Category Archives: Transportation and Land Use

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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!

Ban Studded Tires in Portland’s Legislative Agenda 2013

I’m Mary Vogel and I’m speaking on behalf of myself and my Woman Business Enterprise, PlanGreen. Thank you for this opportunity to testify on Portland’s Legislative Agenda for 2013!

As most of you know studded tires cut road life in HALF in Oregon!!!  I live in downtown Portland where my major forms of transportation are walking and biking, so I am able to see and hear the villains doing it—one click, click, click, clack, clack, clack at a time.

What I am suggesting is an additional point under the Transportation agenda on p. 36. That point is:

First, deal with a major and unnecessary cause of road wear & tear in Oregon by banning studded tires.

  • ODOT estimates that studded tires cause $40 million in damage to our roads each year.
  • During its lifespan, the average studded tire chews up ½ to ¾ ton of asphalt
  • That results in a fine dust that gets in the air, on the land and, eventually, is washed into our rivers.
  • Some of that dust also lodges in our lungs where it has an inflammatory and toxic effect
  • A Swedish study found that the toxic dust created by studded tires is 60 to 100% greater than the amount from regular tires
  • The extra damage from studded tires greatly increases our consumption of petroleum products and hence our carbon footprint
  • Modern studless snow tires are safer than studded tires in almost all driving conditions found in Oregon
  • Far snowier places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario have banned studded tires; Washington and Alaska may do so this year
  • Studded tires create unsafe conditions for all drivers by creating ruts in roads

While data show that only 10% of Oregonians west of the Cascades use studded tires, I think they all commute into downtown Portland every weekday.  It seems like every third car that passes me on my bike has them—raising the hair on the back of my neck with their aggressive sound. In the women over 50 age category, I may be one of the few who meet the level of “strong and fearless,” but I will admit that studded tires rattle my nerves and make me feel less safe. What they do to the pavement certainly makes the roads less safe for all cyclists.

So, not only do studded tires cost us a lot more in road maintenance, they cost us more in public health; they cost us more in carbon footprint; they cost us more in the livability of our cities. During a time of fiscal and climate crisis, to continue to allow studded tires is irresponsible!

Please ask the legislature to ban studded tires in Oregon!  Add First, deal with a major and unnecessary cause of road wear & tear in Oregon by banning studded tires to your points under Modernize & Enhance Transportation Funding. Or make it a separate point under the city’s Transportation agenda. But please do this today as we are long overdue!

Thank you for your time!

Mary Vogel

PS If you have time to read more, I recommend:

New Urbanists Support The Portland Plan

Planning and Sustainability Commission

1900 SW 4th Ave.

Portland, OR 97201-5380

Attn: Portland Plan testimony                                                                       Nov. 29, 2011

I’m Mary Vogel, Advocacy & Alliances Chair of the Congress for the New Urbanism, Cascadia Chapter. We are a potential partner on the Portland Plan as we are the planners and urban designers who have long designed and created walkable neighborhoods even while our colleagues were creating suburbia. In the Portland area, we can take credit for Fairview Village, New Columbia, Orenco Station and more recently, urban infill in the Pearl, the Interstate Corridor, Gresham, Milwaukie and elsewhere in the region. Many of us tend to be small business owners, even sole proprietors, who team up amongst ourselves and with other professionals.

First we want to commend Portland Planning Director, Susan Anderson, for bringing the ethic of the Portland Plan to her role on MTAC and insisting that urban design should play a more prominent role in Metro planners scenario planning for reducing greenhouse gases. She stimulated a very positive discussion amongst planning directors throughout the region on the importance of urban design in addressing climate change—a discussion that CNU considers central to the effort. We encourage her to keep MTAC’s/Metro’s toes to the fire on this!

We support the emphasis of the Portland Plan on equity but with the recognition that that equitable investment must take a whole new direction—not just catch up with the mistakes we made in the past such as putting in curb and gutter to drain our stormwater away as quickly as possible or widening roads with the presumption that everyone drives. We especially like the focus on complete neighborhoods where residents can meet their basic needs on foot. We have been not only advocating, but designing and building that for over 20 years.

We have some of the best expertise in the nation on what it takes to make retail successful and look forward to working with neighborhoods and the city on that. We also have some of the longest history in creating truly transit-oriented development and making transit hubs great places.

We love the “Healthy and Affordable Food” actions, especially the 1000 new commBalcony Gardening at Affordable Housingunity garden plots. This may become essential far sooner than we might think. At least one member of our group has joined Depave to help neighborhoods get this going faster than the wheels of the bureaucracy might turn. I myself have run an EarthBox gardening program on the balconies of a downtown affordable housing complex for the past couple years. I have attached photos to my emailed testimony.

We look forward to working with the city to create the interconnected network of city greenways that will encourage walking and biking and weave nature into neighborhoods. I myself have long worked in creating Habitat Connections through stream restoration, invasive species removal and native plant plantings and through helping to create the Intertwine by working on two Metro Parks & Greenspaces ballot initiatives.

