Blog Archives

Envision Lehigh Valley’s Public Meeting Results Are In!

Through their website, Envision Lehigh Valley received a total of 1,118 completed surveys as well as feedback from 47 public meetings that were held through the fall. The breakdown of the participants represented an  accurate cross section of our regional population on the   characteristics of race, age,   income and location.

In the 47 focus groups that were held during the public meetings, Lehigh Valley residents appeared to be most interested in discussing economic development, which they saw as a positive thing for the region.

They mentioned large projects currently being undertaken across the Lehigh Valley. Participants discussed projects such as the hockey arena, casino, and ArtsQuest. Projects involving specific companies, including Ocean Spray, and the Lehigh Valley Hospital Expansion, were mentioned as well as more   generic business expansions like the Allentown waterfront      project, the P&P Mill, and new hotels and retail space in various locations.

Focus group participants were generally dissatisfied with the types of jobs available to Lehigh Valley workers and didn’t believe the job market matched the qualifications most workers have.

The groups also examined other topics; citizens talked 652 times about housing, 549 times about fresh food access, and 378 times about climate and energy.

One of the most interesting findings to come out of the focus group analysis is that the overall interests and topics of discussion varied very little in the different cities, boroughs, and townships where they were held.  These  commonalities suggest that quality of life factors in the Lehigh Valley are important across the valley, not just in one or two communities.

Read the full report, including  survey results and focus group discussions, right here!

Lehigh Valley Named to 20 Weakest Metro Areas

The Brookings Institution compiled data for the nation’s 100 largest metro areas to track the economic recession and recovery.  Guess what they found?  According to their indicators, the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area is in the 20 weakest metro areas based on economic performance!  The data tracked the metro areas across 4 indicators: employment change, unemployment rate change, gross metropolitan product (GMP) change, housing price index (HPI) change.  Let’s break it down by the numbers.

Overall Performance Recovery

Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton ranked 94/100

Employment Change (during the recovery)

Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton ranked 79/100. With a 0.8% change in employment, the area was placed in the Second-weakest 20 Metro Areas.

Unemployment Rate (during the recovery)

Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton ranked 53/100. With a 7.9% change in unemployment rates, the area was placed in the Middle 20 Metro Areas.

Gross Metropolitan Product Change (during the recovery)

Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton ranked 43/100. With a 5.94% change in GMP, the area was placed in the Middle 20 Metro Areas.

Change in Housing Prices (during the recovery)

Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton ranked ranked 94/100. With a 0.17% change in housing prices, the area was placed in the 20 Weakest Metro Areas.

So what can we do about it?  We need to come together as a community to plan for a better, stronger, more revitalized future for the Valley.  The Lehigh Valley’s economy may be slowly recovering, but we still have a long way to go.  And our local and state governments can’t do it alone.  They need your input.  Add your thoughts here, contact your local officials, or voice your opinion at local meetings.  Do you want the future of the Lehigh Valley to be determined by chance or by choice?

Lower Density Contributes to Real Estate Bubbles?

So alleges recent research on the issue. Matthew Yglesias reports on the latest findings by Haifang Huang and Yao Tang (PDF) “Residential Land Use Regulation and the US Housing Price Cycle Between 2000 and 2009″ on his blog. He cites this from the research –

In a sample covering more than 300 cities in the US between January 2000 and July 2009, we find that more restrictive residential land use regulations and geographic land constraints are linked to larger booms and busts in housing prices.

This provides some food for thought about the way land-use planning is regulated within our nation. Standard planning — one that relies on outdated zoning laws  — favors low-density design. Yet, as is suggested here, this may not be good for the economy.

Allentown’s Forums on Zoning Start Tonight

Allentown City Council and Allentown’s President Council are hosting four community forums on the city’s zoning code. The Morning Call describes some of the changes that would be implemented:

First made public in October 2008, the zoning changes would be city-wide and impact homeowners, businesses and others in the city for decades to come.

