Autoport property on South Atherton Street.

South Atherton Real Estate 1 LP has proposed an 80,000-square foot, four-story building on the west side of the property at 1401 S. Atherton St., between the Talbot’s plaza and the former Autoport restaurant and lounge building. It will have a 122-room Home2 Suites by Hilton and eight apartment units, including one inclusionary housing unit, at the back of the building.

The planned hotel would be located in the CP2 planned commercial zoning district, which allows for buildings up to three stories. But an incentive included in the zoning ordinance designed to expand the supply of affordable housing in the borough allows an additional story if inclusionary housing is incorporated into residential units.

A single inclusionary unit among the eight apartments is enough to satisfy that requirement, and while no residents objected to the hotel itself, several said the developer is essentially using a loophole in the ordinance to manipulate its intent.

“This perverts the inclusionary housing requirement at a time when State College Borough is in dire need of inclusionary and affordable housing, even more so now due the massive disruption of the service industry due to the pandemic and a population that relies on affordable housing to work in various jobs,” neighboring resident Michael Cross said during planning commission’s review of the final land development and subdivision plans.

“State College needs more inclusionary housing, not a developer doing the bare minimum to get what he wants without really helping the community he’s going to profit from.”

The sole member of the general partner that oversees South Atherton Real Estate LP is Gregory Welteroth, whose Welteroth Property Group is based in Mountoursville. He is building the hotel in partnership with Concord Hospitality, which develops and manages hotels around the country.

Home2 Suites are Hilton brand extended-stay hotels, but the new hotel would be independently owned.

The fourth story also raised concerns about a larger building that towers over the adjoining Bradley Avenue neighborhood behind it and will allow for more hotel guests, which in turn may create additional traffic issues.

But there is nothing the borough can do to prevent the fourth story since it appears to meet the letter, if not the spirit, of the ordinance, borough planning director Ed LeClear said.

If plans meet the requirement of the ordinance, the borough is legally required to approve them, LeClear said, and when an ordinance is ambiguous, courts have ruled that the benefit of the doubt goes to the property owner.

“We have reviewed this multiple times with the solicitor and his guidance to us has been that we cannot deny it and that, unfortunately, we have to accept the argument of the owner that they are entitled to that fourth floor,” LeClear said.

The incentive has been used to add floors to multiple downtown high-rises, but those have been primarily multi-family residential buildings. This is the first time a developer has argued for its use in a primarily commercial use building, LeClear said.

The borough likely will begin a process to amend the ordinance, LeClear said, but because plans for the new hotel were submitted under the current version they must be accepted. Once approved, the developer has five years to start construction.

The fourth story was not the only issue raised by residents and planning commission members.

When preliminary plans were submitted last year, planning commission members expressed concerns about traffic entering the property to the hotel’s drop-off area backing up onto South Atherton Street.

To address that, the final plan submission includes a “slip lane,” or a northbound turning lane on South Atherton Street at the front of the property. Engineer John Sepp, of PennTerra Engineering, said traffic would enter the property and follow the access road to a cul-de-sac, which would then allow vehicles to circle back to the drop off area at the front of the hotel or continue to the parking lot along the opposite, rear side of the building.

Vehicles traveling to the drop off area would continue on to the Atherton Street slip lane and turn right into the parking lot access.

While the cul-de-sac increased the amount of space for vehicles to queue, planning commission member Scott Dutt questioned the logic of placing the check-in entrance on the opposite side of the building from the parking area. Having the entrance and parking lot on the same side would have eliminated the need for the cul-de-sac entirely, Dutt said.

“I get check-in going with the traffic flow, but this building doesn’t make sense at all to me the way it’s laid out,” he said. “If I could say no on this project I would say it just because its simply illogical.”

Nate Loeffelholz, of Base4 Architects, said the layout “was the most feasible” that would meet Hilton’s design approval.

Others said they had concerns about traffic now also making left turns out of the hotel parking and across three lanes of traffic, including the slip lane.

A traffic impact study is still under review by the borough’s traffic engineer and PennDOT. LeClear said the developer would be required to correct any identified issues before plans could be approved

“It just looks like on a Friday afternoon before a home football game it’s going to be a mess with people coming in and out, zooming in and out of Atherton,” said Jim Candor, a Bradley Avenue resident who was among 11 who sent a letter to the borough last year outlining several concerns about the plans.

Among those issues is the removal of a line of trees that serve as a buffer between the property and the backs of the houses along Bradley Avenue.

Loeffelholz said that based on comments from residents and the design review board, the architects will be working with the borough arborist to develop a better landscaping and fencing plan. He added that signage originally planned for the rear of the building will not be included.

Resident Karen Henninger encouraged the developers to use mature landscaping that will be sufficient to block lights from the parking lot, which she said is within 5 feet and at a 5 foot higher elevation of some neighboring property lines.

The developers will be required to meet borough regulations for preventing light trespass outside the property.

She also asked that fencing be long enough to prohibit hotel guests from cutting through Bradley Avenue properties if they are walking into town or to Penn State football games.

Henninger added that nearly all of the existing green space on the property is being removed and the planned location for the hotel’s Dumpster is “essentially putting a Dumpster in someone’s backyard,” raising concerns about odor, vermin and noise.

“I understand access by equipment to empty the Dumpster is a consideration but in terms of being a good neighbor I don’t feel like putting a dumpster in someone’s backyard is really the best approach,” she said.

Sepp said the Dumpster will be enclosed but that they will look at shifting its location or providing more landscaping and screening around it.

Planning commission did not take any action during Thursday’s meeting and will discuss the plans again in February following reviews of the traffic impact study and staff review of the development plan and a subdivision plan for the property.

The subdivision plan, which will consolidate five parcels on the property into three, is subject to approval by borough council and planning commission must make a recommendation on whether or not to approve it. Planning commission’s role for land development plans is advisory and approval is delegated to borough staff.

Greg Garthe, borough senior planner, said the subdivision plan appears to meet requirements, but several residents and planning commission members said it was unclear that the building was entirely within the parcel designated CP2 and that a small portion does not encroach on an adjacent R2 residential parcel.

Cross said he believes all the issues raised need to be carefully examined before the project is approved.

“There’s a whole lot of concerns here,” Cross said. “I don’t hear anyone on this call here saying ‘Jeez, don’t build the hotel.’ But this is a major impact on people. I’d like to understand where the borough is with respect to addressing this very serious situation to ensure that this doesn’t happen again on these properties or other properties in town.”

LeClear said he expects the plans to be reviewed again at planning commission’s Feb. 18 meeting.