Authority puts brakes on garage proposal

The Altoona Parking Authority has moved on from a proposal to create a parking garage by renovating a former car dealership building on the 1400 block of 13th Avenue.

The high unit-cost and structural limitations of the five-story Donnelly building led to the decision, authority Executive Director Patrick Miller told the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp. recently.

The Donnelly building was probably the only downtown structure that could have conceivably been retrofitted to create a parking garage, so if the authority obtains a state grant to finance a parking project, it would probably need to build a new garage — either on authority property or maybe the Donnelly site, after razing the building there, according to Miller.

“At first blush, (the Donnelly building) looked like an opportunity,” Miller said.

But engineers determined that a renovation would have cost about $4 million — for a new electrical system, bathrooms, an office, removal of block walls that closed up the original openings, stairwell upgrades, exterior improvements and an external elevator, Miller said.

The building would have yielded a maximum of 115 parking spaces, which means each one would have cost $34,000 — about $15,000 more per space than the industry norm, according to Miller.

Moreover, the ramps are only wide enough for one car at a time, which would have meant a red light-green light system to let incoming and outgoing vehicles pass one another, creating an inconvenience for users, Miller said.

The building is still for sale, said Ron Estep, retired employee of late owner, David Donnelly, of Donnelly’s Antiques in Duncansville, who used the building as a warehouse, after plans to use it for regular auctions fell through.

Previously, the building was used by Gardner’s Candies and Blair Sign Co., according to Estep.

Before that, it was a Packard dealership, with a gas station out front, Estep said.

The Donnelly building was an ideal location for a parking garage because the major locus of demand is nearby — across 12th Avenue from the back of the Donnelly building, in the Aaron and Penn buildings operated by Penn State Altoona, according to Miller.

The parking shortage, which waxes and wanes depending on how many classes are in session at Penn State’s downtown campus, was predicted by a parking study commissioned by the authority 13 years ago, Miller said.

It’s not necessarily that every space downtown is occupied even at the heaviest times, because there are spaces to be had generally in the authority’s existing garage in the Trans­portation Center.

But that garage is several blocks from the Aaron and Penn buildings, and many of the students — especially those who didn’t grow up in urban areas — are unwilling, like most lifetime residents of this area, to walk those several blocks, according to Miller.

Building a new garage would mean that Penn State Altoona would need to require the Aaron and Penn students to use the spaces there, Miller indicated.

Mayor Matt Pacifico is conflicted about the parking garage proposal.

If there are spaces available even at the busiest time, the necessary change might be in “mentality,” he said.

This area might need to cultivate a willingness to adopt a big-city parking strategy, he said.

When he goes to Pittsburgh, he identifies the parking garage nearest to his destination and goes there, without even trying to find a spot on the street, he said.

Miller uses the same strategy and has bemoaned the general unwillingness here to accept that urban parking isn’t as readily available as parking in the suburbs or the country.

Even setting aside the “mentality” issue, the shortage of excess downtown parking capacity is already creating the risk of lost development opportunities, according to Miller.

If a developer considers a downtown location for a business that would require lots of guaranteed spaces — say 50 — he or she may back out upon discovering the capacity limitations, Miller said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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