Category Archives: Walkable Urbanism

End Treeless Asphalt Deserts Downtown

Central City 2035 Key Element

Last year, as part of its Comprehensive Plan update process, Portland City Council passed CC 2035, an updated plan for the central city. The Key Elements of this plan give interested residents strong footing to address the surface parking lots in downtown’s West End as the fourth key element is:  4. Redevelopment. Encourage new development on surface parking lots and vacant lots..

Surface parking lot owners have negatively impacted the health and well-being of  downtown residents for far too long. Besides the noise and air pollution that they bring to their neighbors these treeless asphalt deserts are more than 10 degrees hotter than surrounding areas. When it’s 105 degrees and smoky, walking by them for block after block is nearly unbearable–especially for the many downtown residents who use canes and walkers.  Take a look at what I’m talking about–bearing in mind that this is DOWNTOWN Portland. . .

SW 12th & Main looking north

Image 1 Treeless asphalt desert SW12th and Main looking north towards Salmon St. The tree on the right is a highly invasive Ailanthus that has since been removed.–leaving residents of the Pinecone Apartments with no shade from the southwest sun. Photo by PlanGreen.

SW 12th & Salmon looking southwest

Image2. Treeless asphalt desert SW12th and Salmon looking southwest with First Unitarian Church in background. Photo by PlanGreen.

SW 12th & Taylor looking northeast

Image 3. Treeless asphalt desert, SW12th and Taylor St. looking northeast to Morrison St where there are two food carts. Photo by PlanGreen.

Image 4. SW 12th and Washington St. is the only lot that has a development proposal, 11 West–submitted by the owners of the lot and their development partners. Photo by PlanGreen.

SW 11th and Main St looking west

Image 5. SW 11th and Main St looking west with First Unitarian Church in the background. The church occupies the whole block and has four historic Hawthorne trees in front of Eliot Chapel. Photo by PlanGreen.

SW Main St. and Park Ave. looking west

Image 6. SW Main St. and Park Ave. Three half block treeless asphalt deserts in a row looking west up SW Main. Photo by PlanGreen.

SW 10th and Main

Image 7. SW 10th and Main St. looking north. Note the Museum Parking sign, the only hint that this lot is owned by Portland Art Museum although the Early Bird sign makes one think its City Center Parking. Photo by PlanGreen.

You might believe that with current real estate values, they will all be developed soon. But throughout the central city building boom in Portland, this hasn’t happened. In fact, Portland Art Museum’s lot depicted in Images 6 and 7 has been a surface parking lot for 88 years!

In August of 2017, commercial real estate consultant, Brian Owendoff explained to a Portland State University Real Estate class his opinion on why there will be little movement:

1. Land Price too high: very tough to make an apartment or office tower economically viable @ $600 SF for land cost.
2. The Inclusionary Zoning requirement reduces net operating income by 10%, more or less, making apartment development not economically viable.
3. Construction costs are very high due in large part to labor shortages.
All three result in project returns below what is acceptable for institutional investment or third party construction debt.

Some Solutions 

Except for the fact that some of the owners of the lots (the Goodmans, the Schnitzers and Portland Art Museum) also have the capacity to develop them, Owendoff’s market-based explanation may help explain why we’ve seen no redevelopment of the treeless asphalt deserts during the building boom.. But we can change “the market”!!!  I have long suggested as a solution to this problem: the City of Portland should TAX LAND AT A HIGHER RATE THAN BUILDINGS.  By taxing land at or near its development potential, owners of land that is used at less than maximum productivity–e.g.,surface parking lots–would be paying a disproportionate amount in taxes in order to keep it that way. See Land Value Tax for Downtown Portland.

Meanwhile, we could require that surface parking lots, while they remain, take a page from Ecotrust parking lot. Owners must install trees and bioswales that manage ALL stormwater onsite. They could even become fun places to hold events.     

