City wants housing market analyzed

The city has refined its application for an Act 47 grant to help revitalize downtown, to reflect the specific needs of potential housing developers.

Instead of asking for $250,000 to devise “a housing strategy and investment plan,” the city will be seeking those funds to analyze the downtown housing market, according to Planning Director Lee Slusser.

The analysis will seek to show what demand there is for what kinds of housing, where parking is needed, the condition of buildings suitable for housing and the costs of rehabilitating those buildings, according to Slusser.

Such an analysis would make it easier to get financing, because banks would be more confident about the commercial feasibility of proposed projects, Slusser said.

The analysis would relieve developers of paying to obtain such marketing information themselves, according to Slusser.

The $250,000 for the marketing analysis is part of an overall package of $519,000 in grants the city expects to receive through its Act 47 participation.

Irv Seltzer, who owns 11 downtown buildings, would like the city to focus on his vacant, six-story, 43,000-square-foot Penn Central Place, on the corner across from the Post Office. The building could hold 20 apartments on the upper floors, with commercial operations on the ground floor, he said.

He estimates the necessary rehabilitation would cost $1.25 million, and that the infusion of grant money would make it economically feasible.

Altogether, Seltzer’s buildings have enough upper-story space for up to 70 new housing units, he estimated.

He has had 28 units for years in the Brett Central Court building, where he has an office, with room for an additional 14 there, he said.

Altogether, downtown has enough space in existing buildings for an additional 110 housing units, Seltzer guessed.

Adding such housing – mainly for students and urban professionals – “would be a start” toward the renaissance that downtown advocates have been trying to generate for decades, he said.

The housing could help support “boutique” shops on ground floors, he said, the kind “you don’t find in malls and shopping centers,” he said.

Altoona’s downtown can succeed like others in similar cities with a focus on education, entertainment, the arts and culture, he said.

A group of Penn State University Park architectural students identified similar categories as key when they studied Altoona’s downtown about eight years ago.

There will be “several interested parties” hoping to benefit from the marketing money, Seltzer said.

If it goes generally to study the downtown, “that will be good,” he said.

“If it focuses on several buildings I own, that would be better,” he said.

The package also includes $225,000 for information technology improvements and $44,000 for the Blair County Tax Collection Bureau.

The IT improvements would include a $50,000 information technology audit to make sure any changes are cost-effective; a $70,000 accounting/budgeting/procurement system; a $120,000 conversion to “broadband cards” that would enable Internet access through cellphone tower connections to improve public safety communications and reduce information technology operating costs; and a system that would consolidate revenue collection, at a cost not yet determined.

The city already has a Wi-Fi system for use by employees. It has some dead spots, mainly around Mansion Park, because of tree cover – a problem that was known before the system was installed, according to IT Director Victor Curfman.

The police department is the major user of the system.

The Fire Department depends on it less, because there’s little time to communicate during the few minutes it takes to reach a fire scene, according to Chief Tim Hileman.

But when stationary, firefighters can use the Wi-Fi system for access through laptops, he said. They can also use smart phones directly, he said.

There are also a couple of vehicles that can produce cellphone-based hotspots for laptop Internet access.

It wouldn’t hurt also to obtain Internet access for laptops through additional cellphone tower connections using broadband cards, according to Hileman.

“Redundancy is what you have to have, especially in an emergency,” he said.

The Tax Collection Bureau project would defray the cost of programming changes that would enable the bureau to collect the additional earned income tax the city has levied as a result of Act 47 lifting the cap on that tax.