Through the charrette concept that CNU pioneered (and our Portland-based National Charrette Institute keeps evolving), we have excellent tools to engage neighborhoods in creating 75 miles of new Neighborhood Greenways—as well as new Civic Corridors.

New Urbanists have long been known for placemaking—especially with an emphasis on streetscapes and other public places. New Urbanists have written many of the tools that citizen advocates who care about such things use today: The Smart Growth Manual, the Smart Code template, Suburban Nation, the Sprawl Repair Manual, Light Imprint Handbook and others. So we are well-equipped to help with Civic Corridors.

As you know, the Urban Land Institute is the “think tank for the real estate industry”. Many of its experts, both national and local, have pointed out over the last year, that the wave of the future is urban, mixed-use, transit-oriented and green building. While none of the ULI experts had any answers about how, in the current economy, to actually finance and build development where it is most needed, Metro’s own Expert Advisory Group was more explicit. Their report “Achieving Sustainable, Compact Development in the Portland Metropolitan Area: New Tools and Approaches for Developing Centers and Corridors” identifies one of the greatest obstacles in centers and corridors development as the current credit market.

The EAG report has a number of recommendations pp 20 – 23 re: financing—recommendations that would require local communities to be more proactive in the financial realm and work with citizens and the private sector to create altogether new tools. Since Metro seems to have dropped the ball with the EAG, we’d like to suggest that the city pick it up to get this group’s input on this clearly missing element in the implementation section of The Portland Plan.

Transitions PDX was right in their testimony! We aren’t going back to the way things were before. We need new tools to finance the new ways of developing that the plan calls for. Before Wall Street banks got involved in development financing, money for development had long come from the local level. We need to find ways to get back to that.

Such action should be taken sooner rather than later if we are to preserve the intellectual infrastructure w/the skills to implement the Portland Plan. A number of my colleagues are abandoning the profession for other careers where they can still make a living.

Mary Vogel, CNU-A

Chair, Advocacy & Alliances CNU Cascadia

Reshaping The Housing Market?

Oregon Metro expands its urban growth boundary for more suburban development

This article originally appeared on my Sustainable Industries blog site

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) Oregon[1] recently advertised a workshop to the Oregon development community:

In the wake of the financial crisis and the great recession, sweeping structural changes are reshaping the housing market.  Generation Y and the retiring Baby Boomers will be the catalysts for the next wave of housing development.  The workshop promoters asked “Are you ready to meet this demand?”

Speakers from the development community all pointed to the market demand being urban and transit-oriented; and, for the time being, rental rather than homeownership.  Some quotes:

They have less money than any generation, but are well-educated, well connected and very urban. The cities that do it best for young creatives will thrive.  John McIlwain, ULI

Gen Y has no interest in the suburbs!  They value being close to friends and don’t want to commute.  You can bet on transit-related locations.  Clyde Holland, Holland Partners

Gen Y wants smaller, greener housing.  They want to live in the city and take responsibility for their carbon footprint.  Jim Winkler, Winkler Development

A few months earlier, ULI’s Young Leaders Group had attested to this same wave in its own sessions.  And it focused all its conference field trips close to the urban core along transit corridors of Portland, Oregon.  At least one of that conference’s participants brought his suburban developer dad along as well—perhaps to learn new skills.

In April 2011, ULI Oregon sponsored two of its national leaders at talks held at Metro on such impressive topics as: Carbon, Development & Growth: Navigating New Frameworks for Real Estate, Planning, Transportation, and the Economy and Finding Certainty in Uncertain Times.  Ed McMahon and Michael Horst both indicated that the pendulum is swinging re: how we invest housing dollars.  The trend is towards walkable, mixed use neighborhoods with transit—and towards green building.

Although McMahon and Horst have strong relationships with the US Green Building Council (their sons play important leadership roles there), McMahon pointed to an EPA study that transit-oriented development may outperform green building in reducing greenhouse gases.[2]  ULI’s Growing Cooler was a mega analysis of the impact of urban form on driving.  “We cannot address greenhouse gases without addressing vehicle miles traveled,” McMahon stated emphatically.

A September 21, 2011 story in the Oregonian reported that Renaissance Homes’ president, Randy Sebastian, a builder long known for its sprawling subdivisions on the fringes of the Portland market, thinks that the days of building on the fringes is coming to an end.  He has taken to doing urban infill instead.

During 2010, Portland’s metropolitan planning organization, Metro, had also pulled together an impressive list of professionals from the development community to serve as its Expert Advisory Group on Centers and Corridors.  Not only did that group tell Metro about the same trends that ULI events have showcased, it also made recommendations that Metro should take a larger long-term role in facilitating the implementation of compact urban development, by playing an enhanced role in education, technical assistance, gap financing, infrastructure financing, and legislative advocacy. These respected local experts in the fields of institutional real estate, financing, development and planning also volunteered their time to carry their message out to communities in the region and work with them to make changes.

