State College review board gets first look at Beaver Canyon development plans

The president of one of Penn State’s fraternity alumni groups was disappointed to learn he wasn’t notified that a borough board on Wednesday would review preliminary plans for 254 E. Beaver Ave., the long-debated site that was rezoned last year.

Otto Grupp III is the president of Penn State’s Phi Kappa Sigma Alumni Corp. That fraternity sits across Locust Lane from the site, which itself used to be a fraternity. He opposed the rezoning at that time and continues to do so.

“We’re the most active and concerned neighbor on that block and in the vicinity,” he said.

A new preliminary plan was presented Wednesday to the borough’s Design Review Board by Georgia architect Rob Ponder. The plan calls for demolishing the current building and starting fresh with a six-story, mixed-use structure.

The first floor would house up to six different retail establishments, fronting Beaver Avenue, with a second floor of offices, and four floors of student apartments to accommodate 96 residents. Parking would consist of two levels behind the building, one considered “mezzanine,” as the site elevation increases 14 feet from Beaver to Highland Avenue.

The project was made possible by a narrow decision last year by the Borough Council to rezone the site from residential R2 to residential office, with a residential-office overlay. The overlay also affects 320 and 340 East Beaver and allows mixed-use buildings, commercial uses and up to two additional stories of height if developers meet incentives.

HFL Corp. owns the site and for years has insisted that student housing is the only profitable option for the Beaver Canyon location, while others argued for mixed uses in the area already flush with student high-rise apartment buildings. The company’s design concept last year included the retail and office uses, with its own headquarters taking up the office space.

“I think we can get rid of an eyesore,” Ponder said Wednesday, showing samples of gray for the Beaver Avenue storefronts and shades of pale brown on the upper, residential stories. “I think this is one of the things y’all have been looking for — true mixed use.”

Grupp said last year that he would appeal the rezoning decision, but said Wednesday it was determined there was nothing he could do at the time. If HFL requests any variances at the site, requiring a Zoning Hearing Board appearance, Grupp said he will then be prepared to appeal.

The only possible variance mentioned Wednesday came from a question by DRB member Jodi LaCoe, who wondered if an interested retailer could extend the business into the second floor.

Planner Anne Messner said that, in order to benefit from the building height incentive, the building must have an office floor.

“It would be easy to do structurally,” Ponder said. “I don’t imagine it would be a hard variance to get.”

Grupp continues to have concerns about the rezoning and proposed project, including its proximity to a historic district, increased density of residents and the increased height potential, though the new building would sit lower than the high-rise apartments in the next block east.

“No question it’s spot zoning,” Grupp said. “They’re jumping the street just to accommodate another apartment house that downtown State College does not need any longer.”

There is no timeline for a final plan submission, which will receive DRB and Planning Commission review.

Other issues up for discussion at that time will include the borough’s inclusionary housing ordinance. The proposed development would have enough apartments to trigger inclusion of affordable units, or an alternative option as required by ordinance.