Beaver Canyon planners saw issues with high rises but say they were powerless to stop downtown growth

Originally published on Page A1 of the Centre Daily Times on Wednesday, November 17, 2010.

BY LAUREN BOYER 
Centre Daily Times

To Ron Short, State College’s Centre Region planner from 1971 to 1980, the term “Beaver Canyon” has no significance.

“I had never heard of it,” said Short, from his home in Glendale, Ariz. “All the time I was there, I didn’t hear any complaints. How come 30 years later people are complaining?”

Today, the nickname for the five high-rise student apartment buildings surrounding East Beaver Avenue’s intersection with Locust Lane is associated with riots and drunken, late-night mischief.

After six months of wrangling with a proposal to add another high-rise to the mix, the Planning Commission, undecided, passed the buck to Borough Council members. And although developer Henry Sahakian withdrew his request Nov. 8, Borough Council on Monday decided to hold a public hearing on the issue on Jan. 10. Members said they feel obliged to forge ahead with a rezoning effort that could redefine the area for future generations.

A frequent part of the discussions concerning that future is the question of how it evolved into Beaver Canyon, a mix of students and high-rise buildings that Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims labeled “the perfect storm.”

“People who sat in seats such as yours once upon a time, and were the town fathers and mothers, were asleep at the switch at some point,” Sims told the Planning Commission Oct. 14.

Former decision-makers who saw the high-rises turn from blueprints to bricks and mortar disagree and raise questions about the source of the Canyon’s problems. Is it poor urban planning or a breakdown in cultural decency?

“It isn’t the buildings that cause the problem,” argues borough Zoning Officer Herman Slaybaugh. “It’s the people that are in them and the social mores that govern what was acceptable social behavior have broken down. When that breaks down, and people act out, high density makes it worse.”

Sahakian, chairman of HFL Corp., initiated the recent debates after proposing the borough rezone 250-256 E. Beaver Ave. to allow a seven-story high-rise. Sahakian, who came to State College in 1956, attributes the Canyon’s problems to dangerous drinking, not population density.

“They’re confusing that all their problems of so-called rioting started because of concentration of housing,” he added. “We have a concentration of housing on campus and there’s no rioting there.”

He doesn’t think past planning commissions erred and issued a stern rebuttal to Sims, who came to Penn State in 2008 from Indiana University at Bloomington, Ind. “It’s very nice to live somewhere else and talk badly about us and what we did in the past,” he said. “I think we did damn good. We created a community that’s safe, and there are a lot of people who love this town.”

Birth of Beaver Canyon

Wallis Lloyd said the Planning Commission wasn’t snoozing when he served as its chairman in the early 1970s, when the buildings that comprise Beaver Canyon started rising.

The group spent a lot of time, he said, keeping high-rises out of the Greentree neighborhood.

“We wanted to keep any high-rise buildings like that concentrated in the downtown,” he said. “If you’re going to have them, that’s a more appropriate place than out in the suburbs.”

Commission members, Lloyd said, weren’t ecstatic about proposals for six-story buildings, but the zoning ordinances at the time provided no legal grounds to deny them.

Peirce Lewis, who first served on the commission from 1969 to 1975, said he, too, was generally opposed to high rises in the small-town community.

“There’s an anonymity that develops when you put people in a high building that causes people to be separated,” Lewis said. “And with anonymity comes irresponsibility.”

But the commission didn’t foresee the Beaver Canyon buildings filling solely with students, Lewis added.

“We must have been very dull to not figure that out,” he said. “We should have thought through that these were essentially off-campus dormitories.”

It was around 1968 that Penn State announced a moratorium on construction of new on-campus housing, even as enrollment continued to grow, said Slaybaugh. One man — Alex Woskob — capitalized on the market for new housing, snatching up underused lots in the 300 block of East Beaver Avenue.

On Jan. 12, 1971, the borough issued Woskob a building permit for a 211-unit apartment complex at East Beaver Avenue and South Garner Street that today is known as Beaver Hill. In August that year, Woskob received permission to build Cedarbrook, a 133-unit apartment building at 320 E. Beaver Ave.

At that time, zoning allowed buildings to be constructed within seven feet of the property line, and specified no design standards to discourage monolithic streetscapes, Slaybaugh said.

“This one guy, using the zoning laws correctly, created high-density housing with rules that had been on the books since 1959,” Slaybaugh said. The 1959 zoning code, Slaybaugh said, designated that section of East Beaver Avenue as the ideal place for high-density growth.

“When you do planning work, you have to anticipate there’s going to be growth,” he added. “You can’t shut it out. You can’t say, we have all the people here we want, and we can’t allow anymore to come in.”

State College Borough Council meeting minutes show the buildings were approved with minimal consternation — a contrast to the many Highlands neighborhood residents who recently voiced opposition to Sahakian’s proposal.

