Saturday, May 19, 2007

Portland metro: The region that works, sometimes

When I moved to Portland—the one on the Upper Left Coast—more than three decades ago, the downtown was separated from the Willamette River by a freeway and a parking lot filled the defining space in the center of the city. Now the freeway is Waterfront Park and the parking lot has become the fanciful and popular Pioneer Courthouse Square. The city is arguably the most politically progressive in the country. Its politics have been dominated by a liberal/progressive coalition that has elected a variety of eccentric but effective politicians to city, state and national office—including a mayor who ran a tavern and first made a name for himself by posing for a photo in which he opened his trench coat and (apparently) flashed a downtown bronze nude.

The "city that works," as city vehicles describe it, has been a success on so many levels that it's hard to object to the rampant smugness about the place. Until recently, innovation has been a recurring theme in city and state politics since the era of Governor Tom McCall, one of the last progressive Republicans. He collaborated with a Democratic legislature in 1973 to create Oregon's legendary land-use scheme, which limited sprawl and protected farms and forests until it was eviscerated by Ballot Measure 37 in 2004. Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, since disgraced, had a vision for downtown Portland that was successfully realized over two decades.

The Portland metro region extends from the state capital in Salem to Vancouver, Washington, and has a population approaching two million. Land-use planning in Oregon has achieved two major successes in this region:

1. Transportation

Some twenty-five years ago, federal funds were diverted from a freeway project to create the first segment of the MAX light-rail system, which has been extended to the western suburbs, the south shore of the Columbia river and the busy airport. The system is fast, efficient and unaffected by heavy traffic on local streets. However, it only carries about 4% of daily commuters in the region, even though rush-hour trains are packed. And it lacks the express trains that would offer better competition for freeways by shortening commutes.

A new $117-million commuter rail line through Beaverton, Tigard and Wilsonville could become a promising model for similar intersuburban projects. Still, the new line is expected to attract a ridership of only 3,000-4,000 daily trips by 2020. Regional transportation planning lags far behind the demographic curve.

2. Containment of sprawl

The Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) was intended to draw a line in the rural dirt, beyond which urban development would not extend. The rich farmlands of the Willamette Valley, though often wasted (IMHO) to cultivate grass seed for golf courses, are directly threatened by the urban expansion of Portland, Salem and Eugene. The Portland region's UGB extends over 232,000 acres and includes 24 cities and parts of three counties.

Where I live, near the limits of the UGB, there's no transition from urban to rural: you drive about a mile and suddenly the subdivisions stop—you're in pristine open countryside. And you don't see miles and miles of the miniature baronial estates on 1-5 acre plots that desecrate the landscapes of places like upstate New York and Pennsylvania with their immaculate lawns and aristocratic pretensions.

The UGB's governing body, called Metro (for Metropolitan Service District), has resisted pressure from developers and other lobbyists to extend the UGB in our area. But the UGB has grown incrementally in other parts of the Metro region that have been designated for suburban expansion, partly in response to a state law requiring a 20-year supply of buildable residential lands. (Care to guess how that happened?) In fact, the boundary has been adjusted more than three dozen times, most recently in 2005. Metro asserts that the UGB was not intended to be "static."

So the central question for a UGB defined in this way is: what's the point, long-term, in having a growth "boundary" that keeps expanding? The current answer goes something like this: the UGB promotes orderly growth that won't overwhelm local governments and infrastructures. In reality, though, periodic expansions of the UGB only delay sprawl, which moves inexorably into some of the best farmland west of the Mississippi. Metro claims that it utilizes a 50-year planning horizon, but current rates of UGB expansion are unsustainable over such timespans.

In Oregon and the other 49 states, no once seems capable of contemplating hundred-year horizons, much less the Great Law of the Iroquois: "In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."

The other major failure of regional planning has been its inability to effectively regulate sprawl within urban growth boundaries. (At a meeting of elected officials, I heard a councilor from a nearby city declare flatly that "you can't have sprawl within a UGB.") The result is suburban sprawl that would be difficult to distinguish from what you'd find around Atlanta, Minneapolis or Phoenix, including:
  • Freeways that are totally inadequate for the volume of traffic they have to accommodate in a rapidly-expanding region. And there are few plans to even deal with existing bottlenecks, much less anticipate future ones. Despite a vague sense that more freeways aren't the solution, there's little planning for alternative modes of transportation on a regional scale that could make a difference.
  • Vast shopping complexes that similarly overwhelm the transportation network, especially the large regional megamalls of Washington and Clackamas counties.
  • Euclidian zoning that compulsively segregates residential from commercial areas, forcing residents to drive miles to do their grocery shopping (with some notable exceptions, like Orenco Station on the west side). Mixed-use development is a still a rarity despite the influence of New Urbanism (and here) on professional planners during the 1990's.
  • Traditional subdivisions built at relatively low densities on street networks that lack connectivity. Many of these subdivisions are visually oppressive, including "snout" houses with projecting windowless garages that produce neighborhoods devoid of charm.
  • Low-density development creates an autocentric region in which mass transit becomes a less viable and more expensive alternative.
  • Design practices that continue to place retail stores in strip malls at the far end of vast parking lots, creating a depressingly sterile wasteland of asphalt and parked cars.
  • Trademark architecture, from Target to McDonald's, that is standardized across the country and demolishes any remaining sense of place.
  • Wide boulevards that are so pedestrian-hostile that, for my children's safety, I once drove across an 8-lane avenue to go to the other side rather than risk crossing on foot.
The list could go on and on, but you probably get the idea by now. On balance, the UGB is far better than nothing, but it has failed to deliver on its real potential. The sad likelihood is that the region will suffocate on its own growth as freeways clot and the beauty of the landscape is subverted by sprawl.

