Monday, June 14, 2021

Changing Landscape: Developments at 3 former mobile home parks promise a big impact on Centre Region

Three big changes to the housing landscape in the Centre Region happened nearly back-to-back-to-back, beginning nine years ago. In 2012, the Penn State Mobile Home Park in Patton Township and Hilltop Mobile Home Park in College Township were sold. Then in 2014, Franklin Manor Mobile Home Park, located adjacent to the Penn State Mobile Home Park, closed.

All the people who lived in about 200 mobile homes in those parks were forced to move. For years, nothing happened at the locations; the empty streets that led through the properties sat vacant, like ghost towns.

Now, after years of rumors, all three properties are in some stage of development. Crews are digging at the old Penn State Mobile Home Park site, and plans have been submitted for the Hilltop and Franklin Manor land. These projects would mean big changes for the Centre Region moving forward.

Looking 50 years in the future

Sometimes it feels like every time you drive down North Atherton Street, something new pops up. Patton Township Manager Doug Erickson is amazed at how much has changed since he came to the area in 1998.

“Since I came in, it has been pretty much turned over, from Douglas Drive on down,” Erickson says. A few businesses, including U-Haul and Highway Pizza, remain in the same location, “but pretty much everything else is turned over in that corridor,” he says.

Along that stretch, there used to be four mobile home parks; now they are all gone.

Developers Bob Poole, Heidi Nicholas, and Ara Kervandjian bought the Penn State Mobile Home Park property in 2012. They continued operating it as a mobile home site for two years, which they say “allowed the residents time to find alternative housing. During that time, we began researching and planning for what might be the best future use of the site,” the developers say in written comments to Town&Gown. “Ultimately these decisions led us to request a rezoning of the property to allow for a mixed-use development.”

It was a long process to get the property rezoned. In 2017, long public meetings were held at which area residents voiced their concerns. The developers say they listened to the concerns of the community members as they made their master plan for the area.

“During the rezoning process, a committee was formed which included local residents, township staff, and our development team to discuss issues important to the neighborhood. We worked together on a number of issues and came up with solutions leading to the creation of an attractive town center which can be enjoyed by everyone living in our central Pennsylvania community,” the developers say.

“North Atherton Street is a thriving shopping corridor, and our site is located in the heart of this area. We believe the location will be a great place for people from Patton Township, the surrounding areas, and well beyond. This site will draw a spectrum of people. People in our community will live at Patton Crossing and it will attract others for dining, shopping, and special events.

“The Patton Crossing project is bringing something new to the State College market – a mixed-use development combining residential units above retail and office space, centered around an inviting open plaza area which can be used to host events and to hold seasonal farmers markets, etc.”

Erickson says that some of things that developers did to address concerns of the community included moving buildings away from the back of the property so that they don’t butt up against the edge of residential areas.

“A key concern was the hotel, which is supposed to be the tallest building in the site; it got moved pretty far out toward Atherton,” says Erickson of the planned140-room, five-story hotel. “It won’t loom over the adjacent properties.”

Another concern was affordable housing, something the community is still grappling with after the loss of so many trailer parks.

“Part of the rezoning process was discussing the need for affordable housing and [to] include it in our project,” the developers say. “When the project is fully built, it will have as many as 36 units of affordable housing on site. In addition, our development team separately and in partnership with others has brought many affordable housing units to the Centre Region over the past several years.”

The master plan includes 20 buildings to be constructed over up to 12 phases, including a grocery store, restaurants, office space, and shops to go along with the hotel. According to the planning materials, “a diverse use of land is planned allowing for small-scale, locally-owned businesses within the development.” Three parking structures and street-level parking are also included.

In the end, Patton Township officials agreed with developers that a project with a mix of residential and commercial uses was best for the area.

“Mixed use is a better concept in the long run,” says Erickson, “if you are looking at how … people get to where they work and where they play and where they have to get their basic necessities. And if they can walk a couple of blocks … that is better overall then having to get in your car and drive to several different locations. We like the concept, that vision of what is the community going to be like in the future. … Fifty years in the future, this will look like a really good idea, we think.”

