Student Housing: Appears Unlikely for State College Verizon Site; Borough Role Questioned

by Adam Smeltz for

Much of State College Borough Council appeared ready Monday to prevent more student housing from materializing on the 200 block of South Allen Street.

But there was no apparent unanimity over the borough’s would-be role in any redevelopment projects there.

“Are we now going to reach into the pockets of our citizens again and say we now support” a borough-led project on the block? said council member Silvi Lawrence. “I would really discourage that. … I really don’t think this should become (an) expanded project that the borough will do.”

Specifically at issue is the fate of the former Verizon building, 224 S. Allen St. Back in 2007, council members voted to acquire the 7,800-square-foot building for $750,000.

At the time, their hope was that the planned Discovery Space children’s museum would eventually overhaul and move into the space.

Earlier this year, though, Discovery Space organizers announced that they would shift their initial museum plans to a smaller space on the 100 block of West Foster Avenue.

That left the borough with a question: What to do with the old Verizon building?

In recent months, it’s been rented out on a temporary basis to the local Democratic party and political candidates. Meanwhile, the borough Redevelopment Authority, at the council’s request, has crafted recommendations to help the council decide how to proceed.

Planning Director Carl Hess presented those recommendations at the council meeting on Monday night. They suggest that the borough should pursue a mixed-use redevelopment project that would replace the Verizon building, perhaps with a seven-story combination of retail, office and non-student residential space. Such a project could be developed through a public-private partnership, through borough ownership or through a land sale with restrictive covenants attached, according to the Redevelopment Authority.

But the RDA has argued against an outright straight sale of the property, saying that a borough-guided effort would prevent additional student housing and promote more diverse land uses in the downtown.

“I’m very much a control freak, and I hate to see the borough lose control,” RDA member Karen Burgos said last month. “I think they should have a finger in the pie.”

At least several council members on Monday seemed to agree that student housing shouldn’t be allowed there.

Student housing “is commonly called the best and highest use,” council member Theresa Lafer. But “it is the most lucrative use for one group of people” — property owners — “some of whom live here and some don’t.”

Trouble is, Lafer said, student housing eats away at the borough tax base. Students often don’t pay much in the way of local earned-income taxes, a key revenue source for the borough.

“It is not going to be lucrative 10 years down the road when there is no tax base” to pay for continued public services, Lafer said. She said the borough should look at the Verizon property as a mixed-use opportunity, not a chance to allow “warehousing … of as many students in as little space possible.”

Vicki Fong, the RDA chairwoman, said the authority sees the Verizon property as a community asset. She argued that if the borough gives “away (its) assets, you’re not going to get them back. … We see (the Verizon property) as an opportunity to invest in the community rather than just give away a valuable asset.”

But if that space does hold real potential for redevelopment, then a private developer should take the lead, Lawrence said. She pointed to the still-unfulfilled Fraser Centre redevelopment plans, long supported by the borough, as a cautionary tale. She said the borough should “realize that we can’t control the market. … Development is a specialty area.”

“I think your idealism is very laudable,” Lawrence said to Fong. But she said that “the reality of what we can’t control … is the economic reality of the world.”

Council members unanimously agreed to discuss the matter in more detail at an upcoming work session.


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