Portland is a planner’s mecca. Or is it? Visitors to the city are treated to postcard worthy scenes of light rail trains, streetcars and even an aerial tram gliding past renovated brick warehouses and gleaming glass towers. But at the regional level the picture is not so perfect.
Metro Portland’s growth management policies are not working to create an urban environment on par with the beauty of the landscape. The region is increasingly characterized by sprawl-like blight: acres of ugly, mundane buildings squat where once were green fields; rural roads overflow with traffic avoiding congestion on the freeways; housing is packed together with no commensurate urban amenities.
Statistics demonstrate the accolades the region receives for smart growth policies are not fully deserved. Demographia.com ranks the Portland MSA 19th in density of the largest 25 MSA’s. Regions we deride as examples of sprawl such as San Jose, Fresno, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and Sacramento, are denser.
Portland, the city, it turns out, is not very dense either. Consider it’s ranking compared to other west coast cities according to CityData.com:
1) San Francisco-17,935 persons per square mile
3) Los Angeles-8281
5) Oakland- 7247
6) San Jose-5710
7) Sacramento- 4937
9) San Diego-4180
But the most shocking statistic demonstrates that Portland and its suburban areas are out of balance. According to CityData.com, Portland is less dense than most of its suburbs.
1) Aloha -6702 persons per square mile
2) Cornelius- 6421
3) Happy Valley- 6047
5) Gresham -4938
6) Tigard- 4644
7) Sherwood- 4637
8) Portland- 4537
9) Hillsboro- 4514
PORTLAND AND THE REGION ARE OUT OF BALANCE
Sustainable metropolises concentrate their densest housing in compact mixed-use neighborhoods within their central city. The Metro Portland region has inverted this basic principle. Metro’s growth strategy aims to create high-density “Centers” and “Corridors” in the suburbs, while preserving low density zoning in over 70% of Portland’s inner and outer neighborhoods. As a result, it is common for the density of a new suburban housing development to exceed that of an older urban neighborhood by 3-5 times.
This high-density suburb bears no resemblance to the suburb of the “American Dream.” It has been super-sized to compensate for the lack of development opportunity within the city. It is sprawl on steroids. Instead of ranch houses with lawns, it features row houses, often without any yard. Instead of apartments in a park like setting, apartment blocks frame immense parking lots. Its office and industrial parks, shopping malls and gated corporate campuses are equally super-sized.
This high-density development is superimposed on a low-density road system that provides connectivity by means of large 5 lane arterials flanked by miles of concrete walls. Despite the presence of bike lanes, sidewalks and bus service, auto use dominates.
This dichotomy between high-density suburbs and a low-density city means that thousands of people who are living with urban like densities do so without the commensurate advantages or amenities that the city has to offer. But this imbalance creates a more troubling problem: it fosters skyrocketing real estate prices in the most desirable inner city neighborhoods leading to gentrification, displacement, and the segregation of the community.
According to Governing Magazine, in a study of census tract data, Portland is the most gentrified city in the country. As an article in the Portland Tribune on the State of Housing Report by the Portland Housing Bureau points out, “Escalating housing prices are driving racial minorities and low-income people to Portland’s fringe…” It goes on to state, “Portland is becoming increasingly white and well-to-do, while housing options for social and racial minorities dwindle.” Further, the report finds, “Even the average-earning Portland households can’t afford to buy a home in more than half of the city’s neighborhoods.” Simply stated, one of the least diverse cities in the nation is becoming less diverse with every real estate transaction.
Another consequence of our planning policy is that almost no new, family scaled housing is being built in the city regardless of price or location. The vast majority of housing along Corridors is composed of studio and one-bedroom apartments marketed to young singles. Two-bedroom Condos in the Centers are predominately marketed to childless singles and retired couples. Hence the city is creating a context in which young children and middle-aged parents are absent. And with a shortage of family housing, young singles are forced to vacate the city when they start their families. The result is a city where few people share either a history or a future.