The roughly 50 proposed changes run from the simple, such as requiring barbers and salons to have someone with a state certification always on site; to the controversial, such as prohibiting owners of one-to-four-unit properties from adding units in all residential districts except high density.

The changes would also make it easier for developers to convert large, non-residential structures — such as factories and warehouses — into residential buildings and prohibit owners of property along the Seventh Street commercial corridor from converting ground-floor businesses into residential units.

Council hopes to introduce a zoning amendment bill later this year and is looking for public input on the zoning changes. The meetings are as follows:

  • 7 p.m. Monday, June 7 at Faith Fellowship Church, East Pennsylvania and North Ulster streets
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 8 at West End Youth Center, 848 N. 20th St.
  • 7 p.m. Thursday, June 17 at Allentown City Hall, 435 Hamilton St.
  • 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 22 at Trinity Memorial Lutheran Church, 535 W. Emaus Ave.

If you are able to attend any of these, feel free to come back to our blog and post your thoughts on the changes.

State of Metropolitan America — How Does the Lehigh Valley Compare?

Last week, the Brookings Institution released its highly-anticipated report The State of Metropolitan America. The report focuses on major demographic factors that affect a metropolitan region — including Race & Ethnicity, Age, Income  & Poverty, and Commuting — and also groups the metro regions into a new typology “based upon metrics of population growth, diversity, and educational attainment as compared to national averages.”

The Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metro region (which is different from the Lehigh Valley region, as the A-B-E region includes parts of Carbon County and Northern New Jersey) is labeled a Mid-Sized Magnet, characterized by High Growth, Low Diversity, and Low Education. The report states that the magnets have experienced “high growth, but exhibit lower shares of Hispanic and Asian minorities, and lower levels of educational attainment. These 15 mid-sized … locations got caught in the growth spiral of the 2000s that ended abruptly with the housing crash.” Interestingly, most of these magnets are located in the Southeast (many in Florida), which makes the A-B-E metro region characterization unique.

What does this label mean for our metro region, and, specifically, what does it mean for our cities? The report states:

Mid-Sized Magnet metro areas must seek greater economic balance in the wake of the housing crash. Smart infrastructure investments in these metro areas could promote growth of alternative energy production and distribution, international travel and tourism, and linkages with larger nearby centers of global commerce. Their leaders must also be fierce champions for the continued viability of 2- and 4-year higher education institutions, which offer the best hope for ensuring that their large and growing young, minority populations can share in the fruits of future economic growth.

Indeed, future economic growth must be stressed, and I would argue that it will be especially important to create more opportunities within our urban cores. I did a very quick-and-brief analysis, comparing data from the A-B-E region with data from other Mid-Sized Magnets, and discovered something very interesting and – dare I say – disturbing: the discrepancy between the median household income of the primary city (in our case, Allentown) and that of the suburbs is greater here than in any other magnet region. The median income in Allentown is a little over $39K, while the median income in the suburbs is over $62K.  Other magnet regions often did not have much of a discrepancy — while the gap in the A-B-E region is greater than $20,000.

Unfortunately, I cannot cover all topics of interest from this Brookings study within this post, but I invite you to visit the report site to explore the report in more detail. If you come across something particularly interesting in your exploring, make sure to share in our comments below.

Even More on Walkability and Real Estate Values

The NY Times examined the aspect of “walkability” in real estate values in a recent article, even highlighting the role that Walk Score is taking on in the market. Allegedly, residences in a neighborhood with an above-average walk score are able to sell at a higher price than those with a lower score. With the cost of living skyrocketing, I’m sure many families are looking for alternatives to using a car daily – and living in a walkable neighborhood can help with saving money in the long run.

Data collection on real estate values used to only be available through government sources and the National Association of Realtors, but now, more companies are beginning to compile this useful information (even Google is now accumulating such data).

Interested in checking out home values by zip code? Visit Zillow.com to check out a comparison of different areas and market prices. It looks like the ‘Allentown Metro’ area is boasting housing prices that are higher than the average US market values right now. Very interesting. What are your thoughts on why this may be so?

