2014 Lehigh Valley Planning awards

Tonight had the pleasure of attending the 2014 Lehigh Valley Planning Awards. Thanks to William Ahlert/HDR Engineering for the table and the great company of some folks from RenewLV.

The inaugural award ceremony is an initiative of new(ish) LV Planning Commission Dir. Becky Bradley. The event was held at Lehigh’s Iacocca Hall high above Bethlehem and was packed with attendees able to take in one of the best views in the Valley.

The purpose was to celebrate projects, plans, policies and people who show exemplary scholarship, leadership and inspiration in planning and implementation. Recognizing exceptional initiatives is important. As we know the Valley continues to grow at a rapid pace. Because of this we have our share of mundane, cookie cutter and plain old bad projects resulting from a lack of vision. That is exactly why it’s important to celebrate those leaders, builders, architects and engineers who build and lay the groundwork for special projects and initiatives. There is great stuff happening in the LV and it needs to be celebrated. Doing so hopefully leads to emulation by other communities.

It’s a goal of mine that LMT’s East Texas Village Center Project will warrant consideration at the 2015 awards in the community ordinance category.

Some highlights: 25 honorees and winners in 9 different categories. The projects below are ones stuck out to me the most as being really great. Take a minute to check out the links to learn more about them.

Community plan category
Borough of Portland Comprehensive plan.

Open Space Project 
Nevin Park Revitalization, City of Easton
Lands at Kirkland open space preservation, Upper Mount Bethel
Prydun/Mickley Farm Acquisition, Whitehall Township

Revitalization Project
Iron Works Site Master Plan, Catasaqua

Transportation project
West End Allentown Streetscape

Multi-Municipal Cooperation
Slate Belt Regional Police Commission. Borough of Pen Argyl, Wind Gap and Plainfield township.

Land Development
PPL Center Allentown

Video-Tony Cimerol

#LVawards2014 #B!LV


The Fed Ex Hub

Yesterday an article in the Morning Call was accompanied by a heartfelt video of residents opposing the mega-project. I’m familiar with these kinds of stories living in Lower Macungie, but I stop short of feeling bad for these folks in this particular case.

Let me re-phrase that. I do feel bad. Folks are hurting because their lives are going to change. Warehouses destroy surrounding neighborhoods. That’s reality. But I don’t feel bad in the same way as I do for residents of Lower Macungie who now face more warehousing in the western portion of our township.

There is a huge difference….. Why? 

In Allen Township land was earmarked for industrial development for years. The couple in the article purchased their home 2 years ago. When you buy a home near a highway in the northeast and your surrounded by farms the first thing you do is head to your local municipal building and check the surrounding zoning. Then you check the regional zoning and comprehensive planning. If it’s zoned Industrial, think long & hard about the investment your about to make.

Lower Macungie is different. Here I do feel for the residents who were screwed. And I’m sorry for that language but there simply isn’t a better word.

Why? The Jaindl property was zoned agriculture protected for well over 2 decades.

The warehouses are a direct result of wholesale rezoning.  For over 2 decades 700 acres of prime farmland was planned and zoned to be prime farmland. If you bought a house off of Mertztown Rd. or in Heritage Heights 10 years ago and did your due diligence researching surrounding land uses you would have found that your backyard was permanently protected.  In fact, preserved both through zoning and not one but two regional plans.

Property rights are a two way street. Yes, landowners have rights. But zoning protects your neighbors rights. Your neighbor can’t do things that affect your home value outside the scope of what’s allowed in zoning.

If you live in a residential neighborhood someone can’t decide to build a strip club next to you. Not without you knowing it’s a possibility. 

So yes, I do feel bad for the folks in Allen Township because their neighborhood is changing for the worse. But in the end, they should have known. They should have done the research. Here in LMT folks who did the research were screwed.

Local Govs owe it to residents to be up-front what the future holds for certain neighborhoods. People who bought homes in the western neighborhoods are not millionaires. They are everyday people who made the biggest investments of their lives. We owed it to them to protect that investment based on fair and reasonable expectations. Officials in LMT failed.


Thoughts on LV rail.

Every couple of months we see another article about the potential for passenger rail in the LV.

I am a big dreamer when it comes to potential rail service in the LV. To me it’s ridiculous we are the population center and the location we are and have no passenger connections to the rest of the NE.

The latest article in the Morning Call focuses on new leadership in the LVPC who may be interested in taking another look at rail.

“For some, Bradley’s arrival this month as the new  LV Planning Commission director also comes at a good time. Bradley succeeded Mike Kaiser, who directed the Commission for 45 years. Rail advocates frequently blamed Kaiser for not taking their pleas to bring passenger rail to the Valley seriously. Kaiser always explained that he liked passenger rail, but argued that the limited number of people it would benefit in the Valley didn’t warrant the more than $1 billion cost of building it.”

As I said, I’m admittedly a dreamer when it comes to the possibility of passenger rail.  I’m all for addressing the issue. BUT the key is building a true high speed rail (HSR) system. And the reason is to make the system financially viable. If we don’t truly commit to HSR then I tend to agree with Kaiser that the market just isn’t here. Why? The issue with Amtrak is profitability. Today with most destinations the bus network is a far better value then Amtrak. *And this is with Amtrak benefitting from massive gov’t subsidies. This won’t change until we unlock the potential of HSR. As a country we’re behind Laos, Thailand, Turkey, and Morocco in terms of HSR.

*You can make the argument that the bus system also benefits massive gov’t subsidies via highway funding. Though not the case in the Lehigh Valley where LANTA operates on a pretty streamlined budget.

Chinese Bullet train travels at over 300 mph. I’d love to see more train routes in the NE and specifically here in the LV. But the key is speed. 300mph bullet trains like this one here could people from the LV to NYC in less then an hour with stops. Speed is the key to making trains marketable and profitable.

It’s simple, until rail offers a significant advantage over buses and even goes so far as to compete with ‘short hop’ airlines there is no reason to make the investment and I wouldn’t support it. Once trains are getting people from Boston to DC in 3 hours then folks will pay a premium price and the critical mass of trains will run full. Just look to Acela, the train that runs by far and away Amtraks most successful route. Coincidently it’s the closest we have to true HSR. Even the most conservative estimates show a 20% profit margin with some bolder claiming upwards of 40%.

People will pay premium for convenience. With travel that means comfort and speed. Show me a rail plan that addresses these two critical goals and I’d be leading the charge. The economic benefits of HSR passenger connections for the LV would be tremendous.

UPDATE: Found this Express Times guest column which uses 2010 data from a study that was conducted. It supports my thoughts that anything “low speed” isn’t worth the investment. HSR would completely change the argument. The study cites a 2.5 hour train trip to NYC. The kind of HSR I’m talking about would get you to NYC in an hour. It’s interesting to see train supporters absolutely unload on this study in the comments which are worth reading. I tend to agree with many that the study seems seriously flawed and biased so look forward to tackling the problem from a more optimistic angle.

Here is a counterpoint in support – Kirk Raup has worked as an advocate for LV Rail for 2 decades makes a great case for the why. All of his logic on the ‘why’ I agree with.

With about 80 percent of our federal transportation dollars going to highways and aviation, we should have the best and least costly travel and commuting options anywhere. But we don’t, and there’s no excuse for it. Decades of widening roads, building new interstates and performing endless work on the Turnpike and routes 309 and 22 are breaking our backs; we all know this nonsense is unsustainable.

(Speaking of highway funding breaking our backs….)

His solution is a SEPTA like system connecting the valley to other lines. It’s an interesting proposal. I still think my argument that only higher speeds can change the games makes sense. People would pay double the projected price changing the whole base economics.