Monthly Archives: January 2015

Downtown Portland 2035

Posted January 28, 2015; Updated February 3, 2012

These are my comments to Portland City Council on the West Quadrant Plan of the Central City 2035 Plan–which will in turn be part of the updated Comprehensive Plan.

The Implementation Actions and Timeline Matrix for the West End is wholly inadequate re: Environmental.  In fact, it has only ONE item in it:  Encourage the continued improvement and expansion of the Brewery Blocks’ district energy system!  We, in the West End deserve better! Here are my suggestions for a better one:

Implementation Actions: West End – Environment

  • EN1 Strategically install native vegetation and trees within public open spaces, including the South Park Blocks, Portland Art Museum, Portland Center for Performing Arts, Burnside “jug handles”, Portland Central Library, Trimet turnaround. PPR, PAM, Metro
  • EN2 Reduce the impacts to neighbors from I-405 noise and air pollution by installing green walls and ecoroofs on new/redeveloped buildings. Develop a program for existing buildings as well. BPS
  • EN3 Reduce the impacts to neighbors from I-405 noise and air pollution by installing street trees—especially on SW Columbia, SW Jefferson, SW 12th and on every other street where possible to achieve a tree canopy of at least 30% PBOT, BES, BPS
  • EN4 Work with ODOT to replant I-405 with dense NATIVE trees and shrubs and improve its vine coverage of canyon walls. ODOT, BES, PBOT
  • EN5 Connect Goose Hollow with the West End and Downtown by capping I-405. Potential locations include: W Burnside, SW Yamhill/Morrison, SW Salmon/Main and SW Jefferson/Columbia. The caps could support retail or open space. As capping occurs, improve the pedestrian environment (including more trees) on SW 13th and 14th Avenues to support cap access and development. BPS, ODOT, PBOT, Private
  • EN6 Landscape SW Salmon Street with native plants and trees to achieve stormwater management, wildlife habitat and active transportation facilities to better connect Washington Park to the South Park Blocks and the Willamette River and improve the quality of water discharged into the Willamette. PBOT, BES, BPS
  • EN7 Develop SW Jefferson Street as a “Green Main Street” with stormwater facilities. PBOT, BES, BPS
  • EN8 Explore opportunities for consolidating and/or redeveloping Burnside’s “jug handles” into public spaces that also absorb stormwater. PBOT, BPS
  • EN9 Incentivize modest redevelopment of existing surface parking lots into “Parking Forests” (parkingforest.org) that achieve stormwater management while awaiting redevelopment. One idea is to institute a land tax that might be reduced if the Parking Forest is installed. BES, Private
  • EN10 Explore opportunities for one or more community gardens. If such gardens are within building courtyards or rooftops, they should be available to West End residents who apply, not solely the building occupants. PPR

Some of the above suggestions build upon the Urban Design Implementation Actions.  I’ll explore a few of them in a little more depth below, starting with TREES!

Well-maintained, but forlorn and HOT in summer with no shade

Apartment building on SW 12th Ave. at Columbia needs trees! Well-maintained, but forlorn and HOT in summer with no shade.

Considering our need to adapt to climate change, the West Quad Plan should call for a far larger tree canopy–30% in the West End.  And it should show more specifics about where those trees need to go, e.g.,  SW Jefferson and Columbia west of the South Park Blocks where there are a number of older apartment buildings that currently have no shade and on SW 12th Ave. too. Trees here would give those low-income residents needed cooling in summer and also help protect all West End residents from I-405 emissions. The sidewalks on SW Jefferson and SW Columbia should be widened to accommodate these trees.  As the warming that we have set in motion takes hold over the next decade or two, every tree will become ever more precious.

These streets should also get bioretention facilities planted with a diversity of native plants to turn them into Green Streets.  I support an early idea from BPS to make SW 12th Avenue a Greenway St. and to make SW Jefferson a Green Main Street—with priority given to nature, pedestrians and bikes.

Tiny alien spruce sapling to replace 40 yr. old tree. We need a forest of NATIVE conifers instead!

Tiny alien spruce seedling to replace 40 yr. old tree.  Tell ODOT this doesn’t meet our new Tree Code!  We need a forest of NATIVE conifers along I-405 instead!

