Earlier this year, a Bucks County developer that had built large subdivisions with single-family homes in Upper Macungie switched gears.
The Heritage Homes Group got approval from the township to change a 2007 proposal for the Dunbar Tract III of its Breinigsville development from a majority of single-family homes to mostly townhouses on Twin Ponds Road.
If Mitchell Silver, president of the American Planning Association, is right, the Lehigh Valley is going to be seeing a lot more of these changes as our population ages and younger people opt for lifestyles that don’t include a big home in a suburban subdivision.
At the behest of Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie’s planning director and chair of the Lehigh Valley section of the national planning association, Silver spoke to a crowd of mostly planners at Lehigh University last week.
Silver said that by 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65 – a sea change that he referred to as “the Silver Tsunami” (no relation). By 2025, only 28 percent of American households will have children, according to U.S. Census projections.
Combine those trends and the smart money is looking at different types of housing construction. Senior citizens and young people are seeking to live in walkable, bikeable towns and cities, rather than suburban subdivisions only accessible by car, he said.
As chief planner for Raleigh, N.C., Silver is in the process of updating the city’s development code and is hoping to allow for more housing configurations, such as single homes with “backyard cottages” for older parents or young people who return home. Another possible option is “cottage courts” – 450-square-foot homes surrounding a small courtyard.
Raleigh voters recently passed a $4 million bond issue to put in more sidewalks around the city, rather than mandate each property owner pay for his or her own sidewalks. The ballot question passed by 65 percent of the vote.
That might be the smartest option for Lehigh Valley municipalities seeking to become more pedestrian-friendly. Having the local government pay to install sidewalks would take away much of the sting that Emmaus residents faced a few years ago when the borough required them.
More young professionals – like those Raleigh is attracting with its universities and research corridor – also prefer working in towns and cities, Silver said.
“The young people don’t want to be out in an office park,” he said. “Office parks are so 20th Century.”
But what, one audience member asked, do you do about current residents who are resistant to change? For example, Heritage – the Bucks developer – ran up against some unhappy neighbors when it sought to change the Twin Ponds Road plans.
Silver said he tells such residents that because of market trends, very few banks want to lend a lot of money to developers planning large single-family housing tracts.
When he hears from Raleigh residents who oppose rental properties, Silver trots out a nice recent college grad and says, “You don’t want to rent to him?”
“Right now the younger generation wants to rent, they don’t want to buy,” Silver said. And in many cases, they can't afford to.
Changing demographics might well succeed in doing what municipal governments could not: slow the gobbling up of Lehigh Valley farmland and open space for single-family tract housing developments and office parks.