Proposed zoning changes to accommodate a conceptual mixed-use building at the old Arby’s site at the edge of downtown drew mixed public reaction Monday.
The Borough Council held a public hearing on the changes during a regular meeting. Those include increasing the allowed density of rental housing, reducing the minimum percentage of space that must be non-residential and adjusting a design requirement related to the building façade.
The changes apply to signature development in the commercial incentive district. A signature building is a conditional use that allows for development incentives, like additional height, based on the style of a building and its mix of uses.
Council members did not comment Monday, nor did they vote, though one was scheduled. Three council members were absent and staff recommended postponing the vote until the Aug. 19 meeting, when all members plan to attend. The four members present Monday approved that postponement.
Developers Ara Kervandjian and Heidi Nicholas requested the provisions in order to move forward with their proposed project, called The Metropolitan. The 12-story building would have underground parking, restaurants with outdoor seating, office and retail space, and a mix of apartments.
Four or five floors would serve undergraduate students, Kervandjian said, but the building would offer a mix of efficiency, three-bedroom, four-bedroom and other apartments.
“We’re trying for a real mixed-use environment,” he said, in an effort to attract “all sorts” of residents.
Some current borough residents who spoke during the hearing opposed the higher density provision in particular, which prompted Kervandjian to describe the mix of apartments.
Gill Street resident Karen Burgos called the building concept “another Beaver Canyon” and said a signature building is supposed to benefit the community.
“It’s a family neighborhood,” she said. “I feel very strongly that you should not increase the density of rental housing. I don’t see any benefit to a building that’s mostly student housing.”
Resident John Simbeck said he understands those concerns, but said plans for West End development show adding residents to the area, which he noted creates a tax base to aid in future borough projects.
Simbeck said the project could make the West College Avenue and North Atherton Street intersection a “great entrance instead of this dead corner that has been slowly dying the last 10 to 15 years.”
Others echoed the concern of the area becoming a “nuisance” and reiterated that it was part of a family neighborhood.
College Heights resident Donna Queeney called the concept a “well-designed” project. The changes also would allow the building to have a taller first floor, allowing a wider variety of possible commercial uses. The change would allow for a taller building in feet, while keeping it to 12 stories.
“If we don’t get this, we will get something else that won’t meet a higher ceiling on the first story to give us some attractiveness about the building,” Queeney said.
She also noted that more student housing close to Penn State’s campus could help take pressure off single-family neighborhoods, an ongoing concern.
“We were talking earlier about students in the community,” she said, referencing a report on a sustainability partnership between the university and borough. “My fear is if we don’t get The Metropolitan, we’ll get a lot worse.”