High density housing often gets a bad reputation for unfair perceptions about increased traffic, crowded living and minimal parking but there are many advantages to this efficient use of land.
A developer presented a plan to the South Whitehall Township Commissioners on Wednesday night to build medium and high density housing along Blue Barn Road. The site to which he was referring is currently utilized by a single family home, a barn and open space. Nearby is a tract of land that was approved for a zoning change to accommodate medium to high density housing. The current zoning of the proposed development only allows for less than 4 units per acre; the new development would require 10 units per acre.
Attendees at the South Whitehall Township Board of Supervisors meeting voiced the usual concerns of increased traffic in more established neighborhoods, but the official vote on the zoning change won’t come until early September.
The Urban Vision has a compelling argument in favor of high density housing that outweighs arguments of increased traffic:
A high density and compact city form is the most ideal development pattern for the future. Here’s why:
Promotes thriving communities.
High density essentially signifies a concentration of people and their activities. A higher density neighborhood establishes a greater variety of leisure, shopping, amenities, work, and travel options. The wide cross -section of people and their activities also makes for a culturally rich area.
According to studies, the expenditures of housing and transportation for inhabitants with a moderate standard of living in a compact city would be 25 percent less in comparison with a standard low density city. Compact City would cost 50 percent less for comparable housing and superior transportation for people with a high standard of living. In addition, the costs for structuring a Compact City are really a redirecting of investments by way of urban rejuvenation instead of a fresh expense. The cost of redevelopment versus the cost of additional building by way of newer colonies shows that it may be a better bargain to rejuvenate urban cores.
Further, studies indicate that auto and fuel expenses per person in a low density American neighborhood costs in the region of $500 per year. Also, in such an urban area with a population of two million, there are typically more than one million cars. Transportation costs in such a situation can run over one billion dollars a year. In a compact high density city, more than a million cars could be swapped with less than 10,000 cars. This would represent not only millions of dollars of fuels saving but also lesser pollution.
Compact, high density cities are also said to be more economical given that infrastructure, such as roads and street lighting, can be offered more cost-effectively per capita .Also ,urban sprawl brings about the repetition of hospitals, schools, and many other public services and institutions. Larger and more equitable distribution of services is possible in dense compact cities. The merging and amalgamation of a number of urban facilities and public amenities makes way for many specialized conveniences that are currently not cost-effectively achievable. These services are also far more economical in a compact city vis-à-vis a low density city.
High density cities are known to be proficient for more sustainable transport systems. A compact city has population densities that are great enough to operate and maintain public transport. Also, because compact cities essentially mean high density and mixed use- people can live near to their work place and leisure facilities. Therefore, the need for travel is less and people can walk and cycle without trouble. According to estimates, the overall energy use should go down by at least 15 percent in compact cities. Also, Compact cities are known to conserve land. By reducing sprawl which is characterized by incessantly growing urban areas; land in the countryside and forests are preserved
Social Equity and integration
High density cities will also promote a sense of social equity by providing opportunities for the economically underprivileged. Further, the only way to offer housing for all sections of the society is by pursuing high density planning strategies. In societal terms, compact cities and mixed uses are connected with diversity, social unity and cultural growth. There is also indication that more concentrated neighborhoods have a great sense of kinship, cooperative spirit and vivacity – fundamentally because a wide range of people with a different set of beliefs and vales are in closer contact with one other.
The social, economic and environmental should be seriously considered as this debate unfolds at the next meeting of the South Whitehall Township supervisors, but they may also consider the current rural state of this area. Higher density housing can be used to combat sprawl but isn’t the right choice for every municipality. As the Lehigh Valley population continues to increase, many people will rightfully want to see rural areas maintained in conjunction with the need for more housing. Open space and land for food production are also important needs for any community. We must also consider other sustainability practices and while this development would provide land efficient housing, South Whitehall will have to make a big decision regarding their open space, the proposed neighborhood’s access to transportation and other resources as well as their housing needs.
Discussing comprehensive planning is not typically at the top of people’s list of things to discuss over the dinner table or with neighbors in the evenings. But what many of us fail to realize is how important the Comprehensive Plan for a region can be. The Cambridge, Maryland community was similar, until plans for a large development project that would have changed the whole character of the town forced community members to pay attention to zoning and land use planning.
