STATE COLLEGE — Strengths like amenities within walking distance and weaknesses like a lack of lighting were two items in common between the borough’s College Heights and Greentree neighborhoods, among their many differences in location and residents.
Discussions of such issues started with the Highlands last year, as the borough Planning Department began work to update the 1994 neighborhood plan. However, later in 2012, the Planning Commission suggested creating one, broad neighborhood plan, to include all parts of the borough and discuss common and individual issues.
The Highlands meetings served as a model for those taking place this spring. Planning staff and commission members met with College Heights and Greentree residents last month to discuss what residents perceive as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Meagan Tuttle, with the borough’s planning staff, said they didn’t have expectations about what residents would say, and really wanted to hear about a range of issues, which has happened so far. Some of those may result in further action, once a full plan is developed.
“The conversation that we’re having with the neighborhoods in these meetings this spring will give us the kind of an overview of, these are the things we should preserve and these are the things we need to address through policies or programs, whether that’s on an individual basis or borough-wide, that will touch all of our neighborhoods the same,” she said.
A completed plan, expected by the end of the year, will include implementation ideas.
“We don’t want everything in this plan to be Planning Commission or Planning Department responsibilities,” Tuttle said, adding that neighborhood associations or individual residents could be “champions” of some items. “And what resources we have available to them, whether that’s building on an existing program or searching for grants.”
Meetings will continue in February and March. The February meetings will engage the South and Tusseyview neighborhoods on Tuesday, Feb. 12 at Easterly Parkway Elementary, 234 Easterly Parkway, and the Holmes-Foster neighborhood on Thursday, Feb. 21 at the Unity Church of Jesus Christ, 140 N. Gill St.
Jean and Bill Bemis have lived in the neighborhood since the early 1970s and Jean Bemis remembers there used to be a cut-through from Taylor Street to Atherton Street.
She called it a weakness that it no longer seems to exist and pedestrians must scale a steep hill to get to Atherton.
“It was very convenient for a lot of people,” she said during the Jan. 8 meeting.
Her husband, Bill, said the meeting was productive and offered many comments. One of the weaknesses he described was that the Centre Area Transportation Authority Martin/Aaron Express and Vairo Boulevard Express routes drive past College Heights but don’t serve the neighborhood. The express routes don’t stop on that section of North Atherton Street.
“I used to have six buses I could get on at Mitchell and Atherton,” he said. “Now, 13 buses went by before I could get on board.”
Residents named neighborhood strengths including homeowner stability, age diversity, current traffic control through the streets, and the proximity to campus, downtown and shopping. The closeness to campus also was labeled a weakness.
Opportunities included winter recreation on the Penn State Golf Courses on the west side, replacing trees as they require cutting, and enhancing pedestrian access to the nearby Radio Park Elementary, where the public can use the playground after school hours.
“Make it more friendly, encourage the use of play equipment,” said Erin Murtha, a new Planning Commission member and College Heights resident. “The school seems detached from the neighborhood.”
Described threats included increased traffic, especially on Atherton, Park and Hillcrest, the potential increase in student rental homes, and previous proposals showing potential commercial land uses along nearby sections of North Atherton Street.
Neighborhood association Vice President Mark Johnson said during the Jan. 10 meeting that he considers the desirability of the area to be an opportunity to maintain the neighborhood.
“The home values have maintained, even through the most recent period,” he said. “I bought my home in five days. Homes seem to flip relatively quickly.”
Residents called out many strengths including the neighboring Orchard Park, the proximity to the State College Area High School and Westerly Parkway Plaza shopping center, that the neighborhood is quiet, and the bordering bike and walking path.
“The bike path is a tremendous strength in our neighborhood,” said resident Michele Rowland. “It’s amazing the people that use that bike path.”
They described a few weaknesses such as above-ground electrical wires that are not aesthetically pleasing and cause power outage problems, a lack of lighting on some streets, and vehicle speeding on Bayberry Drive.
The group shared more threats to the neighborhood, including potential outcomes following the school district’s current high school project. Johnson worried about the potential use of the land, should the high school be relocated.
“I doubt highly the borough would put that into a green space,” he said.
They also are concerned about a large student housing development in the early planning stages in Ferguson Township, which would sit across from the intersection of Blue Course Drive and Whitehall Road.
When the neighborhood met last year as part of the update the its 1994 plan, residents praised the diversity of residents as a strength. Current Highlands Civic Association President Theresa Lafer said maintaining that balance is still a goal.
“The neighborhood is filled with people who have been here 20, 30, 40, 50 years,” she said. “There are a growing number of small children in the last year and families. It’s really nice.”
Some residents felt the neighborhood’s stability is threatened by the potential increase in student rental housing, a common theme. Lafer said a recently changed borough ordinance that increases the required distance between student homes helps, and that housing should be available to everyone.
“Young adults say it’s hard to find housing,” she said. “That’s not surprising. It’s hard for us, too.”
Lafer has lived for 25 years in her Foster Avenue home, a former student home that was converted back to private ownership. While that’s a rare occurrence, she said it’s getting better, with some State College Community Land Trust homes in the neighborhood for first-time homebuyers.
Lafer said the two Highlands meetings last year were well-attended and that the process “really mattered to people.” Now, residents are working on how better to interact with students, including the many neighboring fraternities.
“It’s hard when you’re a short-term tenant and your interest is classes or parties,” Lafer said. “Because they’re used to students coming and going, most people are welcoming.”
Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.