Ecotrust Parking Lot on NW 10th

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 

Let’s demand more from downtown Portland’s surface parking lot owners. Tell City Council that it’s not fair to downtown residents and visitors that owners of surface parking lots help destroy our air and water quality–not to mention temperature and aesthetic quality–with such impunity. You can help end treeless asphalt deserts by developing a vision for what you’d like to see on one of them. Then get your vision out via mainstream and social media. Call the owner and present it to them too. Grab a space on City Council’s agenda and present your vision. And watch for my vision for the Portland Art Museum lot soon!

Published July 9, 2019. Adapted from CC2035 Testimony of Mary Vogel/PlanGreen Sept. 7, 2017

Portland Region 2040 Vision–What’s Next?

April 4, 2016

“How do you think Metro should respond to the key issues and trends affecting the region’s ability to realize the vision of the 2040 Growth Concept?”  

I was asked this question recently and here’s what I said. . .

Since its inception in 1995, the 2040 Growth Concept has promoted compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development in centers and corridors.  This has been central to shaping regional growth patterns, limiting sprawl and creating livable communities.  In fact, directing growth into centers & corridors has been the region’s primary strategy for preserving farms, forests and natural areas outside the Urban Growth Boundary.  Metro policymakers (and I myself) believe that compact development is the premier tool to address climate change, ensure equity, create jobs and protect the region’s quality of life.

I see three key trends that have only gotten stronger since 1995:

Trend 1: Walkable Urbanism Preference

Beaverton's Broadway Vision

Most cities in the region know that they must promote walkable urbanism–but sometimes their policymakers forget. This image is from Beaverton’s Civic Plan.

Boomers and Millenials both show a strong preference for “Walkable Urbanism.” Some suburban policymakers responses to Metro’s Climate Smart Communities (CSC) project shows that many of them are not aware that this first trend means that they should be focusing more of their infrastructure dollars towards “retrofitting suburbia” rather than building and widening roads. I worked hard to see that urban form/urban design was in the strategies tested in the CSC project (and indeed it tested at the top!), but many suburban policymakers would rather focus on electric vehicles and other technology for lowering tail pipe emissions. More needs to be done to alert them that their present course will potentially lead to stranded assets where there is little market left for suburban single-family homes that don’t provide the opportunity to walk to needed services and amenities.

Trend 2: Recognition That Inequality Hurts Us

There is a growing recognition of the unacceptable impacts of inequality (racial, social, financial).  Inequality impacts such issues as housing affordability, homelessness, displacement and even sprawl as people seek more affordable housing in towns outside the Metro Urban Growth Boundary.  Thanks to Bernie Sanders, financial inequality (the widening income gap) has become a chief topic of presidential debates and led to more discussion of the role that the Federal government should play. Meanwhile, Metro has attempted to address several aspects of inequality.

Equitable Housing Report

This report mentions Community Land Trust as a strategy. But it needs to become THE major strategy if we are to address housing costs for a 2040 workforce.

Regarding Metro’s Strategic Plan to Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Metro’s COO Martha Bennett said “the priorities are to learn more about best practices, apply equity plans to its service-delivery areas, improve community engagement and use equity as a measure of decision-making in spending money.” Any build out of the 2040 Growth Plan will need to address gentrification, displacement and contracting opportunities in an equity strategy that focuses on communities of color.

Metro has pursued affordable housing strategies for many years—the latest effort being the Equitable Housing Initiative headed up by Councilor Sam Chase. From Metro’s web site: The Initiative’s Report discusses a variety of tools that could help, including financial assistance for residents, renter protections against evictions and nonprofit community land trusts. . .

I agree that Metro should utilize the Community Land Trust model, but not just for the involuntarily low-income. I would like to see governments in the region, including Metro, promoting the CLT for ALL OF US.  The original impetus behind the CLT movement was to create a new institution to keep housing permanently affordable.  The first people I ever met living in a CLT were NOT low-income, rather middle-income people who saw it as a better way. Probably the local government that best understood its potential was Burlington, VT under then-mayor Bernie Sanders.  The City of Burlington under Sanders helped to support the formation of the Burlington Community Land Trust.  It’s now the Champlain Housing Trust, the largest CLT in the US and a model for local governments looking for systemic solutions.