Despite these strong messages from the real estate industry, the Metro Council, on October 20, 2011, decided to add another 1,985 acres to the Portland region’s urban growth boundary in areas of Hillsboro, Beaverton and Tigard.  About 330 of those acres will be brought in as industrial land.  The other 1600 plus acres is to accommodate projections for needed housing.  State law requires Metro to maintain a 20-year perpetual land supply.

Bob Stacey, candidate for Metro Council, thinks that the Portland area had more than enough land within its UGB to meet its needs.  He argues that Metro planners think that developers won’t choose to build enough housing on the land already in the boundary because its harder. The planners fear that if we don’t add land for housing to the UGB, developers will build outside Metro. . .”

Stacey maintains that residents within the existing UGB will pay by seeing needed improvements in their neighborhoods deferred or cancelled while highways, schools and transit are expanded to the new areas.

While none of the three ULI national experts who have visited Portland in 2011 had any answers about how, in the current economy, to actually finance and build development where it is most needed, Metro’s own Expert Advisory Group was more explicit.  Their report “Achieving Sustainable, Compact Development in the Portland Metropolitan Area: New Tools and Approaches for Developing Centers and Corridors” identifies one of the greatest obstacles in centers and corridors development as the current credit market.  Amongst the recommendations of the report are:

  • Develop a new approach to gap financing with creative lending tools and mechanisms for public-private collaboration.
  • Create a mechanism for metropolitan infrastructure investments that supports compact mixed-use development.

Even with Metro’s own role in convening the Expert Advisory Group, it is not apparent that anyone at Metro is paying attention to the advice of these experts.  Instead, while not bowing to ALL of the pressures that suburban communities were putting upon them,[3] some believe the Metro Council is following the old paradigm for growth–expansion, rather than embracing the sweeping structural changes savvy developers are predicting.

Next it will be interesting to see where Metro’s Climate Smart Communities scenario planning takes it!  Can the Portland region reduce greenhouse gases 75% below 1990 levels by 2050 while still following 20th Century development strategies?

 


[1] ULI is the preeminent think tank for the real estate industry.  ULI Oregon is the “District Council” or chapter for Oregon.

[2] That recognition did not stop them from promoting green building, however: “Stay on top of green or eat everyone’s dust.  There will be differentiation; over the long run—adapt or get crushed.”

 

[3] Wilsonville, Forest Grove and Cornelius had proposals for expansion that were not approved.

Getting Planning and Transportation Right

Jeff Speck, New Urbanist Author and Consultant, spoke September 21, 2011 at Metro Regional Center in Portland, OR on the topic of Getting Planning and Transportation Right.  My Congress for the New Urbanism Cascadia Chapter colleague, Jonathan Winslow, took copious notes at the talk and shared them with us below.  I will add remarks at the end.

From Jonathan:
Introduction of Speck by Bill Lennertz of the National Charrette Institute and CNU Cascadia Chapter: As National Endowment of the Arts Design Director directed Mayors Inst on City Design: 8 mayors, 8 designs, all bring case study to explore from their city

-Wrote self-help book on getting a job in late 1980s, joking in introduction about this:  Hot Tips, Sneaky Tricks, and Last-Ditch Tactics: An Insider’s Guide to Getting Your First Corporate Job by Jeff Speck http://www.amazon.com/Tips-Sneaky-Tricks-Last-Ditch-Tactics/dp/0471615145/

-1988 Jeff walked into DPZ Cambridge office and was hired by Bill Lennertz. Almost went to work for OMA/Koolhaus to work on S,M,L,XL book

-Great Duany lecture Towns vs Sprawl (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwd4Lq0Xvgc)?

-Co-Author of Suburban Nation and The Smart Growth Manual

-New Urbanism: lessons for new places based on best places we have today, whatever works best and a willingness to learn from the past and what is loved the most

Jeff Speck’s Talk:
Considering the audience, feel a better title for the talk would be “Advanced Topics in Planning and Transportation”

5 points to discuss:

  1. Theory of Walkability
  2. Urban Triage
  3. One-ways vs. Two-ways
  4. What we know now about parking (Donald Shoup)
  5. Greenwash

Smartest Person he knows, Andres Duany, made a big mistake criticizing Portland a decade ago

Bicycling big in Portland, make investment in infrastructure and people will bike
-$65,000,000 in 20 years
-Biking in Portland shows whats attainable

Walking cities:
-Save people money and stimulate local economy, from Joe Cortright study
-Cortright ‘Portland Green Dividend’ (http://www.impresaconsulting.com/node/42)
-While other cities building outer loops and more auto accommodations, Portland invested in transit and bikes, skinny streets program and the UGB. 1996 VMT peaked