The plan should develop a program to help owners of all buildings on SW 13th and 14th Avenues install green walls to mitigate freeway emissions for their own residents and employees as well as the surrounding community.  If research here shows its effectiveness, such installation should become mandatory. See Green Walls Could Cut Street-Canyon Air Pollution.

The Plan should call for the City to work with ODOT to improve the tree and vine coverage of I-405 and adjoining streets. (Several trees have fallen in 2014.)   I-205 where a native forest is being planted could be looked at as a model.  Ultimately, the Plan should set a timeline for capping I-405 in the not too distant future.

Make at least one east-west running street a connectivity corridor for wildlife from Washington Park to the Willamette River. I have suggested SW Salmon for this street because I believe it to be the most direct route. I regularly walk it from downtown to Washington Park and bike it through downtown to Tom McCall Park on the river. I believe I was successful in getting this idea into the Plan, but I want to repeat this recommendation so that it doesn’t get removed.

Micro swales such as this one installed on the side of Portland Armory could be part of the palate for buildings in the Park Blocks.

Micro swales such as this one installed on the side of Portland Armory could be part of the palate for buildings in the Park Blocks.

The Plan should also call for re-wilding our Park Blocks in order give wildlife south-north corridor from Marquam Park to the Willamette River where the North Park Blocks join the River in the Pearl District.

The Plan should return to us the victory we had won for no parking around the inner perimeter of the Park Blocks.  The “temporary” parking there was only supposed to last as long as it took to build the Transit Mall.  The Plan should call for turning some of those reclaimed parking spaces into sponges for stormwater and habitat for wildlife.

Green walls, green roofs and rain gardens should be required for any building that occupies space in or adjacent the original Park Blocks–especially those blocks north of Director Park. This will help create a continuous corridor for wildlife along a south-north route.

WRDNotebookThe Willamette River itself needs to become more wild through our City.  The Plan needs to call for implementing the excellent technologies in the Willamette River Design NotebookIt should make them mandatory.  And we need to bring in far more native trees, shrubs and wildflowers to Tom McCall Waterfront Park as well as other portions of the river’s shoreline.

Where the shore of the River is deeply walled, the Plan should designate areas for “fish hotels” to provide resting places for migrating fish on their journey up or down the river.

This parking lot at SW 10th & Main is one of many in downtown Portland that have no trees--creating wastelands for the residences around them.

This parking lot at SW 10th & Main is one of many in downtown Portland that have no trees–creating wastelands for the residences around them.

Yes! to the suggestions from downtown residents on the Comprehensive Plan MapApp¹ to replace surface parking lots. I suggested a way to move the speculators off their cash cows by taxing them at their development potential–see Universal Tax Abatement for Downtown Portland.

EcotrustParking

Ecotrust parking lot is enclosed on two sides by trees and mostly native shrubs and wildflowers. The surface is porous pavers. Its a delightful place to hold events, Photo: Green Hammer

Meanwhile on these sites, the Plan should require a Parking Forest (Maria Cahill’s idea for getting more trees without taking parking spaces).  I would really like to see what surface parking lots that do remain in the future take a page from Ecotrust and manage ALL stormwater onsite.  They should also be fun places to hold events. Ruth Ann Barrett has a video that could be used to popularize these strategies: Spongy Parking Lots,

Some MapApp commentators before me call for the Plan to stimulate more housing. To their voices, I would add more FAMILY housing. To bring in more families, downtown needs more reasonably priced apartments and condos and some of them need to be three bedroom–with maybe a daycare center or school on the ground floor. Cargo bike parking should also be part of these new family-friendly buildings—along with space to lock bike trailers—and okay, I’ll concede a few station wagons. . .

We DON’T need more point towers to attract wealthy investors who will only live here part time—if at all. I have long promoted density–but only along with great urban design and ecosystem services–leaving room for nature to help us out. I have come to believe that lower height limits–say 150-160′ in the West End–are necessary in order to mitigate the wind tunnel effect of tall buildings and their impacts on solar access–and to make our neighborhood more appealing to families.

¹Portlanders commenting on the update to our Comprehensive Plan are asked to put comments directly on MapApp. I hope to add some of these there too–although it looks like those of us in the Central City may be excluded.

Universal Tax Abatement for Downtown Portland

Testimony given May 19, 2014  to Strategic Advisory Committee on the West Quadrant Plan

Neighbors in the West End portion of downtown Portland are tired of walking by block-long stretches of surface parking lots while some of our historic buildings are razed for redevelopment. One solution to this problem that the City of Portland should seriously consider is taxing land at a higher rate than buildings.

