Consultant slated to study residential development

Penn State Altoona senior Meghin Kerila lives in market-rate housing on 11th Avenue.

The city is looking for more people like her.

In keeping with a directive in the city’s Act 47 recovery plan, a committee of development experts has recommended that City Council hire a Pittsburgh consultant to investigate the feasibility of expanding nonsubsidized housing for students and young professionals downtown.

Fourth River Development LLC and a pair of project partners will analyze the market to determine the demand for additional residential units, the cost of creating them through renovation or new construction and what payment schedules for financing those projects would look like, according to Patrick Miller, president of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp. and member of the committee that made the recommendation.

City Council will need to approve the hiring of Fourth River and Pittsburgh subconsultants Pfaffmann & Associates and Fourth Economy Consulting.

Downtown has lots of residents, but almost all of them live in subsidized housing administered by the Altoona Housing Authority, Improved Dwellings for Altoona and private developers, according to Miller.

Many are elderly, and most are “income restricted,” he said.

The consultants will try to “determine whether or not there is a need and desire” for new residential housing that is not subsidized, Miller said.

They’ll look at the condition of various buildings whose upper floors could become housing, and they’ll examine demographic trends, conduct surveys and run focus groups, Miller said.

The information they uncover could help property owners or outside developers decide whether they should undertake projects, perhaps in partnership with one another, Miller said.

Downtown has the advantage of a “pretty large employment base” that can provide potential residents, according to Miller.

That base includes the campus of the Altoona Area School District, Station Medical Center, UPMC Altoona and Penn State Altoona’s downtown facilities, he said.

All employ a significant number of young professionals, Miller said.

Then there’s Penn State Altoona.

Living downtown has helped Kerila become independent.

It gives her more of an “adult perspective” than living at Ivyside, which is dominated by freshmen and sophomores, she said.

It also provides amenities, like Tom & Joe’s for breakfast, she said.

She likes it, even though all her classes are at the Ivyside campus this year, which she “kind of forgot” when she arranged to start living at Brett Central Court in May.

Still, she has a car to get back and forth.

And parking’s not a problem, because she has a permit for the lot next to her building.

She doesn’t buy that her part of downtown is “scary” like some people say.

It’s nice to hear the concerts at Heritage Plaza and nice to sit on a bench outside her building, she said.

And she’s gotten used to the sirens.

Yet she doesn’t think the community at large uses the downtown as much as it should.

That may be the fault of the officials and organizations who don’t promote what’s happening downtown as heavily as they should, she said.

“I never get anything in my mail to remind me,” she said.

As part of their work, the consultants will review a parking demand analysis done about 10 years ago, Miller said.

That analysis suggested that in 10 years – about now – the city would need additional parking, and that the best way to provide it would be to construct a parking garage, ideally on the existing surface lot across 12th Avenue from the Heritage Discovery Center.

The parking consultant at that time didn’t know about the “meds and eds” development that has taken place since then, but merely took “into account the normal progression of absorbing square footage into an undefined market,” Miller said.

Miller predicted that the current consultants will agree with those old findings.

Grants and long-term debt could pay for the garage, Miller said.

If the city succeeds in drawing more young professionals and students to live downtown, it could lead to the slow addition of supportive development, including restaurants, coffee shops, nightclubs and laundries, Miller said.

The study should take from six to nine months.

A $250,000 state grant made available through the Act 47 program is funding the project.

The committee – which consisted of Miller, Altoona-Blair County Development Corp. President Marty Marasco, city Planning Director Lee Slusser and Allegheny Ridge Corp. Executive Director Jane Sheffield, considered 11 proposals.

While Fourth Economy was part of the winning proposal team from the beginning, Pfaffmann & Associates was a rival bidder that the committee asked Fourth River to bring aboard, Miller said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.