THEORY OF WALKABILITY
Frame through walkability by both means and measure
-A REASON to walk: a balance of uses, non-separation of uses
-A SAFE walk: reality and perception, size of blocks PDX (200 ft blocks) vs. SLC (600 ft blocks), smaller blocks = smaller streets
-Shear number of lanes – induced demand, wider roads easier to drive get behavior change
-Mumford quote: widening roads like loosening belt
-Traffic engineers caused traffic
-Induced demand works in reverse, remove lanes and roads to reduce traffic
-Britain stopped building roads, road fighting group disbanded since no longer needed to fight
Oklahoma City – walkability study for downtown
-4-6 lane streets downtown, all arterials with 7000-11000 vehicle traffic counts
-two-lane streets can handle that 7000-11000 traffic load, streets oversized
-undertaking program called ‘Project 180′ (http://okc180.com/) to rebuild every street in 50 block core
-can use cheap simple paint for changes
-irony of current oil and gas wealth in city is funding this large streetscape design cost
Oversized streets: standards changed between 1950s and 1980s
-Every street has a design speed and 13’ lanes are highway standards
-Portland’s skinny streets program is laudable
-Important to not have one specialty control entire street design
Parallel parked cars – sometimes remove parked cars for bike lanes, kill stores with removal of parking, trees and parked cars protect pedestrians
-A COMFORTABLE walk: space and orientation
-a sense of enclosure, humans love enclosure, ratio of surrounding wall height to ground
important
-Columbus, OH street bridge over highway with retail on it, sense of enclosure (‘Cap at Union Station’, http://www.meleca.com/content/projects/retail/02/aerial-view-from-north-east[1].jpg)
-Gresham Civic Drive Station TOD, provides sense of enclosure along street except one small section that loses the sense of enclosure to the detriment of entire street
(http://g.co/maps/au9pv), exposed sidewalk, no parking along this street. Difference between West Coast vs. East Coast new urbanism: West coast gets the transit right, while East coast gets the details right. Whereas Kentlands: liner buildings in front of big box stores good, but no transit only transit-ready.
-An INTERESTING walk: showed downtown Grand Rapids slide of major street with terrible street frontage of two imposing parking garages on both sides of the street
(http://g.co/maps/d3kd8). Demand active streetfronts.

URBAN TRIAGE
-A dominance of auto uses in cities, can’t transform everything into walkable places
-Most cities want walkability but not enough walkability to go around, must pick winners for walkability
-Have to get people to walk by choice and the first place is downtown, downtown is everyone’s part of town, the gateway for visitors and the oldest/most walkable by design than any other neighborhood.
-Davenport, Iowa example for a street quality analysis. Red (bad) to green (good) color measure on map, not evaluating streets but buildings… measure spatial enclosure and activity.

ONE-WAYS VS. TWO-WAYS
-ODOT one way happy especially in small towns (i.e. Sandy, OR)
-One ways are destructive: mass momentum of vehicles in one direction with uninterrupted flow. Issue with multiple lanes of cars jockeying between lanes with speed.
-One ways hurt retail and limits visibility and distributes vitality, stores orient to traffic flows at particular time of day, i.e. rush hour homeward bound traffic, limited vitality not day long like with two-way
-13 ft travel lanes in Davenport, IA go on road diets
-AECOM formerly Gladding Jackson traffic engineering firm that is most progressive
-One of best article seen in a long time is article in Governing Magazine called the ‘Return of the Two-Way Street’ http://governing.p2technology.com/column/return-two-way-street on Vancouver, WA Main Street, overnight transformation of street and business doubled

ROAD DIETS
-Specific change from 4 lanes to 3 lanes (1 in each direction with center turn lane) space for bike lanes or on-street parking on one side
-T-bone crashes with 4 lane street design with left turning traffic on oncoming traffic (2nd
opposing lane is the risk)
-Streets don’t lose capacity with 4 to 3 lane road diet
-Road paint doesn’t cost money, good cheap solution
-Use up roadway width with angled parking

WHAT WE NOW KNOW ABOUT PARKING
-Donald Shoup has been our thought leader here
-Parking is not a civil right
-Don’t start with parking as a revenue generator, can make a lot of money with it but that is not the main objective
-Parking is a public good to manage well, can adjust price to demand
-Now can add time to meter with cell phones and also know where parking is available (SF Park http://sfpark.org/)
-Price parking so 1 space is empty at all time (approx. 15% vacancy)
-Parking choices mirror demand, if undercharge get parking crowding and people don’t shop
-Know availability and price online, spaces available in right amount
-Have good alternatives to driving
-How to get it to happen politically? All money you make goes to public benefit district.
Pasadena, two districts: Old Pasadena put in parking meters and money went to improvements. Westward Village went with free parking, couldn’t find parking since underpriced at free, area died.
-With cities the revolutions now are in biking and parking, have figured out others like TOD.