In 2008, a 1,000 acre project was proposed for the community that would have added 3,200 homes and a golf course to the community of about 1,200. Such a large project and the possibility of drastic change in the town got the community’s attention. Together with local planners, city officials, and university architecture schools, community members and main street groups decided to change the course of planning in their communities. They held over 75 public meetings to gather public input, asking residents what they envisioned for the town. This public input and collaboration process assisted the creation of a new comprehensive plan for the community that was designed to “help prioritize community needs and investments…publicly announce and renew commitments to people, places, and to ideas, [and] give direction to all who would accept responsibility for the well-being of their city.” After the adoption of this new community-driven comprehensive plan, Cambridge is now working to update zoning regulations and will recommend a draft Unified Development Code.
The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission engaged public input for the creation of an updated comprehensive plan back in 2005. I’m betting that most people have not read the entire document, but the Comprehensive Plan…The Lehigh Valley 2030 certainly should be more familiar to community members and municipal officials. The region will be adding another 145,000 people to our communities over the next 20 years. Where will these people live? Will there be affordable housing options? What will the impact be on infrastructure and public services? How will such growth impact economic development and job availability? Just as Cambridge, Maryland received assistance from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities for its planning efforts, so too has the Lehigh Valley received federal assistance. Envision Lehigh Valley is a grant-funded project through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities aimed at enhancing our Current Comprehensive Plan to make it more sustainable. And, just as Cambridge asked the community for input on their vision for their communities, so too are we asking the community to envision the Lehigh Valley’s future.
I won’t sugarcoat it; planning and codes is not always the most exciting topic for evening discussion. But it is absolutely necessary for us as a community to be aware of the implications these comprehensive plans have on our future. We need your input as the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and other members of the Sustainability Consortium work together to create a regional sustainability plan for the Lehigh Valley. Cambridge, Maryland has proven that it can work with very positive results. Join us and share your vision for the sustainable future of the Lehigh Valley and public forums scheduled this fall focused on fair housing, fresh food access, affordable housing, economic development, transit, and energy efficiency.
The King George Inn has been a South Whitehall historical institution since 1756, but it may soon be a modern hotel and drug store.
Cliff McDermott owned the King George Inn for 42 years before a decline in business pushed him to close the restaurant that is designated as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service. He is now working with a development company to destroy the building and build a hotel or other commercial property.
Below is a letter to the editor of the Morning Call from Renew Lehigh Valley board member and State Representative Robert Freeman.
I was dismayed to read in The Morning Call that the owner of the King George Inn and Hotel Hamilton LLC plan on tearing down the 257-year-old historic structure to make way for a new hotel, bank and possible drug store.
While some might consider this progress, it is not. We lose a significant historic structure in return for more ubiquitous suburban-sprawl commercial structures. Instead of tearing down the King George Inn, the developers, architects and planners involved in this project should incorporate the original stone structure into the plans for the hotel. Incorporating the Inn into the hotel complex would offer restaurant and bar patrons something unique and historic. The developer could even qualify for historic tax credits.
The communities of the Lehigh Valley have lost a number of significant historic structures over the years as the result of misguided urban renewal initiatives and the ever-expanding pattern of suburban sprawl that consumes our landscape. It would be a travesty to see this National Register of Historic Places building torn down when a creative plan to incorporate it into the development could save it and offer something special.
The sale of the building depends on several zoning variances and the next meeting to review those is in two weeks. In the meantime, a MoveOn.org petition has been started to send to legislators when it reaches 2,000 signatures. Right now, it has 1,760. By providing your information on the MoveOn.org page, you can add your name.
In addition to the redundancy of adding another hotel and drug store to an area that is rife with commercial amenities, given its proximity to Dorney Park, the destruction of the King George Inn would be detrimental to South Whitehall’s sense of place. Smart growth and sustainability are not concepts that we should apply only to new construction. Historic buildings have a place in creating the distinct character of a community. Some of the most notable features of the Lehigh Valley are the historic ones; the maintenance of the blast furnaces at the old Bethlehem Steel site amid new construction is one example. Revitalizing our core communities does not require demolition, but rather the careful planning of necessary commodities with respect for the heart and soul of the area.
We’ve all seen the copious quantities of garbage cans that line our streets and trash closets on collection day and it seems almost impossible that anyone could run out of garbage but it’s happened to Sweden. The country has actually run out of trash.
Cities in Sweden burn garbage for the energy to power their buildings and plants; nearly half of the structures in Oslo are powered by the burning of garbage. Sweden’s use of garbage for fuel, coupled with their extensive and popular recycling programs leaves only 4 percent of their solid waste going to landfills. What percent of household trash from the United States ends up in a landfill, you ask? An estimated 50 percent. In fact, one garbage burning plant owner in Oslo has expressed interest in purchasing American garbage. They’re already paying neighboring countries for their trash.
