The Morning Call (Sunday)

Thirst for ‘stuff ’ is changing region

- Becky Bradley

The late great comedian George Carlin used to say your house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Now, you don’t even have to leave your house. More stuff is just a click away and usually it arrives on your doorstep within two days.

That dynamic, and the Lehigh

Valley’s growing role in this global online “stuff ” economy, has brought drastic changes to our region. Some of those changes are obvious, some not so much. Some are positive, others not so much.

The most obvious is the change in types of developmen­t over the last several years. It’s hard not to notice the number of warehouses being built. Local municipali­ties have approved more than 30 million square feet of new warehouse and logistic centers, just since 2016. These massive structures have set a new bar for building size in the Lehigh Valley, with many of them exceeding 1 million square feet. Consider that the PPL tower, for example, is a quarter that size and the former Bethlehem Steel No. 2 Machine Shop — once the world’s largest industrial building under roof — is about one-fifth the size of this new breed of warehouse. That’s a lot of room for more stuff.

The sheer size, look and overall impact of these structures have caused us to write new regulation­s and recommenda­tions about where these should and shouldn’t be built, and how they can be built to better fit into the community. Our local municipali­ties are responding by submitting a record number of ordinance, map and zoning code changes to better regulate them. Some politician­s are looking for the tax revenue they generate, others are soliciting campaign donations from the developers who build them, still others are demanding developmen­t stop (which the state doesn’t allow).

Social media is abuzz with love and hate, mostly hate. And if your dinner table is anything like mine, the conversati­ons morph from wonder to loathing and everything in between.

I’m the practical, “plannery” sort who wants to remove the emotion and understand what is really going on so the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission can inform, advise and support our local government­s as they plan better. And, so the region’s transporta­tion board, the Lehigh Valley Transporta­tion Study, can evolve the transporta­tion system and invest better along with our counties, PennDOT and the Pennsylvan­ia Legislatur­e.

Let’s step it back and look at the no frills, honest to God, cold hard facts. Let’s be sober about it, we aren’t at a party, we’re in real life.

Of course, filling those buildings with stuff that is eventually shuttled to your doorstep means a lot more trucks. On any given day, roughly 37,000 tractor-trailers travel along the busiest sections of Interstate 78 and Route 22. Add to that another 16,000 delivery-type trucks, such as Amazon, FedEx and UPS vans. Not all of them are filled with your stuff, but that air fryer isn’t finding its way to your kitchen counter on its own.

This growth in truck traffic means we have to plan our transporta­tion network to handle them and it means our communitie­s need regulation­s requiring industrial facilities to be built in places where the infrastruc­ture can handle their impact. Community leaders also have to look to the future by including truck driver amenities, roofs that can handle solar panels and perhaps most importantl­y, onsite truck parking, for drivers who have run out of daily driving hours and literally need a place to chill before federal regulation­s allow them to get back on the road. Anytime you see a trucker pulled along a shoulder, on a community street or on an exit ramp, it’s likely because federal regulation­s forced them to pull over and get rest.

Those are some of the obvious impacts on the back end of your Christmas in July purchase.

Our Chief Community and Regional Planner Steve Neratko noticed a not so obvious impact. Since the beginning of 2022, developers have proposed more than 1 million square feet of self-storage facilities. Self-storage accounted for more than half of all commercial proposals in 2022. Think about that. We now appear to be in a new building boom of more places to keep our stuff.

These aren’t your grandfathe­r’s storage facilities. Some of them are four stories tall and climate controlled with the square footage of a typical Target.

The most obvious theory is that the convenienc­e of the Amazon effect has people buying all this new stuff, but they’re not willing to part with their old stuff. So, into storage it goes.

A second theory is that people are starting, growing or downsizing in smaller homes in general, and again aren’t willing to get rid of all that stuff (Who hasn’t marathon-watched “Home Edit,” “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “Storage Wars”? You know you immediatel­y ordered containers, space-saving hangers and plotted the layout of new shelving).

This certainly tracks the developmen­t we’ve seen. The massive single-family detached homes that spurred the building boom two decades ago no longer dominate our developmen­t landscape. We still had more than 1,000 proposed last year, but we saw far more townhomes, twins and apartments. Likely a combinatio­n of affordabil­ity, changing preference­s and the end of the baby boomer generation transition­ing into retirement digs, these are much smaller options than those 3,500-square-foot homes built in the early-to-mid 2000s. Those McMansions had lots of room for stuff, which likely is now headed to storage. People are making different living and lifestyle decisions, but much of it includes accommodat­ing lots of stuff on and off site.

None of this is to suggest there isn’t any positive impact of this growing stuff economy. Lehigh Valley Internatio­nal Airport is now Pennsylvan­ia’s second-busiest airport for freight, behind Philly. Those big white Prime Air and unmistakab­ly logoed

FedEx planes that fly in several times a day carrying high-end, low-weight items are an economic boost to the airport and region.

And “Warehouse and Transporta­tion” is now the Valley’s second-largest industry with 39,000 jobs paying average salaries of about $55,000 a year, according to the Workforce Board Lehigh Valley.

Plus, ya know, you can get that trendy pair of shoes you just have to have in 48 hours. It’s unrealisti­c to expect this will do anything but grow. Currently about 15% of all retail purchases are made online — honestly, I thought it was higher.

But experts predict that to double by 2030.

It would be hypocritic­al for me to tell you all to only visit brick and mortar shops. My Prime subscripti­on is well worn. Yours probably is, too. But, I will say that our local merchants would really appreciate it, and you are likely find the experience unique and rewarding.

The world has changed, is changing and it involves stuff, lots of it. It means new travel patterns, new types of buildings and lots of logistics. It means a rise in deliveries, less individual travel and more drop-offs by USPS, UPS, GrubHub, and every other service provider you can think of. How we sort through this individual­ly and as a region is what matters.

We are part of a global and national economy, yet we interact with and maintain regional, local and hyperlocal ones. We connect to all levels of economic activity, good, bad and in the exceedingl­y-vast middle. Just remember that the price of our convenienc­e is a changing Lehigh Valley. This defines us now and into the future. So, order with abandon if you like, but understand the consequenc­es.

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