A NEW STRATEGY IS NEEDED
The city of Portland proposes to address this issue with a back yard solution. But the problem of growth cannot be solved with Accessory Dwelling Units and Skinny Houses. These inefficient dwellings are insufficient in size and number to meet the incoming population’s desire for urban living. Therefore I propose a new strategy, which I call The Commons. It is based on the manner in which our city’s oldest neighborhoods evolved 100 years ago during a similar growth surge. Neighborhoods that were platted for stately manors eventually abandoned their restrictive CC&R’s and provided a mix of housing suited to all classes and ethnicities.
Examples abound: in Irvington, a block may include a mansion adjacent to a bungalow or courtyard apartments. In the heart of Portland Heights a school, fire station, restaurant, offices, and shops all cluster around an intersection. The surrounding blocks contain a church and a variety of apartments, town-homes, mini houses and mansions. Portland’s most dense neighborhood is the King’s Hill section of Goose Hollow. Here density averages about 25-30 units per acre and reaches 70 to 100 units at its core. Yet the neighborhood hardly feels like the Pearl District or the South Waterfront. Rather, tree lined streets define blocks filled with a dynamic mix of historic homes, town-homes, courtyard apartments, and small condo towers. Mixed in are professional offices, a gas station, 2 auto dealerships, a tavern, 3 social clubs, and a major league soccer stadium. The open spaces are well-tended public and private gardens. A 24-story building is nearly as tall as the sequoias in the garden of the 2-story apartment complex next door.
The Commons concept is simple: focus high density varied-unit housing and uses around public spaces such as parks (the “Commons”) and integrate medium density varied-unit housing on any suited lot in a neighborhood. It would prioritize housing scaled for families. It takes inspiration from housing types commonly built in the early twentieth century, including twin-houses sharing one “front door”, courtyard complexes that mix micro row houses with apartments, duplexes, four-plexes, and towers of modest scale. It would require services, retail and restaurants/pubs at the ground floor of tall buildings. It would allow mixed uses and activities throughout.
The Commons would become the primary means to add new residents to the city and therefore to the region. It would compliment the “Centers and Corridors” strategy. If broadly executed it would have the ability to accommodate all the region’s projected growth within the city of Portland and its close-in suburbs, thereby eliminating any need to expand the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB).*
HOW THE COMMONS CONCEPT WOULD WORK
I propose that Portland adopt a policy in which each neighborhood is allocated a proportionate share of new residential development to achieve an average density as found in model neighborhoods such as King’s Hill/Goose Hollow, and Sullivan’s Gulch.
Each neighborhood would be responsible for inventorying assets to be preserved and assessing its opportunity for re-development. Each would prepare a vision and a plan in accordance with a set of basic guidelines. Each would determine the model housing types and optimal relationships of building to open space that suits its circumstances and priorities.
The city’s Bureau of Planning would guide this citizen led process and coordinate plans between adjoining neighborhoods. It would prepare the planning and architectural guidelines that would ensure the quality placement, design, and construction of new buildings.
The city would designate each neighborhood a type of Urban Renewal District to be administered by the Portland Development Commission. The Commission would partner with the neighborhoods in securing properties, engaging qualified developers, and executing projects and neighborhood improvements.
The city would share the funds generated by System Development Charges – permit fees and ultimately new property tax revenue – with each neighborhood. Each neighborhood would be able to request funds for improvements to infrastructure, institutions, and parks. It could allocate funds for affordable housing, low interest loans to residents, and other means of creating local benefit.
I believe that by giving the neighborhoods a role in planning for the integration of new residents within their contexts, and by granting them a say in how the financial dividends of these investments are managed and expended, acrimonious NIMBY voices can be converted into a chorus of productive support.
I believe that by gathering all new residents into the city proper, the region can restore its balance. The Commons concept would provide family-suitable and affordable housing within equitable, diverse, and healthy communities. Ultimately, it would achieve the basic goal of the Urban Growth Boundary: to preserve farm, forest, and natural areas.
“An urban growth boundary, or UGB, is a regional boundary, set in an attempt to control urban sprawl by mandating that the area inside the boundary be used for higher density urban development and the area outside be used for lower density development.” Wikipedia – urban growth boundary. Portland, OR is the most notable U.S. city to have adopted a UGB.
Click on image for slide show – all ground level photos by Potestio Studio. All aerial images from Google Earth.