Planning a Season of Change: 60 years in the making, the Summers on Allen pedestrian mall aims to bring more people downtown
This May, State College could join Ithaca, Burlington, Charlottesville, Iowa City, and dozens of other cities across the country in creating a pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown.
Summers on Allen, a collaboration between the Centre Foundation, Groznik PR, and the Downtown State College Improvement District, is slated to operate on the 100 block of South Allen Street from May 11 through July 5. Planned activities include concerts, movies, and outdoor dining.
While the project has garnered significant support, questions remain about how downtown businesses and the people who utilize them will be impacted by closing Allen Street, and how the project will be funded in the long term if this summer’s pilot is a success.
The project’s supporters frequently make comparisons to other cities with pedestrian malls as a reason why one would work in State College. But officials in those places say that a pedestrian mall is not a one-stop solution to revitalizing downtown.
Getting to ‘yes’
The idea for Summers on Allen in its current form started in 2018 when the Centre Foundation received a $135,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to increase downtown engagement during the summer months. The idea of a pedestrian plaza had come up before, and Molly Kunkel, the foundation’s executive director, thought the time might be right to try it again.
The proposal was withdrawn in 2018 to allow more time for community engagement and was not brought forward for summer 2019 because of construction on Pugh Street. In the meantime, the foundation teamed up with Grozik PR, the company responsible for Pop Up Ave and Light Up State College — two large-scale events held downtown.
Kunkel also saw potential overlap with the Downtown Master Plan, created by the Downtown State College Improvement District and adopted by the Borough Council in 2013. The plan’s vision for downtown is “a place where local citizens, regional residents, national and international visitors, faculty, staff and students will find appealing, exciting and diverse offerings.”
“This idea was in the master plan, but there wasn’t money for it at the time,” Kunkel says. “The Knight Foundation wants to support projects in town and find ways for communities to be downtown.”
Kunkel and Brad Groznik of Groznik PR made a presentation to the Borough Council in October, but the plan was rejected December 16 by a 4-3 vote. The vote happened at the final meeting of the year, which also happened to be the final meeting for two of the dissenting votes. The project’s supporters saw an opportunity to reopen the issue with two new council members in January.
After more than two hours of discussion and debate at the January 13 council meeting, Summers on Allen passed, 4-3. Council President Jesse Barlow and members Deanna Behring, Dan Murphy, and Evan Myers voted for the proposal. Council members Janet Engeman, Theresa Lafer, and Pete Marshall voted against it.
While the majority of the comments at January’s council meeting were in support of the project, its support was not unanimous. Groznik drew comparisons to when developing Pop Up Ave, which has grown into a recurring event downtown.
“The process has been that I will propose doing something and there will be a number of people who don’t like the idea or don’t understand the event,” Groznik says. “With Pop Up Ave, there were a lot of very reasonable questions, but I had faith that when we hosted it, people would get it, and now we’re in a place where it feels like everyone supports it.”
However, a February 7 lawsuit filed on behalf of four Allen Street businesses shows that Summers on Allen has not yet reached that level of support.
State College attorney Faith Lucchesi filed a complaint in Centre County civil court alleging that the Borough Council’s decision to approve Summers on Allen violated the borough’s home rule charter.
Lucchesi filed the lawsuit on behalf of Rapid Transit Sports, Connecting Point Computers, Woodring Floral Gardens, and Cuts by Christy. Together, the businesses represent the newly-formed Allen Street Stores Expecting to Survive (ASSETS).
As of press time, borough officials were reviewing the complaint and determining how to proceed. Kunkel and Groznik said the suit would not stop Summers on Allen planning from moving forward.
What’s old is new
The idea for a pedestrian mall on the 100 block of South Allen has been at least 60 years in the making. The idea gained significant traction in 1959 when it was proposed by architect and Penn State professor A. William Hajjar.
A Penn State architecture department magazine from 1960 reports that Hajjar’s students spent more than 5,000 hours researching the project and created a replica of what the mall would look like that was displayed for a week in what is now the HUB-Robeson Center. The project advanced from campus to the Borough Council, but was ultimately rejected.