Available data for landfill use in the United States is a little bit old, but nevertheless startling. In 2003, Americans landfilled 2.46lbs of garbage…per person….per day. We have 3,091 active landfills across the states and while we are in no danger of running out of fill, we should consider that we may run out of land.
In the Lehigh Valley, there has been some discussion about the necessary expansion of the IESI Bethlehem landfill that operates off of Applebutter Road in Lower Saucon Township. The expansion would require a rezoning of the nearby area to accommodate waste, but the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission voted against this redesignation. So, where is the trash to go? The United States recycles 34.7 percent of its Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), burns 11.7 percent of it and discards 53.7 percent. With our population and rate of consumption, this leaves us with a lot of stuff packing our landfills while our municipalities are opposed to expanding landfills.
Should we start burning our trash for energy like Sweden? Try to recycle more? Or should we sell our trash?
What do you think is the SUSTAINABLE solution for the Lehigh Valley?
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Currently a township, Whitehall is considering the requirements and consequences for their designation as a city, and from the rapid growth in its population it looks like Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton may have a new member in the city-club of the region.
Whitehall is a first class township and is eligible to change their designation to third-class city after a voter referendum and a council change to their home charter rules. Their population, at the time of the 2010 census, was 26,738 just below Easton’s population of 26,800. Although their population nearly mirrors a neighboring city, there are other considerations in changing a municipality’s designation. There are many benefits in Pennsylvania to becoming a city. For example, only cities are eligible for certain tax incentive programs from the state like the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) and the Community Revitalization Improvement Zone (CRIZ). Cities have more departments and authorities, like their own independent housing authority, which Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza has said would be an important element to the now-township. The increase in size and scope of municipal government that comes with a change from township to city obviously isn’t free. The idea to change Whitehall into a city is still in its early stages and the cost to taxpayers is a major consideration right now.
The proposed change in Whitehall’s designation will hopefully spark an interesting conversation in Pennsylvania about the nearly unparalleled fragmentation and silo-like nature of the state’s local governance. The process of turning into a city may cause other municipalities to consider joining in a merger with Whitehall. The city of Bethlehem is the product of several borough mergers. Bethlehem was first formed in the Borough of South Bethlehem, a separate Borough of West Bethlehem. Decades later, the Borough of West Bethlehem joined with the Borough of Bethlehem (in Lehigh County). Finally, in the 20th century, the City of Bethlehem merged with the Borough of South Bethlehem to create the City of Bethlehem that we have today. Whitehall Township has several neighboring boroughs that may benefit from a merging with Whitehall Township to become the City of Whitehall. One such borough that could benefit is Coplay. With a population of under 5,000, a shared physical border and a combined school district, their merge makes sense and wouldn’t result in a decrease of services to Coplay residents. Another benefit to the merge is eligibility for a CRIZ. The CRIZ mandates a population over 30,000 which Whitehall Township doesn’t have on its own but would with the addition of Coplay residents.
If you’re a regular reader of the Renew Lehigh Valley blog here (which you should be!), you may have already heard of the hollowing out of the urban cores in our region as the population left cities in favor of new, sprawling second class townships. This was highlighted by a 2003 Brookings Report called Back to Prosperity. Some of the contributing research for this report detailed the excessive, small-box government that plagues Pennsylvania. There are 2,562 municipalities in the Keystone State each with their own municipal governing body. They range in size from 1.5 million in Philadelphia to the Borough of Centralia with 8 residents at the time of the 2010 Census.
In this state, they are broken down into cities, townships, boroughs and one town (Bloomsburg). Within those classifications there are first class cities (Philadelphia is the only one), second class cities (Scranton is the only one) and third class cities. There are first and second class townships and unclassified boroughs.
The Lehigh Valley alone has 62 municipalities (Northampton and Lehigh Counties). This fragmentation and duplication of efforts and services promotes sprawl and inhibits regionalism. Municipalities in Pennsylvania are permitted to create their own comprehensive plans and are not bound to formally adopt the regional comprehensive plan that is written by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Changes in state policy that would encourage smaller municipalities to merge with their neighbors would increase the efficiency of service provision, minimize redundancies and create a more amenable environment for regional efforts.
The Millennial Generation comprises those who were born from 1980 to the early 2000s and now represents America’s young professionals who are graduating from college, getting their first and second jobs and buying homes. We’re now seeing where they want to live: downtown.
