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The future of zoning in downtown State College

Plus: A complete guide to candidates for governor, and PSU's new president defends hiring.


September 15, 2022
Inside this edition: Potential State College zoning changes, frustrated workers punished for legal medical marijuana use, the complete guide to the candidates for governor, and Penn State's new president defends new position and executive's pay raise during hiring freeze. 
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Zoning 'Reality Check'
Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times

In the past decade, a handful of 12-story luxury student housing high-rises have cropped up in downtown State College, dramatically changing the skyline of the small borough that’s home to massive Penn State University.

For some residents and university alumni, the buildings are an unwelcome sight, altering the character of downtown and portending more unwanted development. Others appreciate the higher-density housing, saying it supports a more sustainable and livable downtown.

High-rise student apartment buildings have been a subject of contention for some time. While a zoning ordinance amendment to discourage developers from building more of them has been proposed, it’s also surfaced a larger issue of how zoning changes should be made — piecemeal or holistically.

And it’s forced elected officials and the community to grapple with how they ultimately want downtown to look.

“We keep losing sight of a vision through these changes, and without a clear understanding, I feel like the flip-flops are catching up with us,” State College Borough Council Member Deanna Behring said at Monday’s council meeting.

Since the last comprehensive zoning rewrite in 1959, more than 220 amendments have been made, State College planning director Ed LeClear told Spotlight PA.

The zoning amendment discussed at Monday’s meeting would repeal a 2013 amendment — requested by the developers of The Metropolitan on Atherton Street — that reduced the required commercial space for high-rises and allowed more rental residential space in select "non-owner-occupied" bonus areas. Those NOO bonus areas were concentrated on the edges of downtown to preserve the historic core.

In 2017, the council removed the NOO bonus areas on the west side of downtown but left them in the east. The decision before the council on Monday — which they ultimately postponed making — was whether to eliminate the NOO bonus areas in the east as well, effectively deterring future high-rise student housing developments. 

Since 2013, four 12-story high-rises dedicated to student housing have been built downtown, and another is on the way.

Community members who spoke during the meeting’s public hearing expressed concern about eliminating the higher-density housing.

“By putting this change into effect without a complete and comprehensive change to all zoning — all you’re doing, I’m afraid, is playing a game of whack-a-mole,” former Borough Council President Evan Myers said. “You’ll push down the building heights in one place, only to see a spate of mid-rise buildings pop up … and that will creep into neighborhoods and perhaps even destroy some of them.”

He also pointed out that the borough was able to incentivize developers to build green buildings, commercial space, and inclusionary housing by allowing higher-density projects.

Several council members agreed that a comprehensive zoning rewrite should be the priority, rather than rushing a zoning amendment that could have unintended consequences. But Council Member Peter Marshall opposes waiting for a comprehensive rewrite to deal with the student high-rises, because he doesn’t want to see any more built downtown.

Should the council eventually decide to repeal the 2013 amendment, 12-story buildings could still be built — but projects would have to include at least 40% commercial space. Residential density would also be lower. 

“There’s not going to be as much interest from the market to build at that lower residential density and also have to build at least 40% of the project as commercial space,” LeClear said.

Members of the Borough Council, the Planning Commission, and the Zoning Revision Advisory Committee have indicated preferences for shorter buildings, less density, more affordability, more energy efficiency, and more expensive construction types, he said.

It’s unlikely the market would follow in lockstep. So planning staff is in the process of trying to “reality check them to the market,” LeClear said, while figuring out what tradeoffs could be made to encourage developers to build what they want, where they want it. 

He hopes that a draft of the comprehensive zoning rewrite, which has been in the works for several years, can be ready in 2023.

“It’s a matter of figuring out what we want to keep,” he said, “but then also preparing us for where we want to go in the future — and also not creating code that just reacts to the situation right now.”

Sarah Rafacz, State College editor

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» How Spotlight PA will cover Pennsylvania's 2022 election

» THE STATE OF PA.’S ELECTIONS: Join us Thursday, Sept. 29 at 6:00 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A with Acting Secretary of State Leigh M. Chapman, who oversees elections in Pennsylvania. Chapman will discuss how her agency secures and runs elections, explain the state’s voting policies, and answer all of your more pressing election questions. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org
📷 Local Gem
Abby D. found an interesting mushroom on a recent walk. Want to be featured here? Send your best local pics to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org.
📰 In Other News
» PennDOT asks public to "save the date" for October meetings on U.S. Route 322 connector project in Centre County (WPSU)

» Penn State moves closer to expanded alcohol sales at Beaver Stadium (StateCollege.com)

» Penn State president defends new VP position, executive's pay raise during hiring freeze (Centre Daily Times)

» Recent rains are not yet enough to end Pennsylvania's drought watch (WPSU)

» State of emergency: UPMC Altoona attempting to combat nursing shortage (Altoona Mirror)

» Patients, families share UPMC experiences (Altoona Mirror)

» Lycoming commissioners remove referendum on electronic voting machines (NorthcentralPA.com)
📅 Events
Want us to list your event? Send it to us.

» Sept. 15: Enjoy fresh food and farm activities at the Harvest Fest at Penn State's Ross Student Farm.

» Sept. 16-18: Folk music and the beauty of the great outdoors come together at the Greenwood Furnace Folk Gathering.

» Sept. 16-17: The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State presents a bilingual production of Prince Hamlet.

» Sept. 17: Celebrate Constitution Day by deliberating the role of public education in the State College community.

» Sept. 17: The Community Diversity Group hosts its Multicultural Unity Fair in downtown State College.

» Sept. 19-22: A showcase of agriculture, home economics, crops, produce, and more, the Hollidaysburg Community Farm Show returns for its 85th year.
🧩 The Puzzler
An anagram is a word, phrase, or name formed by rearranging the letters of another. For example, "spotlight" also forms "stoplight."

Decode the anagram and send your answer to talkofthetown@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA State College swag.

Good luck!

Last week's answer: Creative

Congrats to Donna D., who will receive Spotlight PA State College swag. Others who answered correctly: Jean M., Steve B., Annette B., Hugh M., Jay G.
Do you have events, community shoutouts, questions about our region, or tips on stories that we should pursue? Email our team.
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