Kutztown Borough is applying for a grant to study housing and commerce in downtown Kutztown.
The Keystone Community Planning grant, titled Commercial and Rental Housing Strategic Plan, is offered through the state Department of Community and Economic Development and would provide matching funds for a study of housing and commerce in Kutztown’s downtown, led by Drew Sonntag of the Urban Research & Development Corp.
“The Borough recognizes that we need to look at not just the downtown but the surrounding area in relation to housing and commercial activity,” said Kutztown Borough Manager Gabriel Khalife. “Things are changing in the Borough and it’s from a different number of factors.”
Factors include Kutztown University policy changes and an enrollment decline, traffic pattern changes in the surrounding area including the Route 222 roundabouts, and housing development outside the Borough.
“This is something that has been talked about over the past nine months. It’s not a new topic but as we look to discuss it and move forward, it’s the process of not wanting to just jump at something but getting to a point where we’re all on the same page and bring the stakeholders and the residents that are part of this on the same page,” said Khalife. “We don’t want to sit on the sidelines as things continue to change.”
One of those changes have been improved on-campus amenities and housing. The University renovated most of the older residence halls and now offers 24/7 dining on campus. There are four coffee shops, a traditional-style cafeteria, snack bars and grills, and a Starbucks and Chick-Fil-A on campus. KU offers different housing options, including traditional Residence Hall living, along with apartment-style and suite-style offerings.
“We have done a great deal to enhance our campus offerings,” said Dennille Schuler, Director of Communications, KU. “And we provide easier access to everything, like two eateries include all-you-care-to-eat premium meals and 24/7 dining.”
Based on feedback KU received from landlords, there has been a decline in students living off campus in the Borough. KU attributes this decline to a two-year housing requirement (established in 2016) for first-time undergraduates, as well as the addition of The Edge at Kutztown apartment building.
In Fall 2017, 3,386 KU students lived on-campus. Currently, 3,939 have been assigned to live-on campus in Fall 2018 but that number is anticipated to change. At most, KU has housed more than 4,300 in recent years. Enrollment declined to 8,329 students in Fall 2017 in comparison to KU’s enrollment peak in 2010 with about 10,700 students. Fall 2018 enrollment is not available until September.
Eagle Point, which specializes in student housing in downtown Kutztown, offers apartments and houses for one person and as large as groups of eight and everything in between.
“My family has been involved in the industry for 40+ years now. Needless to say the changes from 40 years ago and even 20 years ago are significant. However, I would say the trends driving the industry and the Kutztown student market began to change in 2008,” said Peter Smith of Eagle Point Management. “The introduction of purpose built student housing (think the Edge-Advantage Point Kutztown) and amenity driven offerings have changed the landscape and given students a much larger variety of options. These offering has thus put pressure on the older downtown locations to change as well.”
In addition, Smith said the demands of their rental applicants have evolved.
“Many are coming from homes with their own room and their own bathroom, central air, nice kitchens, etc. They expect the same comforts in their home away from home. So the comforts and design of the apartments and houses has been changing for some time now,” he said.
At Eagle Point downtown rentals, there are amenities such as granite counter tops, central air, washer/dryers, and off street parking.
“There will also be a large portion of students who do not intend to live downtown. At the same time, there will be a percentage who want to live downtown and will do so as soon as possible,” said Smith.
Smith said Eagle Point supports KU’s requirements that freshmen and sophomores live on campus, “We believe retention is KU’s biggest problem relating to enrollment. If the students do not remain in college after their freshman or sophomore year, what good does that do us? I rather lose a few sophomores to eventually gain a larger number of juniors and seniors vying for off campus housing.”
Overall, Smith said there is no denying decreased enrollment has impacted the demands on Eagle Point. Rental rates remained relatively flat for the past few years while operating costs increase. This also slowed their expansion and redevelopment projects due to market insecurity.
Smith hopes the housing study - not solely for the purpose of studying student rentals - will shine a light on the current housing and rental stock, as well as, the possibility for commercial conversions.
“As lifelong members of the community we are strong supporters of the Borough’s initiative. We believe a well balanced and diversified community serves the needs of all residents, business, and institutions,” said Smith. “We also feel there is a huge need for market rate rentals within the community. We believe there are many rentals and landlords that would serve the community better if they focused on market rate units, which tend to be less management intensive. We also see a huge demand for commercial space. We would love to see greater flexibility in converting student housing into storefronts or office space within the commercial corridors.”