The idea also came before the Borough Council in 2010 and was voted down, 4-2, with council members citing concern from business owners.
The work in the 1960s fits into a larger trend of pedestrian mall construction happening at that time, according to Kelly Gregg, an assistant lecturer in urban planning at Ball State University. Her research focuses on street design, pedestrian environments, and public spaces. She also happens to be a Penn State alumna; she received a landscape architecture degree in 2007.
“Before WWII, most economic centers were downtowns,” Gregg says. “It was in the postwar era that we started to build suburban shopping centers. Over 60 percent of the pedestrian malls constructed in this era were funded by federal urban renewal dollars.”
About 75 pedestrian malls remain in existence today, and Gregg says those that are most successful have pivoted from commerce to a focus on entertainment and social uses. As an alumna and an expert on pedestrian malls, Gregg says she sees potential for Summers on Allen to be successful if the focus is on public space.
“Contemporary proposals and implementation don’t focus on improving the retail district; it’s about public space,” Gregg says. “I see adapting Allen Street as a great way to provide more public space by re-orienting the traffic flow. However, this plan is a little unusual in that they are interested in revitalizing retail in the summertime and that seems like an outlier in most of the malls that exist today.”
Looking north and west
At Borough Council meetings and in social media posts, supporters of Summers on Allen frequently made comparisons to other cities and towns that have pedestrian malls or plazas. The closest example is the Ithaca Commons in Ithaca, New York, located 185 miles north of State College and home to both Cornell University and Ithaca College.
Gary Ferguson has been the manager of Downtown Ithaca since 1999. He’s seen the Ithaca Commons go through its share of ups and downs in that time. By 2010, the city was faced with a choice about whether to keep the commons open and invest in needed repairs to the water lines that were underneath it.
After talking with business owners and residents, Ferguson says the “vast majority” supported making the investments needed to keep the mall open. Today, it attracts more than 2 million visitors per year and is an integral part of the city’s plan to create an urban center with non-student housing.
“A pedestrian mall is not a silver bullet and it won’t work if you rely on it to be everything,” Ferguson says. “It’s a tool and you need to make sure you are using it in a way that makes sense for your community.”
The success of the Ithaca Commons does not mean smooth sailing for the city. Ferguson says his office spends a lot of time “convincing people to come downtown” and receives pushback from residents that mirrors the discussion around Summers on Allen.
“We’re hearing people saying, ‘You’re changing our community,’ and, ‘It’s not like it used to be,’” Ferguson says. “I appreciate that, but I don’t want Ithaca to be another example of a city that’s hollowed out. I want to harness the energy of the downtown environment.”
Of the pedestrian malls in the United States, several are in college towns, including Iowa City, Iowa, which is home to the University of Iowa. The city’s Ped Mall opened in the 1970s and is located next to the university’s campus.
Nancy Bird, executive director of Downtown Iowa City, said the mall is known as the “living room of Iowa City.”
“It was controversial at the time, but it’s settled in now. It’s a real gem that’s come out of urban renewal,” Bird says. “The acceptance has come from a lot of care and understanding about what kind of setting makes this thing work.”
Like Ferguson, Bird realizes that large-scale projects like this are never going to receive complete agreement from a community. She says the Downtown Iowa City team focuses its efforts on people who are open to an urban mindset.
“They’re young or young at heart and they want travel, adventure, and exploration,” Bird says. “You really need to think about who you are serving and how much you want to invest in trying to change people’s minds.”
Iowa City’s Ped Mall is managed and funded by the city. Summers on Allen is currently funded by the Knight Foundation as a pilot project and does not have a permanent source of funding. Bird says the city’s involvement can lead to a lack of coordination among departments, which her office sometimes needs to step in and address.
“We have to be the squeaky wheel that keeps an eye open to what the mall and the people who use it need,” she says.