GREENWASH
-Green Metropolis by David Owen (http://www.amazon.com/Green-Metropolis-Smaller-Driving- Sustainability/dp/B005EP2XYC/), best planning book of 10 years. Manhattan is greenest place, lowest carbon footprint per capita by city form and function.
-Gizmo Green: Rocky Mountain Institute, just about adding green gadgets on buildings but building located in the middle of the woods and requires long distance auto travel to get there or to run any errand. Walkscore of 20 out of 100. Driving is greatest carbon footprint impact.
-Location efficiency and building type, location matters. Center for Neighborhood Technology
(CNT) (www.cnt.org) maps of location efficiency.
-Image of the Green house, gizmo green in the middle of nature, misses big picture.
-Showed image of LEED Platinum building without any transit deep in exurban area
-EPA Headquarters in Kansas City moved out of downtown into exurban KC into LEED building (former Applebee’s HQ)
-Jevons paradox: make more efficient brings → costs down → consume even more than before. Sweden carbon footprint went up because people drive so much with energy efficient cars.
-Sustainable decision is to be in urban environment
– – –
end Jonathan Winslow

For me, the most interesting part of the evening was a land use advocate from Washington County who had become thoroughly familiar with Speck’s work and quoted it extensively in public meetings to try to change the outmoded traffic engineering standards of her County.  Such standards prompted Washington County to choose to widen a two lane road to five lanes–over the objections of an organized group of residents.

She expressed gratitude to Speck for his work, but considerable frustration about inability to get more help to turn Washington County around.  She felt that residents in unincorporated areas of Washington County were at a special disadvantage, because, while land use standards were going towards denser, more compact and mixed use, the County’s transportation engineering has not kept up with latest thinking.  Instead, her community (Bethany) “sits outside of any city or jurisdiction that would support it to grow in a sustainable manner.”

She reminded me of the importance of continuing to get New Urbanist tools, thought leaders and designers out there front and center.  Our skills are critical if we are to achieve what Metro is calling “Climate Smart Communities.”

The Unbearable Costs Of Sprawl

On top of the soaring costs of crumbling infrastructure, health impacts and ecological damage, we must now add the global economic crisis itself – triggered by the unsustainable economic patterns of sprawling American suburbs. But new solutions are emerging to re-structure a generation of vibrant, successful neighborhoods.

A Policy White Paper by:

Michael Mehaffy , Sustasis Foundation, Portland, OR[1]

Galina Tachieva, Congress for the New Urbanism “Sprawl Retrofit Initiative”[2]

Laurence Qamar, DPZ Cascadia Group[3]

Mary Vogel, PlanGreen, Portland, OR[4]

With contributions from

John Holtzclaw, The Sierra Club[5]

Christopher Leinberger, The Brookings Institution[6]

Introduction:  Converging forces and the end of “Business as Usual”

History records that the sprawling American suburbs were Ground Zero of the global financial crisis of 2008-2010.  It was here that millions of American homebuyers used unsustainable financial means to buy far-out homes in artificially cheap, “drive ‘til you qualify” suburbs.  Buyers drove increasingly farther away from jobs and services, to increasingly remote, car-dependent enclaves that offered apparently cheaper homes – at least, until the true costs of transportation, furnishing and home heating and cooling were factored in.  This set the stage for financial disaster.

Many of these homes were bought with adjustable-rate mortgages, artificially lowered for an initial period after sales (and with hefty commissions for agents and brokers).  Homebuyers had to wager that their incomes would rise, or they would be able to sell their homes for more money later, to cover any shortfall.  Worse, many of these same homeowners took out second mortgages, sometimes on top of car loans for low fuel efficiency cars, high-interest credit card balances, and other mounting debts.

Adding to this precarious situation, in 2007, a convergence of rising energy prices, mortgage interest re-adjustments, and a normal cyclical recession, triggered a wave of mortgage defaults. Because these instruments were no less highly leveraged, the defaults quickly cascaded into a wider series of defaults by mortgage companies, banks — and ultimately, governments around the world.

It’s clear in retrospect that we had built a global financial house of cards. And this “house” was much like the American suburban domicile: over-reliant on high consumption, artificially low initial costs, heavily leveraged with staggering debt — and therefore, unable to withstand relatively ordinary economic shocks.  In the parlance of systems theory, this was not, to say the least, a resilient system.

As Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution reports, “what we face today is not just a cyclical housing problem, but a structural one as well.” Over the past decade, he writes in The Atlantic (June 2010), most house building occurred in the heavily auto-dependent suburban fringe, “in large part because that’s where houses could be built most easily and quickly. But now that the bubble has popped, we can clearly see that underlying demand in these areas is extremely weak, and oversupply is massive.”