Builders, developers and realtors have kept up the political pressure to erode even the few successes of Oregon's land-use system. BM 37 is their most recent (and spectacularly effective) effort, but they have also managed to persuade many residents that high densities are inherently evil—and almost a socialist plot. Yet some of the most expensive and desirable property in Oregon (and the world, for that matter) is built at high density, like Portland's thriving Pearl district. The real issue is not density, but design. If sensitively and attractively designed, with private as well as public spaces (and decent soundproofing), high density can be a positive feature in urban development.

Portland has one huge advantage in this regional free-for-all of internal expansion: it can't sprawl, since most of its incorporated area has already reached buildout. Land-use issues in Portland involve redevelopment (as with the Pearl district) and gentrification (as in parts of Northeast Portland that were once low-income and African American neighborhoods). In both respects, development in Portland has achieved some spectacular successes and a few notable failures.

Portland's downtown deserves first mention on the list of successes. It channels light-rail and bus routes along designated streets with limited automobile traffic. Design elements, including brick sidewalks and public sculpture, provide some visual unity (though nothing like you'd see on the streets of Florence or Paris). Short, 200-foot blocks and height restrictions help the downtown retain a more human scale. The overall impression, amplified by clean streets and heavy pedestrian traffic, is quite stunning compared to most cities in the U.S. No wonder planners and journalists (as here) still come from all over the country to tour Portland. As the old saying goes: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed are kings."

Looking at individual buildings, though, downtown Portland is mostly bland and undistinguished. For the last half-century the ubiquitous glass and steel towers of the modernist style have dominated new construction, and few are memorable in any way. One of the rare innovative structures, Michael Grave's Portland Building, is a pale and sadly underfunded imitation of his original postmodernist design. Plans for new corporate buildings offer little but variations on a painfully familiar dehumanizing theme. Meanwhile, the city's political leadership faces constant criticism for its stagnation and lack of real vision.

Like Pittsburgh, the area outside downtown Portland includes some revitalized neighborhoods (such as Northwest 23rd Avenue and the Hawthorne district on the east side) that retain their richly-textured urban charms. The downside of such gentrification, as usual, has been much higher rents and real-estate values, displacing residents who often have to look to inner-ring suburbs for affordable housing (if it's available at all).

It should certainly be noted that, for a city its size, Portland offers some impressive cultural advantages, including a thriving music and arts scene. It has also become a much more ethnically diverse area, with many fine restaurants, thanks to migration from both inside and outside the U.S. Portland, at last, is beginning to have the feel of a cosmopolitan city.

Meanwhile, Oregon is struggling to reclaim its tradition of innovative land-use leadership through a visioning process awkwardly known as the Big Look. A better name for it might be "On Second Thought."

Perhaps it's a mistake to expect a place like Oregon, and a region like Portland, to be an earthly paradise. The natural beauty of the state, deeply marred as it is by industrial logging and urban sprawl, continues to move and even astonish me more than thirty years after my arrival. But such a large and growing disparity between potential and reality leaves me, ultimately, disappointed and fearful of what's coming next. It's been a tough decade for Oregon, as well as the rest of the country and world, but there are some fragile signs of hope.

The people of Oregon have yet to prove that they're worthy of occupying this landscape. But all in all, it's still a great place to live, and (shameless plug) visit.


This is the fourth installment in an occasional series—previous installments are here, here and here—about the so-called "Oregon Story," which might be more accurately described as the "Oregon Myth." My focus has been on successes and failures of Portland and Oregon as places to live and their potential as a planning models for other regions. The series is based on my observations as both a long-term resident and a former elected official in the metro region. I'm neither a land-use planner nor an architect, though I tend to have strong opinions about both disciplines.

PHOTO #1: Portland and distant Mt. Hood from the Pittock Mansion, about 1,000 ft above downtown. (My photo, taken March 2007).

PHOTO #2: Recent urban sprawl within the Urban Growth Boundary, including a Safeway, Barnes & Noble, Office Depot, Target, Haagen's and--inevitably--a McDonald's. Location: 185th Avenue and the Sunset highway in Washington County. This entire area was farmland when I moved to Oregon. (Photo from Google Earth.)

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