All eyes on May 11
Since Summers on Allen passed, Groznik and Kunkel formed an advisory board to gain feedback on the project from a cross-section of business owners and community members. They also hosted two community brainstorming sessions in February to learn more about how the community wanted to use the space.
Council member Murphy is one of the project’s most vocal supporters and says he would eventually like to see the pedestrian mall made permanent, much like Ithaca Commons or Iowa City’s Ped Mall.
“I see an opportunity to create a space to gather and bring the community together to celebrate local businesses, which is a different conversation than one about high-rises and what’s happening around Allen Street,” Murphy says. “I welcome that opportunity to keep State College connected as a community.”
Looking ahead to May, some downtown businesses are starting to think about how they can make use of the space. KCF Technologies, located on Beaver Avenue between Allen and Fraser streets, plans to incorporate Summers on Allen into its annual customer summit in June and offer incentives for its employees to shop at local businesses.
Jen Mitchell, the company’s director of human resources, says the prospect of working in an urban environment is a selling point when trying to recruit recent Penn State graduates and young professionals who might also be considering jobs in larger cities.
“When you’re in your 20s looking for a job, you’re looking for a community where you can be connected and places where you can easily meet up after work,” Mitchell says. “A huge part of our strategy is to sell working downtown … people don’t realize what State College has to offer and our employees end up being active in the downtown area.”
However, not everyone shares that enthusiasm for Summers on Allen. Rapid Transit Sports has been one of the project’s most vocal opponents. Owner Terry Losch expressed concern about street vendors that could compete with his business, such as a Penn State apparel shop, and about losing the area for delivery trucks that serve his and other businesses on the street.
Theresa Ritzman, manager of Connections, 133 South Allen Street, says she’s looking forward to Summers on Allen, both as a business owner and a patron. She lived in California for a year and, upon coming back to State College, saw the potential that a pedestrian plaza could bring to downtown.
“It’s not just for Allen Street, it’s for the whole town,” Ritzman says. “It will be good to have a meeting place that’s not a bench on College or Beaver.”
Ritzman says June is typically a slower month for Connections, and she’s looking forward to seeing what increased foot traffic might mean, knowing that any change will be temporary if things don’t work out.
“Just try it … if it doesn’t work, then we don’t have to do it again,” she says. “Everyone here started a business because they wanted to try something.”
Geoff Brugler, owner of Appalachian Outdoors, says he’s been involved with many efforts to revitalize downtown over the years and calls Summers on Allen the most comprehensive plan he’s seen for bringing people out to support local businesses.
“I see a lot of potential here and there’s no way we’re going to know unless we give it a shot,” Brugler said at the January 13 Borough Council meeting. “Business is pretty challenging and I think we really need to expand our vision and look at doing a few things differently.”
Council member Lafer opposed Summers on Allen during both of its votes before the Borough Council. She says that, while the idea sounds nice and clearly works in other places, she’s not convinced it will work in State College because of the area’s size and demographics.
“We want a downtown that can provide good services, entertainment, food to families, students, young professionals, and the elderly,” Lafer says. “A lot of people pick one group or another to focus on, and we can’t do that.”
Lafer also expresses concerns about the potential for long-term funding if the project is a success.
“We don’t have $100,000 in the budget to underwrite it year after year,” she says. “If we say that we can’t afford to support this, then we’re the bad guys.”
Is there room for a middle ground? Liz Kisenwether sees both sides of the coin. She advises businesses at the Happy Valley Launchbox on Allen Street and is the mother of a Rapid Transit employee.
“I get the idea of making downtown more attractive; why would you not want to do that?” she says. “But I worry that the focus might be too much on young professionals … what about older professionals and the community as a whole?”
She’s heard a variety of perspectives on the project and says she’s supportive of the experiment to more fully understand what the impacts of Summers on Allen might be.
“There are always more than two sides to a story and it’s been interesting to see how the town changes,” she says. “I do think it’s a good idea to experiment, and we’ll see what happens.”
For more information about Summers on Allen, visit summersonallen.com.
Jenna Spinelle is a freelance writer in State College.