For the first time in decades, the population of American cities has grown at a faster rate than the suburbs. There is some speculation that this is a result of the recession, with urban dwellers remaining in place instead of moving to the suburbs with low and unpredictable home prices. Alternatively, there is evidence to suggest that the migration to the cities is more intentional for this generation.
Young professionals are now seeking different communities than the suburbs that their parents and grandparents had coveted for generations. Walkable, mixed-use communities are on the rise. A developer in Cleveland seized this trend and built one of the most desirable blocks in the entire city. Ten years ago, the Maron family bought up an entire block of the city where restaurants had gone out of business, retailers had failed, crime rates were high and there was little hope for residential use.
The block is thriving with outdoor seating, apartment buildings at capacity and successful retail. The project wasn’t immediately accepted by other entrepreneurs though; the Maron’s opened their own restaurants when others weren’t willing to take another chance on the neighborhood. By the time they opened a 224 unit apartment building on the block, the area was so popular that the building filled almost immediately.
Perhaps they’ve read The Creative Community Builder’s Handbook (by Tom Borrup).
The term creative community building describes efforts to weave multiple endeavors and professions into the never-ending work of building and rebuilding the social, civic, physical, economic and spiritual fabrics of communities. Creative community building engages the cultural and creative energies inherent in every person and every place.
Looking at the above picture of the block, it certainly seems like they’ve done that. This vibrant community in downtown Cleveland captures what many Millennials are looking for as they begin to live on their own. The area is walkable, there are residential options, dining and retail. It’s high-density, efficient land use with a markedly decreased rate of crime and it’s actually pretty cool.
You would be hard pressed to find a Lehigh Valley resident who wasn’t familiar with the Neighborhood Improvement Zone (NIZ) in Allentown that has attracted hordes of new businesses, including a hockey arena that will house the minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers. But there may be a new ‘IZ coming to town.
Community Revitalization and Improvement Zones are now a new Pennsylvania incentive plan to provide a boost in the redevelopment of the state’s smaller cities, but there are only a few that are eligible. CRIZs are only available to third-class cities with populations of 30,000 or greater, and no more than two are awarded the designation in each fiscal year. These guidelines leave only 8 eligible cities: Erie, Reading, Lancaster, Bethlehem, Altoona, Wilkes-Barre, Chester and York. Unfortunately, our friends over in Easton fall just short of the population requirement.
A CRIZ can cover up to 130 acres of land, and isn’t quite as attractive as NIZ, but still provides business incentives. The NIZ allows companies to redirect all taxes earned in the zone to go to financing it, while CRIZ only redirects taxes in this way after a certain threshold amount. Private investment must also equal 20 percent of the tax redirection funds, or one private dollar for every public five.
The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development will determine which cities will receive CRIZ designation based on applications with a specific economic development plan for the acreage within the city. Bethlehem is eligible for such a district and will definitely apply for the designation, with several project options. One of the most popular choices since talk of the CRIZ emerged is Martin Tower, the high rise building in West Bethlehem that has been vacant for six years but the south side of Bethlehem could also provide project options in its abandoned or underutilized structures.
We wish Bethlehem luck in their application for a CRIZ! Remember in our last post we promised a workshop in The Lehigh Valley Summit for Smart Growth focused on Act 111 and Act 47? We will also be hosting a workshop during the conference that looks at the NIZ and what it’s done for Allentown with a panel of developers and city panels. Again, stay tuned for details on how you can register for the smart growth conference!
After years of financial distress, Detroit filed for Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy late last week. It becomes the first major city in United States history to do so.
Detroit has debt totaling $18 million. The unemployment rate in the city recently peaked at 28 percent and while it is has been declining, it remains at over 16 percent. The rate of crime is high and the industrial plants that used to populate the city are folding or leaving the city. Detroit is also facing grossly underfunded pension obligations and they will argue that the court should relieve them of these pension obligations. Naturally, their retirees and unions are beginning to launch a fierce battle against this.
While Pennsylvanian cities and municipalities are not yet facing the degree of financial strife that plagues Detroit, its distressed areas are met with similar considerations. Should Detroit be relieved of their pension obligations, it will set a precedent relevant in Pennsylvania where municipalities are mandated to fulfill the pension promises they have made to police and firemen under PA Act 111. They can receive financially distressed status under PA Act 47, which allows them to restructure their debt and consolidate or merge with neighboring municipalities to ease their individual burden. There are many municipalities who are now realizing the enormity of their pension obligations, and have very few choices except bankruptcy. Twenty municipalities in the state, including its capital, already have Act 47 designation that has helped them stabilize their financial status, but hasn’t provided stable, long term solutions to their economic problems.
