Lehigh Valley

Planning Commission report shows flat housing yet growing commercial market

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission's latest annual report on building activity revealed a flat regional housing market characterized by dwindling single-family dwellings yet increased commercial development and rental usage.

"The most interesting for us was how absolutely flat the housing market is" said Executive Director Becky Bradley of the 2013 Subdivision and Building Activity Report presented at this Thursday's meeting. 

"We knew [the market] wasn't jumping but when you look at things year after year…you see that trend has continued, where housing construction is not coming back" said Bradley.

Single family dwellings, strong indicators of the rate of housing development, have plummeted from a 1988 regional high of over 11,500 to just under 1,500 a decade and a half later.

In 2013 only 12 percent of proposed lots were single family dwellings, while 52 percent were apartments.

Non-residential housing meanwhile has nearly quadrupled in the past year, outnumbering residential space in terms of acreage by a margin of 1,275 to 303.

"2012 was a floor year" said Chief Community Planner David Berryman. "We had quite a dramatic increase in 2013 over previous years."

Berryman attributed this in part to the growing economic areas in Allentown with the creation of the Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

"You had development in Allentown that was supported by the NIZ. Allentown had a lot of lots that really spiked that score."

In 2013, Lehigh and Northampton counties approved 7,418,048 square feet of non-residential development space, up 288 percent 2013.

Of that area 69 percent was allocated for industrial use and 19 percent was for public or quasi-public use, while the remaining 22 percent was split amongst commercial, retail and office use.

The largest of these projects included Bethlehem's Majestic Center at 1,750,000 square feet and Liberty Property Partnership at 1,200,000 square feet, with Allentown's Arena and Events Center coming in third at an even million.

2013 saw several other upsurges from 2012, including a 20.2 percent increase in plan submissions, a 91.4 percent increase in total lots and a 136 percent increase in approved lots.

"Even though we had an uptake from previous years, we're quite a ways from where we were in 2004" said Berryman.

Executive Director Becky Bradley gave various potential explanations for the surges in non-residential use and the decline in housing developments.

"Generation X and generation Y have the highest debt ever" she said of the generations currently entering their purchasing prime. "They are tending to move more into existing units."

Bradley also stressed the importance of local government adapting to these new "more transient" housing patterns.

"So many of the municipalities have been relying on housing for their tax base," she said. "Those days are over, and I think they realize that."

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