Addressing the Smart Growth Critics

A new report published by the Victoria Transport Institute aims to counter claims made by critics of smarter neighborhood design. These critics often state that the general population dislikes multi-modal, compact, and accessible community development, instead preferring single-family households in low-density, automobile-dependent locations. Contrary to these claims, the report, Where We Want to Be: Home Location Preferences and Their Implications for Smart Growth, states that several market research results indicate that, while a single-family household is still a preferred type of home, consumer preference is shifting toward increased access to resources and greater mobility.  Some of the cited features of a desirable housing location include:

  • greater access exemplified by shorter commutes
  • nearby shopping and services
  • greater transportation choices.

The report draws on a number of studies completed in Canada and the United States. In the United States, one study (performed in Georgia) showed that, while only 5% of Atlanta’s neighborhoods are considered walkable, close to 49% of the surveyed residents of the region expressed a strong interest in accessible neighborhood design. Within Toronto, Canada, over 68% of the residents stated that they strongly preferred living in a walkable neighborhood.

While the report does not suggest that families will be moving out of the suburbs into high-density urban areas, there is some indication that demand for housing in car-dependent locations will decrease, as more individuals become increasingly concerned with rising energy prices and road congestion. The report includes the following chart that sums up some of the factors that will affect housing preferences in the future:

trends

It will be interesting to observe if the report’s predicted development outcomes will materialize. Post your comments on these findings and forecasts below, and make sure to subscribe to the Crossroads RSS feed to keep up to date on issues related to planning and neighborhood design.

Smart Growth is About Choice

Several misconceptions surround the term ‘smart growth,’ not the least of which is the misguided idea that smart growth is really anti-growth (or, as some critics of smart growth argue, anti-development). This is simply not true. Contrary to this belief, smart growth advocates acknowledge that growth will continue, and they support a coordinated and planned approach to the growth that will ensure regional prosperity. Another misconception that often comes up is that of forced choices, in that those who are suspicious of the smart growth movement fear that the advocates are trying to tell them where to live and how to live. Again, not true. In promoting better land use policy, the goal is not to replace one choice with another. Rather, the goal is CHOICE itself – actually having options, both in terms of housing and transportation.

Most current housing developments, especially in the regions surrounding the cities, solely consist of a single type of housing. This type of development is problematic because it fails to account for the different needs of the many residents and families within that region. The unfortunate result that follows is that certain individuals are left out of the equation, finding it impossible to live in that development. Talk about forced choice.

To ameliorate the problem of single-type developments, a municipality can modify its land use patterns, as well as increase housing choices in already-established neighborhoods that have existing infrastructure. By utilizing the resources that are already in place, new developments will have less impact on the entire community (which translates into cost savings) while simultaneously providing choices.

Relatedly, access to a variety transportation choices within a municipality is equally important. I have already mentioned some benefits of transit-oriented development, but it is important to specify that such development focuses on an increase in transportation choices. That is, it is not sufficient to simply keep building developments that make its residents auto-dependent. Rather, the availability of many modes of transportation is essential for strong communities and vibrant neighborhoods. Pedestrian-friendly streets outfitted with wide sidewalks, abundant bike lanes, and close proximity to bus and rail are essential for well-planned communities that account for the needs of ALL its citizens.

The recent availability of federal money for high-speed rail projects has sparked several discussions over feasibility and requirements for these projects. And while these are crucial aspects in the assessment of whether rail should be established, another feature that has been missing from the debate is that of providing choice. Paul Krugman, columnist for the New York Times, expresses his thoughts on this matter in his latest piece, in which he assesses the different types of transportation available to most Americans. He compares the American condition to a part of Europe:

You can fly from Paris to Lyon, you can drive it, and some do. But a lot of people take the TGV [high-speed rail], because for them it’s better. In most of America, we don’t have that option.

Returning to my first point, in the context of smart growth, changes in housing and transportation policy are not about restricting choice – it’s about CREATING choice. The goal is to create livable communities. And, as Krugman states, in much of America, we don’t have the option. I say, let’s make that option.