Erickson says that just 20 years ago, Patton Township had a suburban/rural community feel. Things have changed.

“We have been seeing over the last 20 years a trend toward more urban-type uses, and this is an extension of that,” says Erickson. “We are still not a downtown area, but we will have a place with 400-plus residential units, and in the retail sense, will have everything you need in a quarter mile. We would be classified as a very walkable community.”

Drivers on busy North Atherton Street have been facing lane closures as construction crews began setting up the infrastructure for Patton Crossing. Phase 1 of construction will include the area’s first Aldi grocery store (a second store is already in the works for College Township, near the Nittany Mall). Aldi plans to start construction of the store on North Atherton in March, with hopes to open by the end of 2021.

Don’t expect the rest of the grand vision for Patton Crossing to come to fruition overnight. The developers do not have a timetable yet for what comes after Aldi, but Erickson suspects it will be another retail building.

The master plan calls for a 20-year buildout for the entire development, but Erickson says that is a conservative estimate, and he expects it to move a little faster.

“It just depends on the market; if you ask Mr. Poole, he will tell you we are trying to satisfy what the market wants,” says Erickson.

The hope is that the project will draw people to the community and serve as an “area residents and visitors will be drawn to and that they will spend time dining, shopping, and meeting friends there. We will work with the township to plan events that will benefit our community – we hope to host farmers markets here, showcase outdoor performances, and hold family-friendly activities,” the developers say.

New life for Franklin Manor?

Just to the south of the Patton Crossing development sits the site of the former Franklin Manor Mobile Home Park, with parts in both Patton and Ferguson townships. The two mobile home parks that sat next to each looked to be one and the same. Now, development of the two areas include two separate plans.

In June 2019, Waters Retail Group presented a sketch plan that included two restaurant buildings, a hotel, and townhouses for the Franklin Manor site.

“We’ve been looking at this site for a few years,” Joe Waters, president of Waters Retail Group, said when he introduced the sketch plan in 2019. Waters Retail Group develops, manages, and leases shopping centers in three states and developed the nearby Walmart plaza and the Red Lobster restaurant site on North Atherton Street in the 1990s.

The initial plan would add to the town-center-style feel of Patton Crossing next door. At the northwest corner of the site would be a 2,000-square-foot retail and restaurant pad. To the south of that, behind Village Square, is a 7,530-square-foot restaurant with indoor seating for 250 and outdoor seating for 132. Behind Red Lobster would be a four-story, 115-room hotel. In Ferguson Township, on the southwest side of Martin Street and behind Best Buy, the plan calls for 45 townhouses.

Waters said at the time that the developers already had “firm interests” from businesses.

Patton Township has not received any formal plans for the location since the initial sketch plan was introduced, Erickson says, and he is unsure what the timeframe will be for development of the location.

The site remains on the Waters Retail Group webpage, available for sale or lease.

Aspen Heights

In College Township, plans for a student housing project at the old Hilltop Mobile Home Park finally came from developers in November after years of rumors about the property.

Plans for the two-building, 262-unit Aspen Heights Squirrel Drive development are being reviewed by the Planning Commission. One building will contain all purpose-built student housing; the other building will be a mix of purpose-built student housing, 28 workforce housing units, and commercial space on the first floor.

As the Planning Commission reviews the project, College Township residents have been raising concerns, ranging from increased traffic, to increased noise and lighting from the development that will impact nearby homeowners, to how nearby Thompson Woods will be impacted by construction and the student population. Perhaps the biggest question – Do we need more student housing in this area? – has been met with a resounding yes by the developer. 

“With a full-time enrollment of 44,705 as of fall 2020, approximately 13,931 on-campus beds, and the overall trend of the university, the State College market is one of the strongest student housing markets in the country,” says a response by project manager John C. Sepp to community concerns about the matter. “The existing stock of purpose-built student housing compared to the number of students living off-campus is extremely low when compared to other schools of a similar caliber, resulting in a significant amount of pent-up demand. This is evidenced by the occupancy rate of the comparable purpose-built student housing properties being 98 percent occupied pre-COVID and still presently maintaining 93 percent occupancy during the pandemic.”

