State College Borough Council approves master plan after residents seek delay

Though residents asked for a postponement and presented a 123-signature petition opposing the downtown master plan, the Borough Council approved the plan 5-2 on Monday.

Specifically, the online petition states objections to recommendations for zoning that allows 14-story buildings, to the plan including recommendations for the West End and that it lacks “comprehensive impact assessments” of the recommended projects.

The petition also states that signers oppose amendments allowing greater rental housing density for signature buildings in the commercial incentive district, but that was an issue separate from the master plan.

Before proceeding with the vote to approve the plan, council members and staff noted a lengthy design process, which started last year, and that it offers a guideline for projects that would require further approval by council and/or the Downtown State College Improvement District and Penn State.

The plan includes recommendations and projects to update branding and marketing of the downtown area, improve pedestrian and bicycle facilities and create a more seamless transition from campus to College Avenue.

Council President Don Hahn and Councilwoman Sarah Klinetob opposed acceptance of the plan.

Hahn proposed an amendment to remove recommendations for projects in the West End, saying those don’t belong in the plan for the downtown.

“This was supposed to be a 10-year review of the previous plan and that doesn’t mention the Urban Village or West End,” he said.

The amendment failed. Councilman Ron Filippelli pointed out the council’s previous approval of zoning changes that will allow a 14-story project at College Avenue and Atherton Street, the edge of the West End.

Planning Commission Chairman Evan Myers said his panel feels there is a strong link between the two areas. Previous borough attempts at a West End plan have stalled and Ferguson Township has worked on a streetscape plan for its own section of West College Avenue.

“Even though there are things in the downtown master plan on the West End I personally don’t agree with, having them approached as one is important,” he said.

On the plan in total, Councilman Peter Morris praised it as “excellent” and said Monday was the time to vote on it after a lengthy and open process. He said he particularly likes the recommendations for the 100 block of South Allen Street, including brick travel lanes flush with the sidewalk and occasional closings.

“It brings to life the rough ideas I’ve had on what to do on Allen Street,” he said. “When we adopt this plan, we have not passed an ordinance. We have not voted any money.”

Resident Smita Bharti said the petition alone should give the council pause and result in a vote postponement.

“It needs more discussion,” added resident Janet Engeman, expressing concerns about maintaining a “folksy” atmosphere and that large retail spaces would force out small businesses.

Related to comments that the community, including small business owners, wasn’t involved enough in the plan’s design process, Jersey Mike’s Subs owner Matt Patterson said he received “umpteen” phone calls and notifications about opportunities to give input.

“I attended most of them, if not all of them,” he said.

Theresa Lafer, president of the Highlands Civic Association, said she received many phone calls and letters on the plan and, particularly, the petition. She noted the different issues the petition addresses.

“As I understand it, this does not change a single zoning law or ordinance that is in practice,” she said of the master plan. “It’s trying to present a marketing plan, particularly for our businesses and downtown area, to make this a vibrant and healthy place that people want to come to.”

Several projects are proposed for 2014, including a first phase of way-finding signs at an estimated cost of $335,000. Officials anticipate the DSCID will work with the borough on that and downtown branding.