The Lehigh Valley warehouse boom is nowhere close to coming to an end, regional planners said Thursday during a virtual meeting of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.
In 2020, warehouse projects totaling 7.9 million square feet were proposed for Lehigh and Northampton counties, according to the LVPC. That accounts for 87% of the 9.2 million total industrial space proposed last year. For each square foot of proposed traditional industrial use, there are seven square feet of planned warehouse.
"We keep looking at that warehouse number, wondering when it's going to taper off," Chairman Greg Zebrowski said.
"It's not going to," LVPC Executive Director Becky Bradley replied.
"The Lehigh Valley's land and natural resources are not infinite," Zebrowski said. "They're going to come to an end very quickly if we continue at this pace." He warned of dire consequences if more farmland is lost.
The commission discussed the new wave of "high-cube" warehouses, which are 100 feet and higher, and feature automated systems to move and retrieve goods. If such warehouses are built locally, Zebrowski said they should be near interstate highways, not on farmland.
Bradley said the commission found out earlier Thursday about a high-cube warehouse proposed for Allentown.
"We're going to continue to see these things, and that's going to put a lot of pressure on our local governments as well as the (roads and bridges)," Bradley said.
Earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Chris Amato noted the pressure of development.
"We are now at the tipping point in this region, where we are becoming no more a nice place to live," he said.
The commission approved staff comments that found the City of Bethlehem's plan to keep most student off-campus housing in the area immediately abutting Lehigh University is consistent with the regional master plan. The LVPC reviews plans of regional significance, but final decisions are up to municipalities.
Vice Chairman Steven Glickman objected to the city's plan, saying it leaves Southside Bethlehem vulnerable to venture capitalists who might swoop in, demolish buildings and put up new, larger student housing.
"Somebody with deep pockets from out of town could basically build something less residential in nature," he said.
Darlene Heller, Bethlehem's planning director, said height limits in the city's proposal would deter such development. She added that Lehigh University has been a good partner with the city, and the school is putting up more campus residence halls.
Zebrowski, who grew up on Hillside Avenue on the east edge of Lehigh's campus, and most commissioners voted in favor of the positive staff review of the revised ordinance. Glickman and Bob Elbich were opposed, and Heller abstained. Commissioners typically abstain on issues related to their communities.
The commission also supported staff comments in favor of Muhlenberg College's proposed three-story, 20,462-square-foot office building at 2400 Chew St., Allentown, the site of a fraternity house.
The COVID-19 pandemic had little effect on truck traffic in the region, LVPC planning technician Brian Hite said. Traffic on Interstate 78 was little changed in 2020 compared to 2019, while daily truck traffic on Route 33 between Newburg Road and Route 248 increased.
Hite attributed the increase to 8,415 daily trips from 7,718 in 2019 to warehouse development near Route 33's Charles Chrin Interchange.
"The trucks will keep rolling, regardless," he said.
The commission reelected for another one-year term all three of its officers: Zebrowski, Glickman and Treasurer Pam Pearson. Donna Wright, a Lower Milford Township supervisor, left the commission after 11 years, and Andrew Elliot of Palmer Township joined.
"Your leadership in farm preservation has been noteworthy," Zebrowski told Wright.
The LVPC's next meeting, also virtual, will be Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. The agenda will be posted on the LVPC website.