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City Redevelopment Authority looking to flex muscles

At a recent meeting of the Altoona Redevelopment Author­ity, former executive director Patrick Miller spoke of projects the authority undertook when it was a force for the reconfiguration of many Altoona neighborhoods during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Those projects included acquisition of rights-of-way for PennDOT’s widening of 17th Street; acquisition of ground for four Altoona Area School District elementary schools; replacement of the former Towne House Motel with the Altoona Center for Nursing Care; and the clearing of two blocks south of downtown along the Hollidaysburg branch line — resulting in construction of three new business, the remodeling of a fourth and improvements at another.

Miller and other visitors came to the meeting on the invitation of the authority, some of whose newer members want to revive its mission — which has mostly dwindled in recent years to overseeing the sale of side yards — in hopes the authority can participate in the current surge of development downtown and elsewhere.

“I think there will be some opportunities,” Miller said after the meeting. “(And) there’s nothing wrong with that.”

The original impetus for “RA 101” came from an executive session of the authority “relative to acquisition of a particular property,” according to solicitor Elizabeth Benjamin, who became the members’ instructor at a recent meeting.

All redevelopment authorities in Pennsylvania operate mainly within the legal framework of the Pennsylvania Urban Redevelopment Law.

The law provides guidelines for replacing blight with worthwhile development, according to Benjamin.

Authorities can eliminate blight either by assembling an Urban Redevelopment Area or one property at a time.

Either procedure begins when a municipality’s blighted property review board and its planning commission determine — and certify to the redevelopment authority — that an area or a property is blighted, according to information provided by Benjamin.

Blight exists where there is unsafe, unsanitary, inadequate or overcrowded conditions or economically or socially undesirable land use or any of several other characteristics — including inadequate planning or faulty street or lot layout.

Not every parcel within a qualifying area needs to be blighted, Benjamin said.

Areas targeted for effort

Based on a redevelopment plan that identifies the area, the authority creates a redevelopment proposal — which may include a redevelopment contract — for all or part of the area.

The proposal goes to the municipal planning commission, then to the municipal governing body, for approval.

If a redevelopment contract is signed afterward, the municipal governing body must approve it separately, and it must conform with the proposal.

After receiving approval for the proposal and the contract, the authority can lease or buy, then assemble, parcels within the redevelopment area; clear and improve those properties; and sell, lease or otherwise convey those properties to the redeveloper — provided the actions conform with the proposal and accrue to the benefit of the community.

Private interests can benefit from redevelopment, provided such benefits are incidental to the public benefits.

Redevelopment authorities can take properties within redevelopment areas by eminent domain, with fair market value paid, if it can’t negotiate purchases with the owners.

Eminent domain can involve taking property — even non-blighted property — and conveying it to a private owner, as long as there is an overall public purpose, based on a 1947 Pennsylvania case and a 2005 Connecticut case, according to information provided by Benjamin.

If redevelopment requires resident relocation, authorities must provide assistance, according to legal guidelines.

The authority followed federal guidelines when it relocated residents from blighted homes taken for the branch line project, Miller said.

The Altoona Redevelopment Authority — in cooperation with Improved Dwellings for Altoona — executed a redevelopment project on Lexington Avenue in Logantown, beginning about a decade ago, that reflects many of the powers conferred by the law — although it didn’t involve declaration of an Urban Redevelopment Area.

It included relocation of the residents of a dilapidated half-block of row homes, a request for proposal for a developer, a contract with the chosen company and the company’s construction of 11 town homes, financed by the company’s participation in a state tax-credit program that required renting the homes to income-eligible tenants.

Altoona’s blight scattered

Assembling “Urban Redevelopment Areas” tends to be a particular challenge in Altoona, because blight is mostly scattered in individual properties throughout much of the city — like measles, as former city Planning Director Larry Carter often said — rather than concentrated in a way that lends itself to assembling sizeable redevelopment areas.

Further complicating that problem is the small size of many city lots, which means the authority needs to deal with a high number of property owners in proportion to the size of most potential redevelopment areas, said city Community Development Director Lee Slusser, who is the chief staff officer for the authority.

“(The difficulty) is one of the reasons why we haven’t done it since 2001,” Slusser said, alluding to the assembly of parcels then left over from the construction of the Eighth Street Bridge — parcels that now comprise John Robertson Park.

Still, assembling land for redevelopment has always been the authority’s “core mission,” Slusser said.

Given its power of eminent domain, the authority has an edge in parcel assembly efforts over private developers, who have been stymied in at least a couple of instances in recent years by holdout property owners, according to discussion at the meeting.

In one case, a company hoped to assemble ground for a project near the base of the Eighth Street Bridge, and in another case, a developer wanted to assemble ground near Sixth Avenue and 17th Street, officials said.

The authority could play a significant role aside from parcel assembly in the capture of major single properties, according to Slusser and Miller.

That could come into play with significant blighted buildings, especially downtown, that are sitting idle or underutilized, they said.\\\

Financing city issue

The Urban Redevelopment Law doesn’t deal with the financing of redevelopment projects, so municipalities need to figure out how to do so on their own, Benjamin said.

Grants may be available, Benjamin said.

Altoona’s authority used Community Development Block Grant money during his term in the early and mid-1990s, Miller said.

Generally, the authority accumulated the necessary amounts by taking shares of the city’s annual allotments over a period of years, he said.

That may not be as promising a policy now, as the annual allotments have dwindled.

Developers should be heartened by the authority’s interest in reinvigoration, according to Altoona Blair County Development Corp. CEO Steve McKnight, who attended the meeting.

“(They) want to know they’re not in this alone,” he said.

Slusser sounded optimistic.

“Hopefully, this can lead to the RA being able to take a more active role in attacking blight and putting properties back to use again,” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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