Group studying city’s market

It’s a “chicken or the egg” problem, and Pittsburgh has provided evidence for a solution – a solution Altoona is poised to adopt, according to Patrick Miller, president of the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp.

The problem is that it’s hard to say which should come first to create a thriving downtown – amenities like restaurants and nightlife or residents to take advantage of those amenities.

Pittsburgh tried to develop the amenities first, and it didn’t work. Then about 10 years ago, the city began building the houses to bring in residents, and things have been blazing like an open hearth since then, according to Miller.

A group of consultants – including an organization that developed one of the successful housing complexes that helped fuel the success in Pittsburgh – will be presenting the results of a study of Altoona’s downtown-area residential market to City Council soon.

Funding obtained through the city’s participation in the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities recovery program is paying for the study, which predicts that the downtown area has a potential market for about 500 high-end units immediately and 30 per year thereafter, according to Miller, who previewed the study for the board.

Fulfilling that potential could eventually create 360 direct jobs, 550 overall jobs and $2 million in annual tax revenue, according to the study. The “direct” jobs would be in construction, and the rest would be spinoff jobs in businesses to serve the new residents, Miller said.

Potential renters and buyers of apartments and condominiums downtown will be looking for the business amenities – of which there’s a dearth – cultural amenities like the Railroaders Memorial Museum, public transportation options like Amtran’s buses and “open” floor plans, industrial-style kitchens, structures and “systems” in their apartments and condominiums, according to the study, Miller said.

The consultants cite exemplary or “benchmark” projects like the ongoing creation of housing in the former Casanave building at the head of Chestnut Avenue, the former Altoona Artificial Limb and Appliance building on Ninth Street, the completed Legacy Suites in Lakemont, a couple projects in Erie and the proposed development of the former Dunmire Printing building near the railroad museum, according to Miller.

The consultants have done case studies on the potential for development of several other buildings, including Brett Central Court and the Penn Central building, owned by Irv Seltzer; the Gables building, recently purchased by Brian Dinges; the Vipond building, owned by a partnership of Lou Ventura and Patrick Myers; and a mixed-use block near the UPMC Altoona campus.

Development in the hospital area might require the hospital to add parking garage spaces, Miller said.

The study includes a look at “infill” development for vacant ground in older city neighborhoods like those along Sixth and Seventh avenues.

The house styles the study proposes for those areas don’t look much different from the existing houses in those neighborhoods, if you would add a fresh coat of paint to them, said City Planning Director Lee Slusser.

Closing the gap between money required to do the projects, and the payback they could produce for developers will require a combination of sweat equity, public-private partnerships, land equity contributions

and more, according to Miller.

Among financial “tools” the community could use to help close that gap are Community Development Block Grants, subordinate loans, facade grants, tax abatement programs, Enterprise Zone tax credits, employer-assisted housing programs and tax-increment financing – which provides money based on the prospect of future tax gains, Miller said.

“There’s a lot of meat in that study,” said GAEDC member Jane Sheffield.

“It gives us a good database,” Dinges said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.