Last week, I attended the April meeting of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s Environmental Justice Work Group. DVRPC staff presented an overview of its updated comprehensive plan, Connections 2040, which contained eye-opening information that is relevant to developers throughout the Delaware Valley.
Holding all else equal – that is, absent implementation of the comprehensive regional plan – DVRPC’s long-term projections showed high growth expected in the outermost parts of Chester County, Montgomery County, and Bucks County, and slower-to-flat growth in most of Philadelphia and the other surrounding Pennsylvania suburbs. But in Delaware County, DVRPC projected losses of both jobs and population, focused in the central part of the county and the communities along the Delaware River. (Click for a pdf showing DVRPC’s projections)
Connections 2040, however, would focus on reinvestment in the central cities of the region, primarily on infill development and redevelopment near existing transportation infrastructure. Transportation capital investments over the next 2 to 3 decades would largely be devoted to maintenance and repair of our existing transportation infrastructure, rather than on expansion of service. This may seem frustrating to the many of us who commute from suburb to suburb, rather than from suburb to Philadelphia; most commuting trips now fall into the former category, and I’m sure there are many who, like me, would like to take the train but find our options lacking and wind up in the car.
But transportation and comprehensive planning in the Delaware Valley are caught in a bind of scarce funds as pressures on both federal and state shares create a shrinking overall pie. Beyond repairing and maintaining existing roads, bridges, and rail lines (some of which have deteriorated to the point that closure is required), available funding will be prioritized for operational improvements such as SEPTA’s new fare collection system. Expansion of service will be the third priority, but meaningful expansion, at least through the medium term, does not appear to be in the cards. Thus, faced with the alternative of perpetuating car-centric suburban sprawl that lacks access to public transit, DVRPC’s planners believe that focusing growth into areas that are already well served by existing infrastructure will help to reduce energy demand through more compact land-use patterns and to reduce transportation-related emissions that both cause air pollution and contribute to global climate change.
Given this backdrop, Connections 2040 would seem to offer significant opportunities to developers who are willing to take on Brownfields projects in the central cities of the greater Philadelphia region. Ultimately, the additional costs associated with these sites could compare quite favorably to the costs of building out new infrastructure and navigating regional and local planning policies for new development on greenfield parcels in the far suburbs of Philadelphia.