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State College Approves Traffic Changes For Apartment Move-In

Every August, State College Borough Council approves several traffic pattern changes and lane closures to manage the masses of Penn State students moving into downtown apartments. Usually, that approval comes with little or no discussion.

But as Councilman Evan Myers noted at Monday night’s meeting, “This is not like every other August.”

With concerns about the spread of COVID-19 as students and families potentially crowd sidewalks and common areas of apartment buildings, Myers said he wanted to know what kind of safety plans landlords will have in place.

“I’d like to understand before I vote in favor of this what the university and what the rental agencies… what plans and provisions they are making to keep our streets and sidewalks safe downtown before they have masses of students, parents, friends, other relatives downtown walking the streets and having masses of people all over the place,” Myers said. “As I said last week, what we saw when the Arts Festival didn’t happen but when people came back in town is just a small fraction of what we’re going to see when this occurs. I’m not going to vote in favor of this until I see what their plan is.”

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said this time around, traffic changes for move-in are conditioned on apartment building management first submitting a COVID-19 safety plan to the borough health department for approval. 

He added that a group of downtown rental property managers and owners have been meeting for several weeks to collectively develop those plans. Fountaine, Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, and Centre Region COG Executive Director Eric Nordenberg are also preparing a letter to send to families of returning students with specific guidance for move-in.

Assistant Borough Manager Tom King said that the traffic change approval process gives the borough a measure of control it would not otherwise have by making traffic flow as orderly as possible and requiring safety plans for both inside and outside the apartment buildings during move-in.

“Will it be perfect? No,” King said. “But will it be better than if we do nothing? It will be better from the standpoint of having a COVID plan in place and it will definitely be better from a standpoint of traffic flow and traffic congestion and not having cars parked everywhere and anywhere and having no ability to try to manage the best we can.”

Council unanimously approved the traffic changes, including:

  • Partial left lane closure on the 400 block of West College Avenue, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Aug. 14-15, for The Metropolitan move-in
  • Partial right lane closure on the 600 block of East College Avenue and High Street between Wilson Alley and College Avenue, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Aug. 20-22, for University Gateway and The Meridian move-in
  • Temporary traffic pattern change on H Alley to one-way between West Calder Way and West Beaver Avenue, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Aug. 22 for The Graduate move-in
  • Road closure of East Calder Way from South Garner Street to Hiester Street and Hiester Street from East Calder Way to Beaver Avenue, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 21-23, for Here State College move-in.
  • Temporary traffic pattern change on East Calder Way to be one-way eastbound between Hetzel and High streets and one-way westbound between Hetzel and South Garner streets from Aug. 14 through Aug. 24.
  • Temporary traffic pattern change on Hetzel Street between East Beaver Avenue and East Calder Way,  Aug. 1- 16.

King said for the latter two, the multiple apartment buildings involved have identified primary dates for move-in but that the extended time frame is a logistical decision for the borough instead of stopping and restarting the one-way pattern.

“…And people will come in during the off times from which they’re encouraged to come. They can’t prohibit them from showing up,” King added.

Myers said he appreciates the work borough staff has done to require safety plans, but added they should be made public. 

“Many, many of my neighbors, and I’m sure all the council members’ neighbors, have expressed great concern about what just happened about 10 days ago and about a super spreader event that takes place over a long period of time as students return without any kind of input,” he said.

Council is expected to consider an ordinance at its August 4 meeting that would give the borough authority to enforce several potential mitigation measures, including requiring the wearing of masks downtown, prohibiting lines from forming on sidewalks in commercial districts and further limiting outdoor gathering sizes on public and private properties.

Councilwoman Deanna Behring inquired whether council could take up the ordinance earlier since some move-in dates will begin prior to the anticipated vote.

“That gives me some concern that things will start happening before we’ve had a chance to approve this new ordinance and enact enforcement provisions,” Behring said.

Fountaine, however, said the borough is “locked into the timeline we have” because the Board of Health is scheduled to review the ordinance at its July 28 meeting.

Several council members also said they want to hear Penn State’s specific plans for move-in. University administrators said on-campus move-in will occur in phases beginning at least a week before classes start on August 24, but they have not presented specific plans to the borough. The university’s “Arrival” website lists five move-in dates as TBA and housing assignments won’t be announced until July 28

“This is emblematic of a bigger problem that we’ve got and that is that we’re going to have 40,000 kids descending on the town,” Councilwoman Janet Engeman said. “And as far as I know the university has not laid out any really cogent plan for how we’re going to deal with it. We’ve got a problem with people moving into buildings but we’ve got a problem with people moving into town in general.”

Councilwoman Theresa Lafer said she wants to know what exactly Penn State plans to do if there is a significant rise in COVID-19 cases in the next few weeks. Councilman Peter Marshall said the university has indicated it would “be prepared to pivot if things looked bad,” but he doesn’t know what would trigger that or what “pivot” actually means.

Though Penn State has provided several public updates related to the return of students and on-campus classes, Myers said that the broader return plans presented by the university during a recent town-and-gown webinar were “sketchy.” In addition to move-in, he said, the community needs to hear more about all aspects of Penn State’s planning.

“I would recommend, if possible, that they be asked to come to council and make a presentation so that we and the public can understand and that we can ask questions,” Myers said. 

“They have a responsibility to share that with this community.”

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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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