To become a part of the RenewLV network, become a supporter by visiting our Join Us page or by sending over an e-mail to smartgrowth@renewlv.org.

Housing and Declining Populations

In this section of the Revitalizing Older Cities series, the attention turns to housing in the Lehigh Valley.

Much like the rest of Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley has seen a steady population decline in its cities and older boroughs over the last few years. The Northeast Midwest Institute, via the Revitalizing Older Cities Initiative, has noted that this pattern of population decline is common in former industrial and manufacturing cities. This decline gives way to an overstock of housing that can easily turn into blight. Most worrisome, the declining population has resulted in a stagnant tax base, forcing the older communities to raise taxes, which discourages new residents from considering residency in the cities. The most telling evidence of this comes from the Profile on the Lehigh Valley compiled by the Brookings Institute as part of its Back to Prosperity study, in which it was revealed that the Lehigh Valley’s outer townships added over 34,000 residents, while the cities only gained about 1,400 in the 1990s. Housing permits continue to be issued in second-class townships at a rapid rate, when plenty of housing exists within the older communities.

So what is the solution for encouraging people to buy homes in the older cities? It may just be redevelopment campaigns, much like the one being waged in Allentown through the Seventh Street Development Committee. Some of the committee’s most visible work can be seen walking down Allentown’s Seventh Street, where many businesses have received facade grants to remodel restaurant and store fronts. Seen below is Casa Latina, a lauded local Dominican and Puerto Rican eatery, and a recipient of a facade grant:

s_131

Such initiatives aim to revitalize neighborhoods through beautification campaigns, with the hope of bringing in more business and new customers. In turn, this encourages people to move into the neighborhood.

Business redevelopment efforts are just one part of the effort to bring more residents into the cities. Campaigns to revitalize blighted property, along with mortgage counseling and work incentives are also crucial to battling the declining residency within the older communities. The Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley has been a champion for the economically challenged neighborhoods, by providing home-ownership guidance programs to many of the residents of the Valley’s three cities. And the City of Easton recently announced a new program that would provide $7,000 to Easton police officers who buy a house in the city. Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said that he hopes the program will “appeal to new officers coming to the Easton area as first-time homebuyers.” The full story on the Easton City Council approval for the program can be found on the Morning Call website.

Revitalizing cities requires the collaboration of many different entities. The various efforts to combat housing problems within the Lehigh Valley are exemplary of this approach. All of these concerns, and more, will be covered in the upcoming Annual Lehigh Valley Housing Summit on Thursday, September 24, from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn in downtown Allentown. Visit the CACLV site for more information about the event. And make sure to keep up to date on all news related to housing in the Lehigh Valley’s cities by visiting RenewLV’s Join Us page and clicking the box next to Housing before submitting your information.

National Smart Growth Policy

Members of the US Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee introduced a new bill this week that will coordinate policies within the housing, transportation, and environmental sectors. As described in the press release, the Livable Communities Act will “help towns and regions across the country plan and implement development projects that integrate their community’s needs for transportation, housing, land use, and economic development.” The committee hopes that the bill will encourage sustainable planning practices at all governmental levels, and ensure that the various aspects affecting the livability of a neighborhood are integrated together. Some of the key goals in the bill include increased accessibility to reliable public transportation and the creation of more affordable housing.

The legislation will, among other actions, create planning grants for regions, as well as challenge grants that can be used to implement those plans. To oversee the grant distribution, the Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities will be established. It was reported a few weeks ago that Shelley Poticha, the current the Co-Chair of Transportation for America, is expected to step into the leadership position of the new office. On a side note, RenewLV, being a supporter of sustainable transportation choices, is a coalition member of the Transportation of America campaign. You can visit the T4A website to learn more about their national initiatives and how local organizations fit into the agenda to push for smarter transportation policy.

With the new grant program established, the Lehigh Valley has an opportunity to come together to address growth issues in our communities. To help in this effort, visit RenewLV’s Join Us page and sign up as a supporter to stay up to date on information related to livable communities and revitalization projects.

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