A final decision on a proposed collegiate housing overlay for the east end of the borough is a long way off if Thursday’s Planning Commission discussions are any indication.
On Sept. 3, representatives of the owners of Kildare’s, at 538 E. College Ave., presented a text amendment for the overlay to the commission.
The overlay would have the potential to alter building heights and parking spaces, allowing for taller than normally allowed buildings under the current commercial zoning. Building heights could also be increased based on incentives for development, such as adding professional housing and underground parking.
A majority of the overlay would be dedicated to student housing.
Based on the dramatic proposals, the commission decided extensive discussions would be required to delve into all the potential effects the amendment would create. These discussions would be broken down by topic, such as building height, density, incentives and even if the area should be considered for the amendment.
Before discussions even began, Highlands resident Peg Hambrick suggested the board table the request, asking that if borough leaders plan on doing comprehensive rezoning, no overlays should be added until that is completed.
“I don’t think this request has a certain urgency,” Hambrick said. “We have an adequate supply of student housing in the region. Some might say we have far more than we need.”
Dave Stone, who lives on East Foster Avenue, said another reason the commission might want to consider tabling the proposal is due to potential traffic issues. Developing before addressing the traffic impact locks up land that could potentially be used to alleviate traffic issues, making those small slivers of land impossible to acquire by PennDOT.
The first issue raised by Chairman Michael Roeckel was if the area should be considered for the text amendment. Commissioner Jon Eich said since the proposal was presented, the commission has an obligation to review it.
Vice Chairwoman Anita Genger said the commission needs to be “very, very careful” with their consideration. She said she was disturbed with what happened with the Metropolitan, a 12-story building slated for construction on West College Avenue and South Atherton Street, where the developer took advantage of incentives, ending up with an “overly tall building where it is.”
In an straw poll, the commission agreed to continue with the discussion.
In a following issue, the commission asked if the amendment should permit higher density of residential uses. Most board members agreed an increase in density would be appropriate — within limits.
The main focus of discussion concerned the potential height of a development. Under recommendations made in the downtown master plan, the maximum height of a building would be 7 stories, or 74 to 86 feet.
According to Planning and Community Development Director Ed LeClear, the Kildare’s property represents a hole in the east end of downtown in terms of elevation change. The one-story structure is flanked on three sides by buildings that are nine stories, eight stories and seven stories.
Commissioner Zoe Boniface said the commission has to make practical considerations when it comes to height versus the footprint of a building. Most taller buildings in that section of downtown occupy large areas, whereas Kildare’s is on a single plot. This could potentially result in a very tall, very skinny highrise.
“How many elevator columns will fit in that?” she said. “How long will it take to evacuate? How do you configure underground parking when you need to use more available space for ramps?”
Ultimately, the board unanimously agreed on the recommendation made in the downtown master plan.