The LVEDC Interview: Becky Bradley

By LVEDC Staff on July 15, 2014

Editor’s Note: It’s been nearly a year since Becky Bradley was named executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, an agency that plays a significant role in shaping the Lehigh Valley’s future as it relates to land development, zoning, housing and the environment. Bradley’s administration has tackled many matters, including an update of the long-range transportation plan and the creation of a new energy element to the region’s comprehensive plan. Bradley is no stranger to Lehigh Valley. She served for eight years as the director of planning and codes for the City of Easton. A member of the executive committee of the Lehigh Valley Land Recycling Initiative, Bradley earned a bachelor of science degree in Historic Preservation from Southeast Missouri State University and holds a Master of City Planning degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

LVEDC: You’ve just compiled a beefy report on housing. How has the real estate market changed in Lehigh Valley over the past 5 years …. 10 years… 20 years?

Becky Bradley: A number of important changes have occurred really over the last decade. First, we saw a 10% increase in the number of people migrating into the Lehigh Valley. Over 6,800 new people moved in from New Jersey, and 4,300 from New York. Non-family households increased from 28% to 32% and the average household size declined to 2.5 persons per household. Single-family detached housing accounts for roughly 65% of our total housing stock and for the first time since 1960 the average size of a home declined from a high of 2,300 square feet in 2000 to 2,135 square feet in 2010.  What this is telling us is that people are chosing to “right size” when making housing choices. The market is also ripe, for apartments and townhouses, which is exactly the types of development that we are seeing now. In 2013 alone 52% of proposed lots in the region were for apartments, while only 12% were for single-family detached housing. Also, the average density for new construction increased from 1.8 units per acre in 2005 to 2.8 units per acre last year.  I expect this trend to continue particularly as land values in the region have not fallen substantially, lending has changed and our demographics require housing for seniors and young people. This housing information also, indicates that the resale market is solid for existing housing units and that our three urban markets will continue to revitalize.

A new pattern has emerged since 2012 with commercial development. Industrial buildings have surpassed all other types of commercial construction in the Lehigh Valley and accounted for over 5,103,197 square feet in 2013. Total non-residential construction was 7,418,048 square feet indicating the strength of the industrial market. Commercial development is generally happening where we have adequate infrastructure to support it and 3,750,000 square feet of the commercial development was in the City of Bethlehem and 1,323,172 square feet in Allentown, where commercial development proposals in the suburbs lagged behind the cities significantly last year.   2014 mid-year industrial development is stronger in the townships than it was in 2013 and this trend is expected to continue especially with projects like FedEx Ground.

LVEDC: What spurred you and the Planning Commission to dig into the housing issue?

Bradley: Since 2007-2008 a substantial decline in housing starts and sales prompted us to look into the future of residential construction in the region. When we were in the heart of the recession in 2008 almost 1,300 new homes were sold in Lehigh and Northampton Counties. But, in 2011 only 125 new houses sold. 2012, saw a slight uptick to 180 houses, though this wasn’t anywhere near were developers, realtors, bankers, contractors, engineers or municipal government needed or wanted new home sales to be. We also, were seeing a trend of declining home values from a region wide median of $321,537 in 2008 to $264,950 by 2012 — though values are stabilizing and even growing this year.

We needed to understand the substantial shift in the region’s housing economy and be prepared to assist our partners in planning for a housing recovery, by providing quantitative evidence on the form the recovery will take in respect to our growing population and changing demographics. The draft Lehigh Valley Housing Plan is expected to be released at the end of July and finalized by the beginning of September.

 LVEDC: Your recent Rotary Club presentation was titled: The Future of the Lehigh Valley — What’s Next? So… what’s next?

Bradley: Actually, what isn’t? Many people have aptly observed that the Lehigh Valley is in the midst of a Renaissance. Our cities, suburbs and boroughs have had strong growth in a variety of areas from population to business, attractions and housing revitalization. One of the major areas that the LVPC is planning for now is the power of the upcoming demographic shift as our population ages and migration into the region slows. Generation X, now in middle age, and Generation Y, entering the workforce are much smaller than the Baby Boom Generation. Coupled with high personal debt-to-income ratios, delayed family-formation and low birth rates among Generations X and Y types of housing, transportation systems, businesses, recreational amenities and schools that will be needed in the Lehigh Valley will change.

Our existing communities, transportation network and housing will do well. The downtowns in Bethlehem, Easton, Allentown, Emmaus, Macungie, Alburtis, Bangor, among

others are working very hard and doing well pre through post recession. This revitalization trend will continue. The business recruitment and retention assistance and programs that LVEDC is championing are further keys to assisting the Lehigh Valley business community navigate the great demographic transition we will experience thru 2040.

LVEDC: Your one-year anniversary at executive director of the Planning Commission is Aug. 1 – congratulations. What are the biggest things you’ve learned since assuming this role?

Bradley: I realize that it’s very easy to criticize the Lehigh Valley for 62 units of municipal government but, the remarkable thing I discovered is how well-coordinated and connected our communities are. LVPC has had very important, and sometimes difficult conversations, on the allocation of $3.82 billion in new road, bridge, pedestrian, bicycle and transit projects this year. We achieved consensus on regional infrastructure priorities and funding in under four months because of the inherent cooperation between governments in the region.

Working with Lower Macungie, Upper Milford, Lower Milford, Emmaus, Alburtis and Macungie on their collective vision for Southwestern Lehigh is another example and where I learned about the depth of our communities’ desire for LVPC’s expertise in infrastructure and development planning.   Catasauqua, Whitehall and South Whitehall are working with us on multi-modal traffic management strategies, where we are generating 3D models of transportation alternatives (e.g. impact of making Front Street two-way in Catasauqua) so residents and businesses can better understand and make better decisions about their transportation futures. We are also, working with the Nazareth Area Council of Governments, including: Chapman, Allen, East Allen, Tatamy, Moore, Nazareth, Bushkill, Bath, Upper Nazareth, Lower Nazareth and Stockertown on monitoring the success of the Inter-municipal Cooperative Implementation Agreement that LVPC authored in 2006.   The thoughtfulness and passion that all these municipalities are putting into these efforts is inspiring and reinforces LVPC’s ability to deliver high-quality, professional planning services to the community. I expect our Community Planning section to grow over the next several years to meet the demand.

LVEDC: Finally, what are the biggest challenges and obstacles that accompany economic development in the Lehigh Valley – and how do we overcome them?

Bradley: LVEDC has done an excellent job of looking into the region’s commercial needs and developing an active and strategic program of recruitment, expansion and technical assistance services. This is so important to targeting the types of businesses that we can support and for creating the jobs that we want and need.

Accommodating freight and logistics facilities is hands-down the biggest commercial land development and infrastructure issue today.   I’m very excited that LVPC is developing the region’s first freight plan to compliment the additional goods and services anticipated into the region as the Panama Canal is widened and northeast ports divert cargo to the Lehigh Valley. Coupled with the target market sectors identified in A Blueprint for Success: An Economic Development Strategy for Sustainable Growth in the Lehigh Valley I commend LVEDC for their work assisting LVPC to develop a global freight infrastructure planning and investment strategy.    The Lehigh Valley Freight Plan will be released this fall and I believe the partnership that LVPC and LVEDC has built will grow as we work collectively to build one Lehigh Valley.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following feature originally appeared July 10 on the website. We've abridged the final copy a bit. You prefer the East coast, and you like[...]

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