As for noise and lighting concerns, developers say the project is designed to fit into the topography so that any sound will naturally head toward College Avenue. Homes up on Oak Ridge, which is adjacent to the development, sit 40 feet higher than the site of the development, with 300 feet between them. Traffic studies are being completed and the developers say they want to work with the community to address concerns.

With the development at least two years from being completed, no suitors for the commercial space have been identified yet. Because the development is set back from College Avenue, developers say the retailers will likely be smaller-shop destinations, such as boutiques, casual restaurants, and dry cleaners.

The Planning Commission continues to work with the developers, with hopes to bring the project to the Township Council for a public hearing and vote in March. So far, these are the only plans submitted for the property, which includes the empty buildings that formerly housed Honda Track and Trail and The Battery Outlet on College Avenue.

The east side of the former the trailer park, across from Squirrel Drive, remains undeveloped, as does the lower section along College Avenue. A bank project that was in the works along College Avenue has been withdrawn, says College Township Principal Planner Lindsay Schoch.

Addressing affordable housing

Anita Thies was part of a community group that weighed in during the rezoning process for the Patton Crossing development. Since then, she has become a township supervisor and is co-chair of the newly formed Patton Township 2021 Housing Task Force, which looks to address the issue of affordable housing in the township.

Thies says she got interested in the affordable housing issue “when I was part of the citizen group for Patton Crossing; my heart went out to the people who were displaced from that property, because they had built their homes and their livelihoods on property that was deemed to not be as valuable for their homes as they thought. I understand change happens and zoning happens, but my heart went out to those people who were displaced.”

Other community groups, including the State College Community Land Trust, Centre County Housing and Land Trust, and the Centre County Affordable Housing Coalition, have been working on the affordable housing issue locally for years. Municipalities, including Patton and College townships, have written affordable and workforce housing recommendations into zoning ordinances.

In Patton Township, after looking at affordable housing on a smaller neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis in the past (such as the affordable units that are a part of the Patton Crossing development), the township decided to start the task force to look at the issue on a larger scale. Made up of 18 citizens, including local officials and other residents with diverse backgrounds, the task force will meet monthly throughout this year to research affordable housing options that promote smart growth and development, with a goal of bringing recommendations by year’s end to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Nicole Pollock, task force co-chair and Centre Region senior planner, says that affordable housing concerns are not unique to the State College area, but are an issue in urban areas throughout the country.

The task force hopes to take a deep look at the issue and eliminate some of the stigma surrounding it.

“The task force is trying to get the word out there about what affordable housing is. … It is not just a certain demographic or a certain income level. It is the full range to get our community diverse and help the work force, so they can afford to live here,” says Pollock.

“With affordable housing, I think it is difficult because there is a lot of misinformation and misplaced ideas about who could be coming into the community,” she adds. “Around here, I think it is a little difficult with the student rental situation and maybe people are afraid that new rental housing means houses falling into disrepair, then becoming blighted neighborhoods and people would lose property values. These are all things that we can look at and really research and see if this is really something that happens, or is this just a fear that is perpetuated? … I think we can do the research and see if that is an actual valid concern, and we can help get some understanding out there that this is not actually what happens.”

Affordable housing is not just an issue for the lowest income levels, but also for those in the middle, such as graduate students, single parents, and new families, who cannot find an affordable place to live in the State College area.

“If you talk to folks coming here, you hear housing costs are high, rental costs are high, land costs are high,” Thies says, adding that “it is a quality-of-life issue, one that I would like to explore how we, as a greater community, can enable the opportunities for the quality of life that everybody wants.”

The lack of affordable housing can have a bigger impact on the community than people may realize, Thies says.

“When the employees of businesses have long commutes, or they are in situations where their personal life is not as satisfying, I think that can lead to turnover in the business community. So they have turnover and they have to retrain,” she says.

The task force hopes to offer some ideas about how to better shape the area in the future.

“How can we make more opportunities available to people who work here to be able to afford to live here?” asks Thies. “We will be bringing recommendations that will spur a wider community discussion.”

Vincent Corso is a staff writer for Town&Gown and The Centre County Gazette.