Downtown State College projects looking up

mcarroll@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2014 

There’s rarefied air at the top of the Penn Tower building on East Beaver Avenue.

Standing on the roof of the 120-foot student apartment complex, long the tallest building in town, you would be looking down on the rest of State College.

But the view soon could change.

Two separate groups of developers received Borough Council approval in 2013 to push ahead with big plans. And as a result, two giant buildings, relatively speaking, have a clear path to break ground.

The Fraser Centre building, planned for the corner of West Beaver Avenue and South Fraser Street, would stand 155 feet tall. And The Metropolitan, set to be built at the intersection of South Atherton Street and West College Avenue, would rise 146 feet.

If those heights cause a double take, there is a good reason. The borough had long resisted extreme heights, capping buildings at certain levels, depending on setbacks. The Fraser Centre was originally allowed to rise to 145 feet, but in July, the borough amended the height to 155 feet.

But several years ago, plans moved forward for a pro-development commercial incentive district that would relax those rules around Atherton Street near Beaver and College avenues.

And now the first seeds of that plan, the Fraser Centre and The Metropolitan, could be on the verge of taking root.

Officials hope the plan will bring new businesses to downtown and help ensure the borough stays competitive with its neighbors. The formidable buildings also would welcome guests downtown, one official said.

“They are gateways to downtown,” said Evan Myers, a borough councilman and former member of the Planning Commission.

“These places are important visually, artistically, they are important from a streetscape standpoint. They are impressive-looking structures.”

The plans

Borough Council approved a conditional-use request in July that cleared the way for the long-delayed Fraser Centre project.

After years of delays and changes, the plan was revived in early 2013 by Susquehanna Real Estate for a mixed-use building that would include a hotel, retail and commercial space, and residential units.

The plan, which was approved by the council, calls for a 250,000-square-foot structure at the corner of West Beaver Avenue and South Fraser Street. The front of the building would face Beaver Avenue.

It would feature a 158-room hotel, 26 condominiums, retail space and a restaurant, according to those plans.

The first floor from the front of building would feature a hotel lobby and retail space. Above that would be a restaurant and hotel space. The next six floors would be hotel rooms, and the top four floors would be privately owned condominiums.

There also would be internal parking on two floors below ground level from the front of the building.

Developer and co-owner Gary Brandeis, of Real Estate Capital Management, previously said the building would be like no other in downtown State College and will bring amenities not found in other projects there.

“It’s not student housing,” Brandeis said. “We’re trying to bring a project that’s never really been done before (there).”

Brandeis’ ownership group took control of the project in October, when it purchased the land from Susquehanna.

Officials with Susquehanna had predicted a November 2013 start for construction. But that date has come and gone, and Brandeis said in January he could not predict when construction would begin.

“We are motivated to start construction as soon as possible,” he said. “...We are getting the project going in the right direction.”

State College Borough Manager Tom Fountaine previously said the current developers have been working to resolve outstanding issues for plans and approvals in the past few months.

“I am confident in the developers, and I expect this project to be built,” he said in an email. “... The developers have been working closely with our planning and public works department to prepare final plans and advance the project.”

Meanwhile, the council approved a similar conditional-use request from State College developer Ara Kervandjian in December for The Metropolitan project.

Designs for the building show large glass windows on the first and second floors, which will contain retail and commercial space. The corner of the building between South Atherton Street and West College Avenue is to be made of large glass panels on each floor.

An open courtyard would be on the third level in the rear of the building, giving it a U-shape above that floor.

Plans call for retail space on the first floor, high-grade office space on the second floor, student housing on the next seven, non-student units on the following two floors and both non-student housing and event space on the top level.

The building would have a multilevel underground internal parking garage to accommodate all required parking, according to the borough.

The proposed project is designed to be a 205,731-square-foot mixed-use building containing 48,721 square feet of non-residential space and 157,010 square feet of residential space.

“We see this as a very important place in State College,” Kervandjian previously said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve put this large glass element here. It will sort of be a lighthouse as you are driving South Atherton Street.”

Kervandjian did not provide a time frame for the project.

“There’s lots to do in order to get to the ground-breaking stage,” he has said. “But we are committed to forging ahead.”

A draw to downtown

State College officials believe the new buildings, and the businesses they bring with them, will help draw more customers and visitors to the borough.

“Fresher retail space will certainly be a draw,” said George Arnold, director of the Downtown State College Improvement District.

“We don’t know what the mix of stores will be, but new stores always help, no matter what area. It serves to get people heading (downtown).”

Myers said downtown State College is the “vibrant center of the whole community, the whole Centre Region,” saying it offers a mixture of university students, professors and people who work in and live in the community.

“It’s the magnet that draws everyone in, in a certain way,” Myers said. “I think this is making more amenities, more reason for downtown to be a destination. That can only strengthen the whole community.”

And while State College is a partner with its neighboring communities, in some ways it is also in competition with them.

“That’s another reason it’s important,” Myers said.

“I think to have a downtown State College that’s not only stronger, but more vibrant, that makes not just State College stronger, but the surrounding communities as well.

“By bringing more amenities in, more shopping, more hotels, it helps set a strong foundation,” he said.

And considering the site of the Fraser Centre is an empty lot, and The Metropolitan will be built on the site of a former Arby’s restaurant, both projects should be an improvement.

“Anytime you’re able to take some buildings that are older, and I don’t know that the (former) Arby’s is architecturally significant, that’s always an improvement,” Arnold said.

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