Taxing land and buildings at the same rate per square foot means that as long as you don’t put any buildings on your land, your tax bill is going to remain relatively low. If you’re a speculator, this means that you only need a modest amount of revenue (say, a few bucks a day from people driving into the city for work or to go shopping) in order to sit on that land indefinitely.  Or you might hold out until someone comes along offering your “pie-in-the-sky” price.  Either way, the effect is to keep the land out of the hands of many of those with genuine interest in putting it to productive use.

By taxing land at or near its development potential, however, owners of land being used at less than maximum productivity would be paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way.

Aside from the obvious goal of raising money to pay for public services, we levy taxes

  • to discourage a particular behavior in favor of another (taxes on cigarettes and alcohol discourage consumption and thus promote lower health care costs), or
  • because a given resource is scarce while demand for it is high (i.e., the gasoline tax).

But if the city is trying to encourage development—and to attract the 70,000 more downtown residents it seeks by 2030—it hardly makes sense to place the greater tax on development behavior.

A Good Illustration: The block between SW 11th & 12th and SW Taylor and Yamhill that the

Parking Lot at Rear of Medical Dental Building pays 5x less taxes/sf than the building.

Parking Lot at Rear of Medical Dental Building pays 5x less taxes/sf than the building.

Medical Dental Building at 833 SW 11th Avenue (built 1928) sits on provides a good illustration. It is a block with a 10 story commercial building, a 2 story parking garage and a surface parking lot.

When you look closely at the property tax bill for each, it becomes clear that the conventional property tax deters development and risk-taking.

  • The surface parking lot spans 20,000 sf, and its owner pays $1.33 per-square-foot of land in annual property taxes to the city.
  • The 1928 parking garage on the same block spans roughly half the area (10,000 sf), and despite the lot’s structural improvements, pays only a bit more than the surface lot in property tax —$1.37 per-square-foot of land.
  • The Medical Dental Building (which occupies 10,000 sf of the block), however, pays $6.13 per-square-foot of land—a rate almost 5 times higher than the surface parking lot.
12 West pays 42-45x more than the parking lot diagonal from it.

12 West pays 42-45x more than the parking lot diagonal from it.

An illustration that takes into account newer construction is the corner of SW 12th & Washington where 1227 SW Washington, aka 12 West (2009), is assessed $59.90 per sf of land compared to the surface parking lot diagonally across from it that is assessed only $1.42 per sf of land occupied[i]. 12 West has a tax liability that is 42x that of the surface lot.

Parking Lot Diagonal to 12West pays 42-45x less than 12West

Parking Lot Diagonal to 12West pays 42-45x less than 12West

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is completely backwards. From the city’s perspective, the Medical Dental building and 12 West are the best and most preferable uses of land in their respective locations, while the surface lot is the least. And yet, looking at the tax figures one would think exactly the opposite. By simply taxing land at a higher rate than improvements, owners would be motivated to maximize the productivity of land. Parking lots would still exist of course, but they would be condensed into above- or underground garages rather than surface parking lots. In this way, by removing the penalty for development, two-rate taxation is actually a form of economic stimulus.

But two-rate taxation is about more than encouraging dense urban development and reducing sprawl. As Rick and Walt Rybeck note in Break the Boom and Bust Cycle http://bit.ly/R1CPVm, two-rate taxation also addresses the root cause of the boom-and-bust cycle of the real estate market:

Higher land taxes discourage land speculation by making it less profitable. Prior to the Great Depression, there was a nationwide real estate boom and bust. Not surprisingly, land values in major U.S. cities declined drastically. Between 1930 and 1940, land values declined in New York, 21 percent; Milwaukee, 25 percent; Cincinnati, 26 percent; New Orleans, 27 percent; Cleveland, 46 percent; Los Angeles, 50 percent, and Detroit, 58 percent. But Pittsburgh adopted a two-rate property tax in 1914. As evidence that this reform reduces speculation, Pittsburgh’s decline in total land values was only 11 percent between 1930 and 1940.

After increasing the tax differential between land and building taxes in the late 1970s (land was taxed at a rate 5.77 times higher than buildings), Pittsburgh also saw significantly increased development activity at a time when most cities its size were experiencing declines.