Champlain Housing Trust Image

Champlain Housing Trust is the largest Community Land Trust in the nation. It enables housing to be kept permanently affordable by holding title to the land under both multifamily and single family homes–both rented and owned. Image from CHT 2014 Annual Report: http://www.getahome.org/learn-more/publications.

I believe the CLT is the best tool for transforming our housing system.  By taking the land under housing off the private, commodity, speculative market, it helps to change the concept of housing from a commodity to be bought and sold for a profit. Instead it encourages us to see it as a social good that everyone needs and deserves.

“By looking at housing as a fundamental human right rather than a market good that goes to the highest bidder, and with shrewd political organizing in a hostile environment, housing advocates in Burlington have created a sustainable model for affordable housing that deserves to be emulated across the country” says Daniel Fireside in Burlington Busts the Affordable Housing Debate.

The Portland region has a Community Land Trust, Proud Ground (formerly Portland Community Land Trust and Clackamas Community Land Trust). Personally, I feel that it is far too focused on home ownership rather than a mix of ownership and rental. Nonetheless, Metro should explore developing a relationship with it similar to that of Burlington and CHT.

Woolsey Corner in the New Columbia area of Portland was developed as a Community Land Trust by Proud Ground utilizing Orange Splott as its builder. Photo courtesy of Orange Splott.

Woolsey Corner in the New Columbia community of Portland was developed as a Community Land Trust by Proud Ground utilizing Orange Splott as its developer. Photo courtesy of Orange Splott.

For the shorter term, it should work with innovative housing developer Orange Splott, LLC and its network of other small  incremental developers in promoting more alternatives to conventional home ownership. Let me repeat, these alternatives should be marketed not just to “the poor” but to ALL OF US!  For Metro, this work could come under the banner of the Equitable Housing Initiative, but it needs to be larger than “affordable housing.” Rather it needs to focus on housing affordability involving ALL income levels.  In the long run, hopefully before 2040, such efforts by Metro will help to change the concept of housing from a commodity to a social good.

Trend 3: Need for Excellent Urban Design

Residents of existing neighborhoods will be far more supportive of new development when it includes excellent urban design encompassing:

  • appropriately scaled buildings
  • streets designed for walking, biking, pushing baby strollers. . .and even cars
  • neighborhoods with diverse uses
  • people of diverse incomes, class and ethnicity
  • sufficient parks and natural areas, protected streams, wetlands, and steep slopes
  • infrastructure for arts and culture

Metro might look into working with the Regional Arts and Culture Council to produce a toolkit to encourage every community in the region to integrate arts and culture. Transportation for America has produced a Creative Placemaking Handbook that could provide a good start.

Towards a Walkable Tigard

Tigard Mayor welcomes New Urbanist Jeff Speck for two days of talks and workshops on making Tigard, a suburban community in the Portland Metro area, more walkable. Photo by PlanGreen.

Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism have a great deal of expertise in excellent urban design.  Metro should continue to develop a partnership with the Portland-based non-profit National Charrette Institute, a leading affiliate and powerful voice within CNU. As presented at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference by Council Member Craig Dirksen, the Investment Areas Approach with its Shared Investments Strategy  highlighted both the City of Tigard and the Tigard Triangle in the SW Corridor Investment Area. New Urbanists are having strong influence over Tigard’s redevelopment and this trend should be encouraged.

Metro is involved with connecting its natural area at Canemah Bluff with a riverwalk along the Willamette River.

Metro is connecting its natural area at Canemah Bluff with a riverwalk along the Willamette River. This will make Oregon City even more appealing as a place to live and work. Photo by PlanGreen.

Metro should continue its long-standing relationship with The Intertwine regarding the integration of parks and natural areas into developing centers and corridors. This coalitions of organizations have long been involved with implementation of Titles 3 and 13 of the 2040 Concept. It should consider expanding relationships with environmentally oriented organizations that represent communities of color (some of whom are in The Intertwine). As mentioned above in the inequality trend, any urban design efforts must take into account gentrification and displacement. They must also take into account inequitable air quality impacts.

What do you think about my three key trends re: implementing the 2040 Growth Concept–and my ideas on what Metro should do about them?  What are your ideas?