Editor’s Note: this article is one of the several articles that went into the December cover story.
By James Hynes
The Retreat, owned by Landmark Properties of Athens, Ga is being built on twenty-two acres of open space between Whitehall Road in College Township and Waupelani Drive overlooking the Westerly Parkway shopping center in the Borough of State College. Ninety-five of the 129 units will be in College Township. A small strip, including the main entrance on Waupelani, will be in the Borough.
The complex uses a cottage-style plan with separate, single-floor units, each of which will house four to five undergraduate students. The Retreat at State College’s website promises “the very best amenities in the nation” with a gym, swimming pool, community sidewalks and private on-premise policing.
Since it straddles two municipalities, plans for the developments must conform to two sets of zoning codes. The lot in College Township was zoned for R-1 residential (for multifamily housing), and the Retreat is technically considered a multifamily development. However, Landmark secured a Planned Residential Development (PRD) exemption which permits it a higher dwelling density than the R-1 standard.
James Hynes’ (J) interview with Donald Hahn (DH) of the State College borough council follows.
J: Did you support approval of The Retreat development?
J: Did the Retreat development require rezoning? If so, in what way?
DH: The developers requested relief from the 3-unrelated occupancy limit. They asserted that they needed the increased density to make the project profitable.J: In your view, what were the benefits to the borough of approving this plan? Nothing comes to mind. For example:Is it likely to improve the property tax base (as opposed to an equal acreage of single-family residential developments)?
DH: Inasmuch as most of the Retreat is located in College Township, any increase in the borough property tax base would be marginal.
J: Do you believe that there is a housing (student or other) problem in the Borough? State College Borough is the fourth most densely populated municipality in Pennsylvania. Due to the limited availability of and the high demand for land in the borough and the resulting high cost of borough real estate, State College Borough does have an affordable housing problem for both students and non-students.
J: If so, is a high-end “cottage” development like The Retreat likely to alleviate the student housing problem in the State College Area? Do you think that it’s a good use of space?
DH: Any increase in supply will affect the student housing environment in the State College area. It will likely redress the balance in negotiating power between student landlords and tenants, which has historically been tilted towards the former. However, inasmuch as the student housing problem is also a lifestyle conflict problem, the Retreat will likely exacerbate it by importing it into an area which has previously been minimally burdened by it. Previous to the development, the area was utilized as open space with some informal recreational use. That was preferable to the proposed use. However, I understand that the owner preferred something more profitable. Nevertheless, a better use of this space may have been as graduate-student, workforce, or affordable senior housing, which already appears to be successful in the Waupelani Drive area.
J: How is such rental property assessed for taxes compared to single residence families?
DH: Due to the higher densities, they are likely to be assessed slightly higher than single-family non-student residences. In addition, owner-occupied residences in the borough are entitled to homestead exemptions, which would likely lower the property tax yield from such homes even further. However, the attractiveness of non-student homes for the borough tax base rests in the earned income tax potential. J: Are you concerned about potential declines in surrounding property values?DH: I am very concerned about potential declines. The issue will be the extent of the lifestyle conflicts arising from the Retreat and how State College Borough, College Township, the property managers, and their neighbors handle such conflicts.
J: Do you anticipate more changes in zoning in the Borough to accommodate student housing? If so, can you tell me about an