There are obstacles to implementation. Current law requires state enabling legislation for the two-tier land tax that I am suggesting, but there are indications that Gov. Kitzhaber would favor that.

Appendix – from Portland Maps

833 SW 11th Ave. – Medical Building

$61,291.51 taxes on 78,148 square feet on 10,000 sf of land or $6.13 sf of land

Market Value $4,976,640.00
Assessed Value $2,542,330.00

837 SW 11th Ave. – structured parking lot

$13,751.20 taxes on 20,000 sf on 10,000 sf of land or $1.38 sf of land

Market Value $1,251,810.00
Assessed Value $570,390.00

804 SW 12th Ave – City Center Parking on SW 12th between SW Yamhill & Taylor

$26,664.86 taxes on 20,000 sf or $1.33 sf of land

[i] I was not able to easily find the taxes paid on the 3 parcels that make up this corner where a City Center Parking lot operates because Portland Maps just said “No address is avaialble.” So I used the tax figure for the grassy lot next to it at SW 11th & Washington which is $1.42 per sf. This figure is higher than that for the City Center Parking lot at SW 12th & Yamhill which is $1.33 per sf. If $1.33 per sf is used, then 12West is assessed 45 times more per sf than the parking lot.

I have been a friend of Rick Rybeck (cited above) and admired his work for a long time.  But, I want to acknowledge that I borrowed the approach of looking at individual parcels and some of the language above from the Streets MN blog Tax Land, Not Buildings by Chris Keimig.  Thanks, Chris!

Oregonian Climate Change Editorial – Response

Lima

AP Photo/Martin Meija- Compliments of The Oregonian

On Dec. 20, 2014 our statewide newspaper, The Oregonian, published an editorial that gave those who care about climate change opportunity to express our incredulity at their short-sitedness. I was one of many who did:

Dec. 24, 2014 Letter to Editor, Oregonian – Stimulate a Clean Energy Economy

On Dec. 20, your editorial board maintained that climate change is best handled on the federal and international levels, hence Oregonians should not “adopt unproductive measures that either cost them money or reduce employment opportunities” (Dec. 20, 2014).  Rather than reduce employment opportunities, the Governors of California, Oregon, Washington and the premier of British Columbia are working to coordinate efforts to STIMULATE A CLEAN-ENERGY ECONOMY rather than accept jobs in dirty energy industries that may soon have stranded assets. In a region with a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion and 53 million people this WILL make a difference.

California and British Columbia have already placed a price on greenhouse gas emissions and adopted clean fuel standards–with no harm, only good, to their economies. Not only should Oregon follow suit, but the Oregon Legislature should also require that the 30% of our electricity now produced by coal convert to clean energy by 2025.  This will stimulate more jobs in industries with a great future!

Mary Vogel                                                                                                                                           PlanGreen                                                                                                                                          Downtown Portland

Headlines

Buena Vista Pictures – Courtesy of Wash Post

And on Dec. 30, 2014, the Washington Post asked small business owners to comment on headlines they would be thrilled to see in 2015. Here’s how I answered their brief questionnaire:

Name:  Mary Vogel
Title: (Owner, President, CEO, etc): Principal and Founder
Company’s name:
PlanGreen
Company’s location (city, state): 
Portland, Oregon
What the company does (concisely, one or two sentences):
PlanGreen brings the services that nature provides for free to excellent urban design and planning.  We consult on planning and urban design towards a regenerative future!

Headline you would like to see in 2015 (max 10 words): Keystone Pipeline Dead, Columbia River Gorge No Alternative!

Why that news would benefit your company (one paragraph, please be specific about the expected effects on your company or small businesses in general):  My company, PlanGreen, is about redressing the highly inefficient and environmentally damaging way we have developed in the US for the last 60+ years because of cheap fossil fuels.  The compact urban form and walkable neighborhoods that I help to create would see even greater demand if fossil fuel development were not subsidized and/or facilitated with pipelines and rail/barge shipping.  In the case of the Columbia Gorge, it is difficult to promote the kind of denser redevelopment of the historic downtowns that the rail lines go through in the Gorge when coal trains are spewing health-damaging coal dust and oil trains offer the possibility of blowing up their entire downtowns.  If fossil fuel development had to pay for all of its externalities, we would see much faster development of the kind of distributed renewable energy that PlanGreen promotes.

Thanks for the opportunity to participate!  Have a great new year yourselves!                           Mary