Canyon problems emerge

In February 1972, the Planning Commission approved a special exception to the zoning code for Woskob to construct Penn Towers, a 12-story apartment building.

According to meeting minutes, the building contains 125 units, 55 more than zoning at the time allowed.

The commission granted the special exception, provided Woskob remove the elevator shaft from the roof for better aesthetics or require a special screening of the shaft.

The other condition was that the building contain a patio deck with “landscaping, recreational facilities, perches, etc.” over portions of the parking structure.

Today, that area appears to be little more than a blank concrete slab, overlooked by the apartment balconies in the Canyon’s tallest high-rise.

After Penn State’s 2008 win over Ohio State, students hurled items off these balconies, and others, into the rioting crowd below.

Planners, Lloyd said, couldn’t have anticipated those kind of destructive tendencies.

“I don’t think we saw ahead to think that students would be throwing things off of balconies,” he added. “Yeah, we were probably not alert to the fact that that might happen.”

The area’s problems didn’t escalate until the 1990s, with the first disturbance that police labeled a riot occurring in 1998, King said.

At that time, Acme Pizza’s walk-up window increased pedestrian traffic to the area.

Following the riot, the borough passed an ordinance banning nighttime walk-up establishments, King said.

Years earlier, in 1975, the borough passed another measure that not only safeguarded downtown fraternity houses but also ensured the Canyon wouldn’t extend onto the south side of the 200 block of East Beaver Ave.

To deter fraternity house owners from selling their properties for high density development, the borough rezoned the entire fraternity district downtown to allow, at maximum, construction of duplexes.

This rezoning included the block bound by East Beaver Avenue, South Pugh Street, Highland Avenue and Locust Lane, where Sahakian’s property and three historic fraternity houses sit.

Though upper levels of Sahakian’s building once housed Kappa Sigma fraternity, today’s Planning Commissioners and Borough Council members agree on one thing: the lot was improperly zoned.

If Beaver Hill or Cedarbrook were demolished today, redevelopment would be capped at three stories, Slaybaugh said.

On the Canyon’s north side, developers can build six stories, which can be extended to nine stories — an incentive for including features such as LEED certification and underground parking.

Because of past misbehavior, Borough Council can now make a case to decrease height and density in that area, Lloyd said. “They have experience we just didn’t have back then,” he said.

“Students can get out and raise mayhem whether the buildings are six stories or four stories,” he added. “That can still happen. They just might not have as far of a trajectory to throw things if the buildings are four stories.”

Still, Short questioned whether the Canyon problem exists at all.

“State College is not a suburban area,” he said. “The downtown is not suburban. It’s not single-family 25-foot maximum height. It’s urban. It needs to be dense. That’s smart growth.”

Debate continues

Sahakian has no plans to sell his Beaver Canyon real estate. “Someday, not during my time” the borough might rezone the area to encourage its redevelopment, he said. Zoned for low density residential development, Sahakian wants his parcel rezoned to “commercial incentive,” which allows high-rises up to nine stories.

The commission rejected the idea, but proposed a new zoning district, “residential office overlay,” that would cap future development at five stories from Sahakian’s lot along the south side of East Beaver Avenue to South Garner Street.

The 30 percent green space requirement and 25-foot setbacks mandated by the district make redevelopment financially unfeasible, he said.

HFL Corp., he said, purchased the $1.5 million property in 2006 thinking the lot was miszoned.

“It’s making two mistakes in a row,” he said of the borough’s zoning idea. “Two mistakes in a row does not make something correct. They have to realize that.” Until further notice, his property will remain stagnant, host to a 1960s-era structure Sahakian called “that ugly thing.”

Sahakian, too, remembers when the other buildings in the Canyon were constructed.

“Everybody used to welcome students in downtown,” he said. “Everybody wanted it at one time.”

A longtime developer, he started work on his first apartment building, Armenara Plaza, 131 Sowers St., in 1961.

His recent endeavors include two salmon-colored buildings in the 100 block of South Garner Street — Campus Tower and Centre Court.

His plans for 250-256 E. Beaver Ave. resembled those projects, with commercial space cascading into student housing pulled away from the view of people on the street. A 10,000-square-foot “community center” was also planned, he said.

His property, he said, should be included in a “student incentive overlay district,” which would require buildings to have “student calming” features, such as security cameras and windows that open only four inches.

He promised no late night pizza shops, like Canyon Pizza, often cited as another magnet for intoxicated mobs.

But nothing, he said, will persuade borough officials and the public.

Thus, borough officials continue the debate, dubbed by Councilwoman Theresa Lafer as “a conundrum wrapped in an enigma, stuck in the middle of downtown.”

“This keeps going on and on,” Sahakian said. “It’s just an excuse to not let us build.”

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