Residents inhospitable to planned hotel

The Altoona Planning Commission on Tuesday conditionally approved land development plans for a 72-room, four-story Microtel Inn & Suites hotel on Valley View Boulevard near Jaggard Street – despite neighbors’ complaints.

“Would you like a 50-foot building 140 feet from the front of your house?” Bob DiVentura asked the commission.

“The problem is, the plan meets the [land development] ordinances,” said Chairman Bob Gutshall.

“If we denied [the application] because the neighborhood doesn’t want it, they would take us to court, and we would lose,” said Planning Director Lee Slusser.

Zoning is not an obstacle, because the grassy tract where local dentist Jim Marcelli’s Jaggard Street Realty LLC plans the project is highway commercial.

DiVentura sold the property to Marcelli and successfully pushed for City Council to make that zoning change in 2011 on the previously residential ground.

At the time, Marcelli planned to build doctors’ offices.

Later, the plan was for an office building.

Marcelli saw the hotel as a “better business decision,” said project lawyer Sean Burke after the hearing.

National standardized traffic counts for the proposed hotel show it will generate far fewer daily trips than the office building – 271, compared to 607, Shoenfelt said.

It will also generate far fewer peak-hour trips – 26 in the morning and 20 in the evening, compared to 73 and 99 for the office building, she said.

The approval is conditional on Shoenfelt widening the entrance and making other adjustments to allow a ladder-bearing fire truck to enter the parking lot and circle the building.

Resident Autumn Donley compared having the hotel to having a Wal-Mart nearby.

She raised concerns about parking that overflows into the neighborhood, bar patrons coming to the hotel with women they picked up, dumpsters and devalued property.

The parking is adequate, given the hotel’s minimal staff, the dumpsters will be kept within an enclosure, and there will be heavy vegetation to buffer the site from homes, said Shoenfelt and Burke.

Resident Terry Carnicella predicted that the hotel could add to wet-weather sewer overflow problems that have forced her family to install a gate valve to shut off their sewer when it rains hard.

Shoenfelt pointed out that the Altoona Water Authority recently awarded bids for construction of a sewer line in Pleasant Valley to alleviate the problem.

Alone among the residents, Rob Griffin was supportive of the project, although he urged officials to make sure it’s clear to guests that they shouldn’t head south on one-way Valley View Boulevard.

Microtel is a “class national hotel,” he added.

At the time of sale, DiVentura had negotiated a deed restriction on the property, so that it “shall not be used for retail purposes, restaurant or drug rehabilitation facilities.”

A letter sent last week to Marcelli by DiVentura lawyer Bill Haberstroh objecting to the plans alleges that “a hotel clearly is retail.”

After the meeting, DiVentura said he guessed “we left out lodging.”

He regards the change as “underhanded,” DiVentura said.

He had been “more or less assured, or was under the assumption” that it was going to be a doctor’s office, he told the commission.

He’ll likely sue, he said.

Such lawsuit is outside the scope of the city’s responsibility, Slusser said.

One resident alleged that GPS devices will direct out-of-town hotel guests through small neighborhood streets back to I-99.

Marcelli consultant Stephanie Shoenfelt of Keller Engineers pointed out that the exit onto 16th Street will be configured to discourage motorists from turning right into the neighborhood and said she thought GPS devices generally direct users to main arteries.