Alvernia University seeks to expand to Reading, partly with public funds

The private school’s proposal indicates that the investment will bring much greater returns.

  • Antoine Orozco

(Reading) – The private university with a vision to turn part of Reading into a ‘CollegeTowne’ is eyeing another prime property in the city centre.

Alvernia University wants to buy a historic four-storey old hotel. The building would be used for student housing, training for medical professions and to be a site for a health clinic, according to the school’s proposal.

Alvernia, with an enrollment of just over 2,000 students, has already caused a stir with the renovation of the former I-Lead charter school building at 401 Penn Street. It is now a caddy looking corner of the American House at 354 Penn Street.

Alvernia’s flagship building, CollegeTowne, at 401 Penn Street. Anthony Orozco, WITF.

The private university is asking about $5 million in city and county funds for ‘Phase 2’ of the Map of CollegeTownewhich would cost the school a total of $20 million, according to his proposal to the city and county grants officer.

Alvernia spokesman Kristopher Nolt said the school was applying for funding for its expansion to Reading and was considering American House as a possible location, but the school had yet to purchase. building.

A paper trail of the proposals, letters of support and emails provide insight into how the school could further transform downtown with its expansion.

In black and white

Alvernia University is seeking public investment to help purchase the 45,000 square foot building at 354 Penn Street.

The plan is detailed in a proposal submitted earlier this year to the City of Reading.

“Alvernia University respectfully requests funding from the City of Reading in the amount of $2,000,000 to support phase two of Reading CollegeTowne, which includes the purchase of a second building in the City of Reading,” reads proposal.

According to the proposal, the money would help the college establish a health science center for nursing students and a community health clinic in the American House building.

Communications from an Alvernia administrator to city officials indicate that the school hopes to use money from the city’s American Rescue Pan Act money. How much the city is investing in the project, if any, could be revealed in future committee discussions about how to use that money.

A right-to-know request submitted Thursday by WITF to the city for all requests for APRA funds has yet to be met by the city.

The university is seeking an additional $1 million from the city to support a business incubator. It can also help fund event planning, arts and marketing projects that could benefit the city, depending on the proposal.

The proposal does not specify how the school will finance the projects if the city declines its request.

The school is also seeking $2 million in aid from Berks’ American Rescue Plan Act coffers to support educational programs, according to a county official.

Records from Berks County Recorder of Deeds and Tax Assessment Offices do not indicate that the building was sold. Attempts to contact the owners of the building, Arc Realty LLC, were unsuccessful.

Arc Realty purchased the property for $1.2 million in late 2020, according to the deeds. Alvernia’s proposal says it is “in the process of acquiring the facility for $1.45 million.”

The plan indicates that the building will be renovated for commercial spaces and student accommodation.

The case of public investment

A case for the city to invest in the project is detailed in an email written to city officials last month by Alvernia administrator Barry Schlouch.

The email, obtained by WITF, was sent to Mayor Eddie Morán, City Council Vice President Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz and City Council Member Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz.

“This is truly a win-win opportunity,” Schlouch wrote.

In the email, Schlouch referenced the benefits listed in the proposal. They included students spending about $5 million a year in the local economy, an increase in property values, and more revenue from taxes and parking.

In response to a request for comment, Morán and his administration did not elaborate on whether the school could help fund the project, saying they wanted the review process, which begins next week. , takes place without interference.

The administration has expressed optimism about Alvernia’s expansion plans.

“The Morán administration welcomes the new developments with great enthusiasm and is eager to hear about CollegeTowne’s expansion plans,” city spokesman Christian Crespo said in a written statement. “It is clear that Reading Downtown is experiencing significant momentum and many organizations want to contribute to its success.

School is requesting $1 million in ARPA funds from the county for the nursing program, and an additional $1 million in ARPA funds from the county to expand space for the school’s engineering program, coordinator says grants from Berks, Karra Mayo.

Applications for the county are still being reviewed and the county will award funds within the next two weeks, Mayo said.

Leaders from companies such as Penske, Weidenhammer and Liberty Environmental have written letters of support for the expansion of the engineering school space in Reading to empower the local workforce.

Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Hospital, Berks Community Health Center and the Surgical Institute of Reading wrote letters of support for Alvernia’s plans for nursing and health care education.

Growls heard

Alvernia has been in contact with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia about the building.

Jennifer Robinson, director of preservation services for the alliance, said she met with the university’s facilities manager earlier this year to discuss an easement on the building’s facade.
A predecessor to the alliance, the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corp., donated a frontage easement to the American House in 1985.

A facade easement protects the exterior of the building from alterations that do not comply with preservation guidelines, demolition, and imposes a maintenance standard on the owner. It basically acts as a long-term protection for the original appearance of the building.

With a frontage easement, the owner of the building at the time of donation agrees to restrictions on alterations, demolition and maintenance in perpetuity.

Several businesses occupy premises in the building and some tenants say they have heard of a possible change in ownership and use.

Brad Waples has been the owner of Custom It Printing, an art and clothing store on the south side of Fourth Street in the building for eight years. Waples is a member of the Alvernia Cultural Coalition, an initiative of the university’s O’Pake Cultural Center for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship.

“I’m actually super excited about Alvernia taking over this space, especially with what they’ve done with their building across the street,” Waples said. “Being here so long and understanding what this building needs in terms of upgrades and proper management.”

Waples said whenever a potential development arises in Reading, so does the conversation about businesses and longtime residents being evicted.

He noted that property values ​​will likely increase once there are more students living in this area. But he said Reading property is so cheap that redevelopment could make the area attractive while not being unaffordable.

Waples said he viewed the potential development as a net positive for the city.

“With the push for more people to live downtown to support the college, I think that’s also going to lead to more downtown amenities,” Waples said. “So with the goal of seeing a better downtown, a more vibrant downtown and a more active downtown, a more economically viable downtown, I think all of those things will be positive because of Alvernia.”

Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program – a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-reported topics and communities.

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