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What Should Happen To Houses Of Suspended And Former Fraternities?

As State College continues work on its first major zoning ordinance rewrite in decades, borough council and planning commission held a joint work session on Monday night to discuss three major components — boundaries and uses for downtown districts, the potential for light industrial zoning in the West End, and what can be done with former fraternity houses.

The fraternity house issue has become more prominent in the past year. As Penn State has cracked down on violations since the death of Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza, 10 fraternities are on suspension or have lost university recognition. 

That’s caused a tricky situation for suspended fraternities with houses in the borough. Current borough zoning defines fraternities, in part, as having university recognition. Several that have continued as living quarters for members have been met with zoning violations for not receiving an appropriate change of use. Some, including the property owners for Sigma Alpha Mu and Alpha Chi Rho, have taken the borough to court, arguing that the borough is relying on a non-government institution to define its ordinance. Those cases are still pending.

What those fraternity houses can be converted to also is limited by current zoning. The ordinance as it stands allows for fraternity houses in the R-2 zoning district to be converted to a club or community center, day care center, home for the elderly, nursing home or private school, in addition to single-family homes.

Planning Director Ed LeClear said that since 1971, only one fraternity house in the borough has been converted to another use, for office space.

Most of the 42 fraternity houses are located within the R-2 district, which as of now, no longer permits fraternity houses.

“Should a fraternity look to convert to a different use, they would forgo ever being able to be a fraternity in that district in the future,” LeClear said.

Among council and planning commission members, who broke into three groups for the discussions, most seemed in agreement that they would not want to allow a property to return to use as a fraternity once converted to another use. Only councilman Dan Murphy said he would want to consider allowing the return. Murphy also noted that losing fraternity houses also means a loss of student housing stock.

For potential conversion uses, council and commission members offered a range of suggestions. Those included affordable housing, condominiums, live-work arrangements, boutique hotels, theaters, neighborhood centers and cooperatives.

Councilman David Brown, speaking for his group, offered another suggestion.

“We’d like to see them torn down if they’re not going to be used in any meaningful way, because it speaks to the ongoing problem in State College that there is no new land for developers to build housing on,” Brown said, adding that several single-family homes could be built on a lot.

Council and planning commission were asked to discuss height limits, density and uses for a Downtown Subdistrict and a College and Allen Subdistrict, which would include College Avenue between Garner and Burrowes streets and South Allen Street between College Avenue and Highland Alley.

They were also asked to discuss potential housing opportunities for non-students on the west side of downtown, while recognizing the east side has historically been a collegiate district dominated by student housing.

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said she was opposed to the idea of bifurcating housing along codified student and non-student lines.

“I believe that completely undermines the concept of inclusion and over time could develop into some form of a student ghetto,” Lafer said. “I think that is not a good idea.”

A draft proposal suggests maintaining a limit of four stories in the College and Allen Subdistrict. Elsewhere along College Avenue, the proposal suggests up to seven floors between Fraser and Burrowes and Garner and Shortlidge. A modified Commercial Incentive District signature development area could allow for up to 14 floors. That would include the area between Calder and Beaver from Pugh to Garner; between College and Calder from Garner to Hetzel; between Calder and Beaver from Fraser to Burrowes; between College and Beaver from Burrowes to Atherton; and north of College Avenue along Atherton to the Penn State campus.

Council and planning commission members generally expressed support for maintaining the four story limit in the College and Allen Subdistrict. Murphy said his group would like to see a seven-story limit for the remainder of the downtown district, with possible incentives for additional levels.

Murphy added that inclusionary housing requirements for new developments should be increased from 10 to 15 or 20 percent and a minimum of one parking space per unit should be maintained.

Brown suggested that the map should be adopted as soon as possible, before the zoning rewrite is completed, before developers submit plans under the current zoning map.

On the West End (west of Atherton along West College Avenue to the Ferguson Township line) the proposal considers the possibility of a light industrial or innovation zone. LeClear said that the borough really doesn’t have an area currently that can accommodate small-scale manufacturing, only prototyping.

Council and commission members supported maintaining the existing scale and character of the streetscape on West College Avenue while rezoning to open more opportunities for innovation. Some suggested a four-floor maximum height, while others said heights could increase for buildings correspondingly the closer they are to Railroad Avenue and the Penn State campus.

Murphy said the area should accommodate maker spaces and live-work units and be designed to jibe with Penn State’s plans to redevelop the adjacent West Campus as a hub for the College of Engineering.

Brown added that the zoning should be designed for housing opportunities so that entrepreneurs and innovators can live and work in the West End.

Work on the zoning ordinance update will continue throughout the year. For background documents and a timeline, visit zonestatecollege.org.

About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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