Region’s development shows encouraging patterns

Residential development, in general, has rebounded since being devastated in the Great Recession just over a decade ago.

The number of people willing to invest in the Lehigh Valley in any given year has always been a reliable barometer of how the regional economy is doing. Based on the 412 land development plans we reviewed in 2018, we’ve come a long way from the bottom we hit in 2012.

While the continued proliferation of warehouses remains something to be viewed with concern, our recent “BuildLV: 2018 Annual Development Report” reveals some encouraging trends. The move toward apartment living continues and the single-family home – once the hallmark of the region’s residential preferences – has re-emerged.

Residential development, in general, has rebounded since being devastated in the Great Recession just over a decade ago. Last year, 1,438 residential units were approved for development. That’s the second-most since 2008, behind only 2016, when a spike in apartments units drove that number to nearly 1,800.

Digging a little deeper into the numbers shows two factors that speak well for future home development, if our local municipalities manage this growth well. The mix in types of residential development is becoming more diverse and the amount of land being used to build them is less than in previous decades. Both good signs, if we want to preserve the farmland and open space that has helped shape this region’s identity.

For the sixth consecutive year, apartments led the way with 596 units. That makes more than 3,800 apartments approved since 2013. It’s a clear sign that the Lehigh Valley is following the national trend – a trend bolstered in this region by millennials seeking a more urban lifestyle and empty-nesters looking to downsize from big homes.

But unlike most of those recent years, apartments aren’t alone on the development ledger. Last year included 226 townhomes, 66 twins and 27 planned residential units, but, most notably, 523 single-family detached homes – the most single-family homes since 2007.

Perhaps the most encouraging trend is that we’re using less land to handle our new development. While developers were building just two units per acre back in 2007 at the height of the building boom, in 2018 the 1,438 approved units were on 361.5 acres. That’s roughly four units per acre.

We’re still months from completing “FutureLV: The Regional Plan,” but I can say with certainty that, in order to preserve the character of the Lehigh Valley, the plan will recommend clustered communities that can utilize existing infrastructure, rather than spread out development that requires building new roads and utilities. It’s encouraging to see that people, developers and our municipal partners have already begun to prefer the type of development trends that we believe are best for the future of the region.

The same can’t be said for our non-residential development trends, which shows 6.7 million square feet of approved development – most of it warehousing – approved for 635.3 acres. And with another 11.5 million square feet of industrial development proposed, but not yet approved, there’s no indication that trend will end anytime soon. Of particular concern are the number of projects being proposed for rural areas that don’t have the roadway, water or sewer infrastructure to handle them.

Other good signs revealed in “BuildLV” include redevelopment of the region’s three major downtowns. Allentown continues to add new office space and apartments to meet increasing demand, while Bethlehem’s collaboration with Lehigh University is resulting in adaptive reuse in the South Side. Though Easton didn’t see as much downtown development in 2018, it updated its downtown zoning code and continued to support reuse projects at the former Simon Silk Mill, in the City’s West Ward neighborhood.

There’s a reason the “BuildLV” report is a favorite of municipal leaders, planners and investors. The statistical picture it gives of past development shows clear patterns of where we’re headed, and how we should be adjusting and preparing for the future.

It’s particularly relevant as we prepare “FutureLV: The Regional Plan,” which will serve as a blueprint for the growth and evolution of the Lehigh Valley through 2045 and beyond. For the first time, this region’s comprehensive plan will be combined with a $2.8 billion long-range transportation plan. “BuildLV” gives us a clear picture of development and redevelopment projects that influence future infrastructure investments. Ultimately, it gives us direction on what new policies should be adopted and perhaps what regulations should be change to manage the growth that appears inevitable in a region that’s become attractive for its beauty, convenience and quality of life.

Matt Assad is managing editor at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. He can be reached at massad@lvpc.org or 610-264-4544. The commission prepared the “BuildLV: 2018 Annual Development Report” to inform the public on new land-use activity in accordance with the Pennsylvania Municipalities Code. A full copy of the report is available at lvpc.org.

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