More Americans than ever are choosing to live in locations where they can leave their car behind whenever possible and walk to work, shops, restaurants, parks, and other destinations. Housing industry experts say “walkable” communities are viewed by consumers as offering enhanced convenience, a high quality of life, and greater potential for home value appreciation. That’s great for Boston, New York, Chicago and Seattle, but can residents of the Lehigh Valley enjoy a similar lifestyle?
Yes, the walkable lifestyle is quickly gaining traction in both Lehigh and Northampton Counties. Allentown won’t be mistaken for Manhattan any time soon, but it is undergoing a tremendous renaissance, with new industry, luxury housing and supporting businesses flocking to the city. The Hamilton Street district includes a variety of new shops, restaurants, bakeries and breweries, and the 8,400-seat PPL Center has been a tremendous hit with hockey fans and concert-goers since opening in 2014.
New-construction condominiums and rentals are springing up just off of Hamilton Street, and a variety of stately row houses and Victorian homes are available in the neighboring historic district. The combination of residential, office, commercial and recreation space all in the same neighborhood creates an environment where residents can walk to work, as well as to shopping and dining destinations, reducing the area’s dependence on cars.
Easton has also focused on improving its walkability, at the same time as developers are investing in renovations of historic buildings. Within the last few years, the city installed new crosswalks, curb cuts, street signs and bike lanes on its Third Street corridor, which intersects with Northampton Street at Centre Square in the heart of Easton’s downtown. Renovations to the upper levels of buildings with commercial space on the ground floor have created new apartment availability in locations where residents have walkable destinations such as the Easton Public Market, State Theatre Center for the Arts, and numerous riverfront parks right outside their front door.
“There are not a lot of communities that have a true city center like ours, a natural gathering place.” said Kim Kmetz. Main Street Manager of the Easton Main Street Initiative. “We have so many people living in our downtown now. We have developed nearly 200 new apartments over the last several years and we are looking to add more businesses that support their daily needs. We want everyone to have the ability to walk for those things rather than have to jump in a car.”
Although Ms. Kmetz would still like to see a pharmacy, hardware store and traditional grocery store open in Easton’s downtown, the overall effort to revitalize the community and attract more businesses has succeeded. The shopping and dining scene is thriving, residents enjoy the Saturday Farmers’ Market, and events such as Garlic Fest and Movies at the Mill attract hundreds, sometimes thousands, of visitors.
“When you walk through downtown Easton, you’re not passing by empty storefronts,” Ms. Kmetz said. “You’re passing vibrant restaurants, shops and service businesses.”
The same palpable urban energy can be found in downtown Bethlehem, long known for its quaint shops, tree-lined streets and Moravian charm. Residential neighborhoods, many of which boast historic architecture, surround the downtown and make enjoying the city on foot very easy. Cafes, breweries, festivals, the Historic Hotel Bethlehem, and the vibrancy of nearby Lehigh University all contribute to street life.
“The eclectic mix of businesses. The quaint downtown atmosphere. Our well-known festivals. Those are some reasons people choose to spend their time in downtown Bethlehem,” said Tim Brooks, Manager of the Downtown Bethlehem Association. “It’s an easy, convenient walk into town from many of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
The City of Bethlehem continues to pursue improvements, strategies and policies to make the town even more pedestrian-friendly. The City conducted a comprehensive walkability study in 2009 and has since made several parking and sidewalk improvements to the downtown based on recommendations from the study, with additional long-term improvements planned for the coming years.
One of the most encouraging signs for advocates of walkable communities actually comes from the suburbs. Madison Farms is a mixed-use community of 294 apartments and 123,000 square feet of retail space on Freemansburg Avenue in Bethlehem Township, just off a Route 33. Rather than create a typical residential community, the development partnership of The KRE Group and The Silverman Group included an entire retail village and several upscale amenities in the design.
“We made walkability a central component of our design for Madison Farms right from the beginning,” said Jonathan Kushner, President of The KRE Group.
Most residents of Madison Farms need a car to get to work, but once they are home all of their errands, recreation, dining and exercise can be done by taking a short, one-minute stroll to the retail village or community clubhouse, where an outdoor pool, picnic area, fitness center, game room, residents’ lounge and business center are all available for residents’ use.
Having stores like ShopRite, Starbucks and MOD Pizza within walking distance at Madison Farms invites residents to walk instead of drive and also to interact with their neighbors in settings outside of their apartment building hallway. According to Mr. Kushner, the community is still growing. It will ultimately include 837 luxury residences, 163,000 square feet of retail and office space, pocket parks, ponds, biking trails and a dog park.
Even some of the more sprawling suburban towns in the valley are focusing on making their communities more walkable. Lower Macungie Township is a prime example. Last year, the township added several curb cuts and walkways to key locations near Route 100 that make retailers along the corridor accessible by foot from nearby residential neighborhoods.
The demand for residences in walkable communities doesn’t appear to be slowing down. The valley’s revitalized city centers provide residents with a desirable urban lifestyle option that wasn’t widely available 15 years ago. Other towns are beginning the process of making their communities more walkable and at least one new development, Madison Farms, is offering the walkable lifestyle all in one package by making amenities, shops, restaurants and outdoor gathering areas a central component of its design. With the local economy growing, this may only be the beginning of what is possible in the valley.