Khalife said that without a doubt there is an influence and impact from University activities, as well as from changes to demographics and the housing market. The hope is that the study will identify approaches to either provide incentives and/or a different direction of marketing to individuals outside student housing and student commercial activity. He said the Borough is trying to find ways to encourage businesses to set up shop and owners to convert properties currently student housing into single-family housing.
“We think housing, ownership or rentals, in the Borough is beyond just student housing. Over the years a lot of these units were used for student housing and had been converted from their original purposes and (we want to) see what it would take to get them back to that. Then have those people who rent or buy become residents of the Borough and contribute to the Borough... on a 12-month basis.”
The study is estimated to cost roughly $40,000 of which the grant would provide $25,000 with the requirement the Borough match. To date, the Borough has about $10,000 of commitments, which Khalife said shows support from those who are invested in downtown Kutztown.
“They see a need to look at the downtown and be a part of the process as we look to move forward,” said Khalife.
He said the fact that the Borough is committed makes the grant application stronger, as is the fact that the borough is not looking to do this alone.
Ben Haas, chair of Kutztown Community Partnership’s Economic Vitality Committee, hopes the study sets a template for how businesses and investors and families can help reshape Kutztown’s downtown by saying “we want you to live/do business here and we know the challenges you may face with these properties. So here’s how we can help you get over the hurdles of costs, codes, etc.” by working closely with the borough, the school district and the university to create incentives and blueprints for success.
“For a long time, the downtown catered to students with housing and consumption. With enrollment down and policy changes at the university, there’s a noticeable difference in foot traffic and many vacant properties. Combine that with Kutztown being home to a lot of old buildings that need attention and there’s a risk that property value and curb appeal could continue to decline,” said Haas. “But this is also a huge opportunity for Kutztown to transform the downtown to support a wider economic base of productive residents, and become a place to live, to work and to play.”
Haas said key players have been working together for more than two years doing surveying, research, and “thinking bigger picture about what Kutztown can become, what businesses can thrive here, what residents would like to see, and most importantly, how we can make the rubber hit the road.”
“It’s a great team of strong leaders committed to not just discussing change, but gathering support and making it happen. And that’s exciting,” said Haas. “It’s a matching grant, and I’m proud to say we’ve gotten overwhelming support already. Solving the housing issues can’t happen in a vacuum. It’s just one pillar of the four part plan that the Kutztown Community Partnership’s Economic Vitality Committee sees as necessary to revitalize our downtown. We also need to attract business, market all that is truly great about Kutztown and form some deeper partnerships across the different entities that are vested in the success of this town.”
Khalife hopes the study opens up opportunities for those invested in the Borough and shows “how we can be a big part of positioning the Borough not just for today but many years to come... We just need to bring everybody on board to provide a direction to move forward.”
There is already a lot in the works to move Kutztown forward, said Haas.
A “Kutztown” mobile application is now available on mobile devices.
“We’ve discussed creating incentives for new businesses via a program called Project Pop-Up and beautifying our alleys and walkways. And I’d say we are in the 3rd or 4th inning of having a master plan that could include a community center, some co-op incubator space or an innovation center,” said Haas. “We’re working through a lot of proposed solutions now, and doing our due diligence by vetting how they will serve this community, how each entity can play a role and how we can fund larger projects. So I’d expect to hear more as that vetting and planning occurs. But I think we are doing a good job balancing this need to have a broader plan, while also not missing out on opportunities to take steps forward right now.”
Haas said Kutztown is a great place to live, do business, raise a family.
“It’s a walkable town that’s intimate, quaint, and has a lot of history and a lot of character. We have great schools, great civic engagement, and great public spaces. We just need to stop chasing the puck and instead go to where the puck is heading. And that means transforming our downtown to be less reliant on student consumption and more focused on families and business. Part of that was looking in the mirror and recognizing not just our strengths, but focusing on our weaknesses and threats. The group sees the same result – making Kutztown a destination. Not just for families to live, work and play, but for our guests, too. We need to plug into the experience economy by providing something memorable.”