The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission received proposals for residential and industrial development covering 1,300 acres in the first quarter of the year, as not even COVID-19 can slow investment in the region.
"We continue to see growth each month even through the pandemic," Executive Director Becky Bradley said during the LVPC's virtual meeting Thursday. Most of the acreage being considered for development is in Northampton County, at 940 acres, while Lehigh County proposals would cover 359 acres.
"In three months, 821 new housing units were proposed," Bradley said, 65 more than in the year-ago quarter. "The market is responding to the housing shortage" with a mix of options, she said.
"Communities are getting wiser to the fact that they need to allow more (housing) density," she said, as the number of apartments, twins, townhouses and condominiums submitted for LVPC review outpaces single-family homes, with the totals at 585 and 236, respectively.
Nonresidential plans total 4.73 million square feet of building. Warehouses account for 79%, or 3.72 million square feet, Bradley said in her report for January through March. Proposals for retail, office and public space are down because of the pandemic, she said, but the growth of online shopping has increased warehouse development.
Local warehouse development results from the real estate market and investors seeking a return on capital, Bradley said. The LVPC does not recruit businesses.
Chairman Greg Zebrowski said "warehouse proliferation" remains a problem, though not all such development is bad. The recent announcement that Nike Inc. will occupy a warehouse on former Bethlehem Steel Corp. land is appropriate, he said.
"If it's on farmland and open space, that's where we have a problem," Zebrowski said.
The LVPC's professional staff reviews development proposals in Lehigh and Northampton counties and makes recommendations, but final decisions are made by municipalities.
The commission's review of the plans of Lewis Ronca and Norton Herrick for the 53-acre Martin Tower site in Bethlehem found fault with the developers' request for a zoning ordinance change and the proposed parking layout.
"This is a very vital project in the Lehigh Valley," Zebrowski said of the chance to develop a large tract in a city. "It needs to be done right."
Vice Chair Steven Glickman said a representative of the developers misrepresented the LVPC's stand on the project during a recent Bethlehem City Council review of the plan.
LVPC staff comments presented by Senior Community Planner Jillian Seitz criticized the developers' request for a zoning change because that would affect other sites in Bethlehem, while a variance from the code would be specific to the Martin Tower land.
The developers have also asked for an additional parking lane between buildings and Eighth Avenue. That would "reduce safety and accessibility for pedestrians and (public) transit users," Seitz said in her review.
The requested zoning relief sought for the plan — which includes medical and office buildings, retail space, restaurants and apartments — "would result in suburban-scale development patterns that are not consistent with the character of the city," Seitz wrote. The commissioners voted to approve the staff review, which will be sent to the city.
The commission took a more favorable view of a new student drop-off site at Parkway Manor Elementary School in South Whitehall Township. The plan would reduce traffic congestion, the staff review said.
A 400-unit housing development in Lower Macungie Township at Mertztown and Butz roads also received a favorable review. The plan will provide housing near industrial developments, the LVPC said. The proposal is for 264 single-family homes and 136 townhouses.
LVPC Managing Editor Matt Assad told the board that the commission has received the Governor's Award for Local Government Excellence for Innovative Planning and Sound Land Use Practices. The honor from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recognizes the LVPC's "FutureLV" regional plan for development. The award will be presented May 19.
As the meeting wound down, Bradley told the commissioners that the LVPC is taken seriously and the board's decisions lead to changes in building plans and local ordinances.
Still, the commission does not have the legal authority to block development, and some members have expressed frustration with that.
Bradley said the staff's work and the commissioners' suggestions do influence land use.
"Collectively we are making a huge difference," Bradley said.
Money makes a difference too, and litigation is expensive.
"Many municipalities will cave in when a developer threatens to take them to court," Commissioner Percy Dougherty said.
Bradley said local governments, which make final decisions on land use, have not updated their zoning ordinances for decades in some cases. That puts them in a weak position when an undesirable development is proposed.
The commission's reviews can help municipalities negotiate changes in plans, she said.
"I don't think we should have a defeatist attitude at all," Bradley said.