Why residents are concerned about proposed PSU parking deck
A future Penn State parking deck could mean more traffic in State College, and residents who say they’d be affected are at odds with the university over the proposed traffic plans.
The approximately 1,640-spot, six-tier parking garage would be constructed on one of the Red A lots on the university’s west campus, closest to the Earth and Engineering Sciences building. Construction of the parking deck hinges on development of the College of Engineering master plan, which involves a redesign of West Campus and demolition of the Hammond Building.
In a letter to Penn State, the Coalition of State College Neighborhood Associations said that the university’s traffic management plan, which includes a single entrance/exit at Atherton Street and White Course Drive, “will result in unacceptably high levels of traffic congestion, especially but not only at rush hours, for the entire community as well as for those using the garage.”
Penn State has proposed adding a right turn lane from Atherton Street onto White Course Drive, an extension of the right-turn lane from Atherton Street onto Park Avenue, new pedestrian safety measures and added traffic signal technology.
‘Balancing competing interests’
This is not the first complaint residents have lodged against the university’s traffic management plan for the new parking garage. In November, residents and Borough Council members objected to a second entry/exit point to the parking garage at Buckhout Street, saying it would cause too much traffic to flow through the Holmes-Foster neighborhood.
Council President Evan Myers said though the Atherton Street entrance/exit is not his first choice, it’s preferable to the West College Avenue/Buckhout Street entrance/exit, calling the predicted traffic increase “extremely concerning.” He still wants Penn State to consider an entry/exit to Blue Course Drive.
“(Penn State officials) have told us what they can’t do, but I’m interested in what they can do ... for the benefit and safety of the neighborhoods,” he said.
As it was first proposed, the parking garage would have had two entry/exit points — one on White Course Drive leading to North Atherton Street and the other using an access road that loops around the White Course Apartments, bringing drivers out to Buckhout Street where it intersects with West College Avenue.
Penn State revised the plan based off Borough Council and neighborhood concerns to include only one entry/exit point leading to the parking garage, said David Gray, senior vice president for finance and business at Penn State. It also conducted a second traffic feasibility study, which identified the Buckhout Street entry/exit to have the lowest environmental and traffic impact on College Avenue, said Bill Sitzabee, associate vice president and chief facilities officer for the Office of Physical Plant.
“The university has looked at multiple options, including those put forward by residents. The difficulty comes in balancing competing interests,” Gray said in an email.
He said the university considered a second entry/exit point to Blue Course Drive, suggested by residents and borough council, but it was “not considered a viable option because of the significant detrimental effect it could have on the environment, which could substantially impact local residents.”
Those environmental factors include a potable water well that requires a 400-foot buffer zone and a dry well that helps control stormwater runoff for the area and could cause flooding if disrupted, he said.
Finding a middle ground
But residents want the university to reconsider that option. According to the letter, they also want Penn State to consider other options for a second entrance/exit for the proposed garage that will lessen traffic impacts to local neighborhoods.
Steve Smith, president of the College Heights Association, said he’s aware of the environmental challenges, but thinks there’s another reason Penn State doesn’t want to consider the Blue Course Drive access road option.
“(The access road) could be run to the south of the bike path, all the way out to Blue Course Drive, which would mean considerably more expense to the university and more construction there,” he said. “But that would alleviate a whole lot of the traffic on Atherton.”
With only one entry/exit point to the garage via a right or lefthand turn from Atherton Street onto White Course Drive, he said traffic would most likely back up so far on Atherton that it would spill into the College Heights neighborhood nearby and affect residents’ morning or evening commutes.
“The university does impact the borough and neighborhoods and needs to really take that into consideration when making these plans,” he said.
Penn State plans to remove a total of 1,030 parking spaces from different campus lots that empty onto local roads — 800 of those currently in West Campus surface lots — consolidate them and add 600 more spaces to the West Campus Parking Deck, Gray said, making it the largest on campus. The new parking deck will feature a CATA bus stop at the northwest corner of the deck “for easy access,” Sitzabee said.
Bill Hartman, a member of the Holmes-Foster Neighborhood Association, said he’s looking forward to finding a better middle ground with Penn State. He shares the traffic concerns for the North Atherton Street/White Course Drive entry/exit.
Penn State’s first traffic management plan with two entry/exit points bristled community members, because it revealed “shortsightedness” and “no concern for the neighborhood,” he said.
Going forward, he said, Penn State needs to “give some credence” to local residents’ concerns and “involve community members to give their perspective” in projects like this.
According to residents, they are planning a meeting with Penn State, PennDOT, the neighborhood coalition and the borough to talk about better ways to manage traffic and a possible second entry/exit for the parking garage.
PennDOT spokesperson Timothy Nebgen said Penn State submitted a third traffic feasibility study for PennDOT, the borough and residents to review. There are no findings to report yet, and nothing has been approved or finalized, he said.
The university is slated to open the parking deck in fall 2020.