While Act 47 allows municipal consolidation, there needs to be better understanding of the benefits of merging. A financially failed municipality with heavy debt and pension obligations is not a promising merge partner for a healthy, neighboring municipality. However, the possibility of shared services and decreased cost in service provision to the stronger municipality should be used as a selling point in these consolidation discussions. Both municipalities can benefit from consolidation and eventually provide higher quality, lower cost services to their constituents while one emerges from Act 47, distressed status.
If these negotiations and state laws are your interest, keep your eyes open for more information on Renew Lehigh Valley’s smart growth conference coming this fall. One of the available workshops will focus exclusively on Act 47, Act 111 and municipal bankruptcy in Pennsylvania with an expert panel featuring Fred Reddig from Pennsylvania’s Local Government Commission and Tom Baldridge of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.
Being the tech-savvy Millennials that we are here at RenewLV, I happened upon a tweet from our friends at Sustainable Cities that I felt I had to share with you to get your input. The folks at Project for Public Spaces authored the initial post, who also happen to have a connection to the Eastern Gateway project in Bethlehem after doing some work here a few years ago. After taking Rep. Bob Freeman’s class at Lehigh University about growth management and what “place” really means (and passing with high marks, I might add), I found this particular list intriguing. Put these 26 items into play in your life, and you will have designed a “great place.”
- Challenge the prevailing myth that all problems have private, individualized solutions.
- Notice how many of life’s pleasures exist outside the marketplace—gardening, fishing, conversing, playing music, playing ball, enjoying nature, and more.
- Take time to enjoy what your corner of the world offers (As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once declared, “We are bigger than our schedules.”)
- Have some fun. The best reason for making great places is that it will enliven all of our lives.
- Offer a smile or greeting to people you pass. Community begins with connecting—even in brief, spontaneous ways.
- Walk, bike, or take transit whenever you can. It’s good for the environment, but also for you. You make very few friends behind the wheel of your car.
- Treat common spaces as if you own them (which, actually, you do). Pick up litter. Keep an eye on the place. Tidy things up. Report problems or repair things yourself. Initiate improvements.
- Pull together a potluck. Throw a block party. Form a community choir, slow food club, Friday night poker game, seasonal festival, or any other excuse for socializing.
- Get out of the house and spend some time on the stoop, the front yard, the street—anywhere you can be a part of the river of life that flows past.
- Create or designate a “town square” for your neighborhood where folks naturally want to gather—a park, playground, vacant lot, community center, coffee shop, or even a street corner.
- Lobby for more public benches, water fountains, plazas, parks, sidewalks, bike trails, playgrounds, and other crucial commons infrastructure.
- Take matters into your own hands and add a bench to your front yard or transform a vacant lot into a playground.
- Conduct an inventory of local commons. Publicize your findings, and offer suggestions for celebrating and improving these community assets.
- Organize your neighbors to prevent crime and to defuse the fear of crime, which often dampens a community’s spirits even more than crime itself.
- Remember streets belong to everyone, not just automobiles. Drive cautiously and push for traffic calming and other improvements that remind motorists they are not kings of the road.
- Buy from local, independent businesses whenever possible.
- Form a neighborhood exchange to share everything from lawn mowers to childcare to vehicles.
- Barter. Trade your skill in baking pies with someone who will fix your computer.
- Join campaigns opposing cutbacks in public assets like transit, schools, libraries, parks, social services, police and fire protection, arts programs, and more.
- Write letters to the editor about the importance of community commons, post on local websites, call into talk radio, tell your friends.
- Learn from everywhere. What can Copenhagen teach us about bicycles? India about wellness? Africa about community solidarity? Indigenous nations about the commons itself? What bright ideas could be borrowed from a nearby neighborhood or town?
- Become a guerrilla gardener, planting flowers and vegetables on neglected land in your neighborhood.
- Organize a community garden or local farmer’s market.
- Roll up your sleeves to restore a creek, wetland, woods, or grasslands.
- Form a study group to explore what can be done to improve your community.
- Think yourself as a local patriot and share your enthusiasm.
To be honest, I think some residents of the Lehigh Valley already do many of these, which is why the Lehigh Valley is such a wonderful place! But we want to know what you think. Anything you would add to the list or take off? What would you recommend we focus on first and foremost to make the Lehigh Valley an even better place?
You can also share your thoughts for the future of this great “place” by visiting www.envisionlehighvalley.com