This was the acute crisis of 2008-2010.  But it was, in a sense, the “warning shot” of a much broader convergence of forces that is likely to cause even deeper damage to the world’s economy in the future, if the underlying problems are not addressed.  We can describe these converging forces as follows:

  1. Continued precipitous rises in energy costs. The fuel of suburban expansion, and of other forms of rapid and non-resilient growth, has been historically cheap energy fueled by abundant petroleum – an era that is coming to an end.  As demand continually exceeds remaining supplies, the price of oil – and of other fuels traded within global energy markets – is likely to continue to increase, sometimes dramatically.  This is likely to place even more financial stress on outer, car-dependent suburbs with large, energy-demanding homes – and on the economies that continue to rely upon this suburban pattern of consumption to fuel economic growth.
  2. Declining revenues available for continued infrastructure operation and maintenance. Local governments have been able to sustain the increasing cost of operating and maintaining sprawling infrastructure with higher system development charges on new development – but that “pyramid” scheme has shown its vulnerability in the current recession, as the funding from new development has dried up.  The result, combined with other financial stresses from lost revenues and investments, has been financially catastrophic for many local governments.
  3. Restricted credit markets. The easy credit that made this scheme possible has given way to a new era of tight credit, making it all the more difficult to sustain existing sprawl developments and mitigate their negative impacts — and that puts new developments in an even more precarious situation.

THE CHALLENGE:  Rising costs of obsolete sprawl

Added to these external converging forces, we can expect the internal costs of sprawl to continue to grow, placing even further stresses on the finances of governments and homeowners alike.  They can be summarized:

  1. Infrastructure and maintenance. Many older sprawling subdivisions are now entering critical periods of infrastructure maintenance, at a time when governments are even less able to cope with these soaring costs.  As energy prices rise, so to do operating and maintenance costs – placing even more stresses on financially strapped governments.
  2. Physical health and its associated costs. Soaring rates of obesity and diabetes have been linked by the US Centers for Disease Control and other researchers to a car-dependent, “drive-through” suburban lifestyle – one that affords little opportunity for walking or other forms of healthy living.  Suburban environments have also been linked to rising rates of asthma and other respiratory disease.  All of these increased rates of disease translate into higher health costs, at a time when the cost of health care is already a serious strain on recovering economies.
  3. Environmental damage, including climate change. The long-term economic impacts of environmental damage caused by sprawling, high-emissions development, including climate change, have been assessed by many entities including insurance company research departments and others.  The loss of so-called “ecosystem services” – such as purification of water and air – could total many billions of dollars.  The impact of climate change on agriculture alone, in the form of droughts, heat waves and the like, could be globally catastrophic, both economically and socially.  Other well-understood impacts include loss of arable land, destruction of important species habitats, and loss of regional quality of life amenities.

THE OPPORTUNITY: Recycling a readily available resource

These impacts illustrate that sprawling suburban developments at present carry unacceptable costs – yet it would be equally unacceptable, from a resource efficiency point of view, to abandon these regions altogether.  A more desirable outcome would be to find ways to re-structure these regions into denser, more walkable, more vibrant neighborhoods, using a series of infill and re-structuring techniques.  This is of course only consistent with the principle of recycling resources that are readily available for re-use, instead of perpetuating a “throwaway” approach.

It should be stressed that these strategies must not come at the expense of revitalizing inner-city areas, which often hold out the best opportunity for more sustainable urban development.  Rather, this is a “both-and” approach that sees opportunities to do both as part of a combined strategy for more sustainable regional development.

Fortunately, just such strategies and tools are indeed emerging – and they hold great promise for a “new beginning” for sprawling suburban neighborhoods.

We can summarize the key principles of such approaches as follows:

Principle 1:  Many of the ingredients are there, but in the wrong place. Sprawling suburbs often have jobs, housing, recreation, and talented and able populations – all the ingredients of a sustainable urban environment – but they are poorly organized, and often in the wrong numbers.

Principle 2: The wasted space is a resource. Under-used right of way is available for transit.  Over-large lots can allow accessory dwellings or live-work facilities.  Excessive parking lots often make excellent infill sites.  Reconfigurations of poorly organized, car-dependent commercial developments can often produce surprisingly elegant plans (see illustration).

Principle 3: Make it pay (by adding customers). Many suburban sites suffer from the diseconomies of low-density development.  Put simply, they lack the customer base to support quality development.  By adding customers for vibrant, well-designed new centers, suburbs can support more attractive commercial and civic amenities.  If managed correctly, the process can become a “virtuous circle” – the additional customers support higher-quality development, which attracts additional customers, and so on.

Before-and-after of a typical retrofit for a sprawling “strip mall” district into a vibrant mixed-use town center.  (Galina Tachieva, from The Sprawl Repair Manual)

THE ROADBLOCKS:  Some misconceptions about urban and suburban development.

Effective policy reform on suburban redevelopment is often obstructed by well-meaning residents who fear the negative consequences of new development.  This is not irrational:  so much new development has in fact been chaotic, poorly organized, and downright ugly, that residents have good reason to be concerned.  But these same residents are vulnerable to several key myths about suburban development

Myth 1:  More density is always unpleasant. On the contrary, less density can be quite unpleasant, because it can mean less economic support for desirable services and businesses, less ability to walk, and a more open, fragmented environment.  Often a low-density development can mean less privacy than a well-designed development at a higher density.

Myth 2: The suburbs are about getting out of congestion, and into the open, quieter countryside. In fact, history has demonstrated that the suburbs are about bringing congestion and noise with you – and indeed, increasing congestion, as a consequence of increased dependence on cars for increasingly long trips, and channeling them onto a few highways.  A rural lifestyle is the right one for some Americans – but too many Americans thought they were getting a rural lifestyle in the suburbs, when what they got was the worst of both worlds:  isolation, and traffic jams.

Myth 3:  New infill development is always ugly, and degrades the quality of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, this can be true – but it need not be.  If citizens become pro-active stewards of development, and hold policy leaders, architects and developers accountable for the livable quality of development, then history shows that such infill development can add enormously neighborhood quality.  Indeed, the greatest cities in the world were built from just such well-planned, beautifully designed infill development.

THE MEANS: Tools and policy recommendations

As noted above, an exciting array of policy tools and strategies is coming to the fore today.  An exhaustive account of these is beyond the scope of this paper, but more information can be found in the references below.  But we can summarize the strategies as follows:

  1. Add new design tools and strategies. A growing toolkit of design types and strategies is becoming available in both “proprietary” and “shareware” formats.  New “sprawl retrofit” strategies are emerging, and offering elegant new ideas for turning ugly, poorly used suburban sites into vibrant, successful centers.  Public, private and NGO entities are working together to pioneer new mechanisms and tools, like tax-increment financing, community land trusts, and many others.
  2. Remove the old codes and barriers; add new code tools. Many of the most beautiful, sustainable neighborhoods in human history would be illegal under today’s common zoning codes.  They need to be scrapped, and replaced with a new generation of codes that allow much more flexible development, in a way that supports walking, transit, and a good distribution of amenities.
  3. Add new incentives and funding mechanisms. The mantra of sustainable development advocates today is, “make it pencil.”  Good development will not happen if it cannot be supported economically.  Sometimes, that means adding customers.  Sometimes that means “priming the pump” by creating incentives and financial tools that can support good development through the early periods, when the economic return is most challenging.  And sometimes, that means making unsustainable development pay its true cost, so that it does not have an artificial competitive advantage over good-quality sustainable development.

Today, the voices of “business as usual” continue to sing an old song.  The sprawling suburbs are the American dream; the American way of life is “non-negotiable;” we can go back to the vision of the 1950s and 1960s, and all glide around effortlessly in gleaming automobiles, in a drive-through utopia.  Our economy, too, can go back to what it was.  We now see that illusion for what it was, and we are now facing the unbearable costs.

But the future need not be a grim time of sacrifice.  Most of us are aware that we were not getting very much for our prodigious (and wasteful) expenditures of money and resources, and we are eager to return to the pleasures of life that are still everywhere around us – and do not cost the Earth in the bargain.  We can see ready examples from urban environments where a lower-carbon way of life, for example, certainly does not translate into a lower quality of life.  On the contrary, the evidence shows that a higher quality of life can be had in the bargain – one with more diversity of options, more urbanity, richer experiences.

Our economy, too, might benefit by focusing more upon those things that renew and sustain rather than those that destroy and extinguish.  It does seem that we have little choice: for the present crisis reminds us that we simply can no longer afford to go on in the old sprawling ways.

*                              *                               *

APPENDIX I

From Sprawl to Complete Communities

From Galina Tachieva, the Sprawl Repair Manual

Sprawl is a pattern of growth characterized by an abundance of congested highways, strip shopping centers, big boxes, office parks, and gated cul-de-sac subdivisions – all separated from each other in isolated, single-use pods (figure 1-1). This land-use pattern is typically found in suburban areas, but also affects our cities, and is central to our wasteful use of water, energy, land, and time spent in traffic. Sprawl has been linked to increased air and water pollution,

greenhouse gas emissions, loss of open space and natural habitat, and the exponential increase in new infrastructure costs. Social problems related to the lack of diversity have been attributed to sprawl, and health problems such as obesity to its auto-dependence.

In contrast, complete communities have a mix of uses and are walkable, with many of a person’s daily needs – shops, offices, transit, civic and recreational places – within a short distance of home. They are compact, so they consume less open space and enable multiple modes of transportation, including bicycles, cars, and mass transit. A wide variety of building types provides options to residents and businesses, encouraging diversity in population. This mix of uses, public spaces, transportation, and population makes complete communities economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

SprawlRetrofitImages

Left, a heavily car-dependent area of sprawl, with many fragmented street segments.  Right, a neighborhood with a street grid pattern, which is much more walkable.  Uses are distributed throughout the neighborhood.

Left, images from a mixed-use, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood of San Francisco.  Right, images from a neighborhood across the bay, with the same climate, economy, government and other factors.  Studies show that the energy use and carbon emissions per capita in such neighborhoods is dramatically higher.  (From Mehaffy et al., “The Factors of Urban Morphology in Greenhouse Gas Emissions.”)

The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008. A record number of homes went into foreclosure and entire subdivisions and commercial developments began to fail. Yet the expanse of sprawl represents a vast investment, and cannot be simply abandoned or demolished. Pragmatism demands the reclamation of sprawl through redevelopment that introduces mixed uses and transportation options. It must be acknowledged, however, that portions of sprawl may remain in their current state, while others may devolve, reverting to agriculture or nature. The design and regulatory strategies and incentives shown here are intended for the places that are best suited to be urbanized because of location or existing investment.

The history and consequences of suburban development, specifically sprawl, are well documented. Numerous books articulate the trajectory of sprawl within its historical context – from the Federal Housing Administration’s mortgages for new construction, the subsidies of the interstate highway system, and the tax laws allowing accelerated depreciation of commercial development, to the evolution of Euclidean zoning’s separation of uses and the cultural mandate for separation by race. Recent publications put forward the need to redevelop sprawl and what specifically should be repaired; among these are Greyfields into Gold‑ elds and Malls into Main Streets, reports by the Congress for the New Urbanism. Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, explains why we need to retrofit sprawl and documents successful examples of retrofits through illuminating and comprehensive analysis.

The Sprawl Repair Manual seeks to expand the literature as a guide that illustrates how to repair the full range of suburban conditions, demonstrating a step-by-step design process for the creation of more sustainable communities. This is a framework for designing the interventions, incorporating them into the regulatory system, and implementing them with permitting strategies and financial incentives.

The proposed approach addresses a range of scales from the region down to the community, street, block, and building. The method identifies deficiencies in typical elements of sprawl, and determines the best remedial techniques for those deficiencies. Also included are recommendations for regulatory and economic incentives.

Lessons learned from history guide this methodology.  Rather than the instant and total overhaul of communities, as promoted so destructively in American cities half a century ago, this is a guide for incremental and opportunistic improvement.

APPENDIX II

“Here comes the neighborhood”

Excerpt from Atlantic Monthly, June 2010

By Christopher Leinberger

As Zillow’s satellite maps begin to indicate, what we face today is not just a cyclical

housing problem, but a structural one as well navigate here. Over the past decade, most house building occurred on the suburban fringe, in large part because that’s where houses could be built most

easily and quickly. But now that the bubble has popped, we can clearly see that underlying demand in these areas is extremely weak, and oversupply is massive.

Nationwide, houses on the exurban fringes are now generally priced below the cost of the materials that went into building them. That’s usually the first step in the creation of a slum. Owners have no financial incentive to invest in their houses if they will not get that investment back upon resale. Developers have no financial incentive to build in those areas either….

Yet the creation of new, attractive urban spaces is slow and difficult, and becomes all but impossible without substantial new infrastructure. Most of all, it relies on good transit options— especially rail links—around which walkable neighborhoods can develop. Rail, biking, and walking infrastructure is the backbone of urban development, and as a country we’ve for the most part neglected to build it in recent decades, in favor of new roads for new suburbs farther and farther away from metropolitan hubs. To support growth in the next decade, we need to change that dynamic—and nourish our walkable urban spaces and neighborhoods. Complicating matters, in these cash-strapped times we need to find a way to do so on the cheap.

Read the full article at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/06/here-comes-the-neighborhood/8093

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REFERENCES

Dunham-Jones, E. (2008)Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning

Suburbs.  John Wiley & Sons

Ewing, R. (1994). “Characteristics, Causes, and Effects of Sprawl: A Literature

Review.” Environmental and Urban Issues 21(2): 1-15.

Frumkin, Howard (2002). “Urban sprawl and public health.”  Public Health Reports, Centers for Disease Control, Vol. 117, 201-217

Leinberger, Christopher (2010). “Here comes the neighborhood.”  The Atlantic, June 2010.

Leinberger, Christopher (2010).  “Sprawl is the root cause of the financial crisis.” Island Press

blog.  Accessed May 11, 2010 at http://blog.islandpress.org/171/christopher-b-leinberger-sprawl-is-the-root-cause-of-the-financial-crisis

Holtzclaw, J., R. Clear, et al. (2002). “Location Efficiency: Neighborhood and Socioeconomic

Characteristics Determine Auto Ownership and Use – Studies in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.” Transportation Planning and Technology 25: 1-27.

Mehaffy, Michael et al. (2009) “The factors of urban morphology in greenhouse gas emissions.”

IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 6:11, 9

Steil, L. et al., “Growing Sustainable Suburbs: An Incremental Strategy for Reconstructing

Sprawl” (chapter), in Haas, T. (2008) New Urbanism and Beyond. Rizolli.

Tachieva, Galina.  The Sprawl Repair Manual. Island Press (Washington D.C.), July, 2010


[1] 333 S. State Street, Lake Oswego, Oregon 97034.  michael.mehaffy@gmail.com

[2] Galina@dpz.com

[3] l.qamar@comcast.net

[4] mary@plangreen.net

[5] john.holtzclaw@sierraclub.org

[6] cleinberger@brookings.edu

Mary Vogel, CNU-A
PlanGreen
Putting Ecosystem Services into Excellent Urban Design
A Woman Business Enterprise in Oregon

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