Category Archives: Zoning

PDX Climate Action Plan 2015 Needs Urban Design

June 24, 2015  Testimony of Mary Vogel, PlanGreen to Portland City Council

There is a great deal to like in the Portland/MultCo Climate Action Plan 2015 and I applaud it as far as it goes. But one of the things missing is attention to URBAN DESIGN not just Urban Form. It needs to include implementation actions on evaluating existing land use policies that shape urban design for impact on climate change. That mandate could be included on p. 80, Urban Form and Transportation Chapter under either Decision-Making or Planning Scenarios Evaluation.

Here’s one example!  We need to change a policy that:

NW Townhouses w/short driveways and garages that dominate the sidewalk. The trees are on the wrong side of the sidewalk and will not last long in their present location.

NW Townhouses w/short driveways and garages that dominate the sidewalk. The trees are on the wrong side of the sidewalk and offer no protection or additional shade to the pedestrian. They will not last long in their present location. Cars parked in these driveways will block pedestrian passage altogether. Photo by PlanGreen

 

Promotes private automobile use

 

Leads to less community interaction

 

Makes our sidewalks less safe and useable for pedestrians

 

 

NW Townhouse w/van blocking sidewalk

This NW Portland sidewalk is partially blocked by this van. Note the driveway apron that usurps 1.5 public parking spaces on the street.

Displaces on-street parking spaces that make pedestrians feel safer

Usurps public parking space

Makes sidewalks less useable by pedestrians

 

 

 

 

SW Hamilton Townhouses - No street trees

This SW neighborhood street is adjacent downtown. It has the requisite off-street parking, but no street trees or landscaping to protect residents from the freeway above–or give them incentive to walk anywhere.

Disrupts the look and feel of the neighborhood

Displaces street trees that both protect and add comfort for the pedestrian

Displaces garden space that could be used to grow food

 

 

 

 

That is the requirement for off-street parking for every new house more than 500’ from a transit stop. Please make sure that a review of this policy and other existing policies is part of the Climate Action Plan.  That will greatly strengthen the plan!

I’m adding  a couple of examples that were not in my original testimony in order to show both the worst and best of Portland’s central city urban design with regard to parking.

NW 24th Ave Garages - Abominable Streetscape

I know you’re thinking this is the BACK of the property but its the FRONT on a street in one of the densest neighborhoods in Portland, OR–NW 24th Ave. Similar streetscapes are not uncommon in NW Portland.

                                                                                                    Even Portland’s numerous graffiti artists don’t seem to find these garage doors compelling places for their art–even though the doors front a street in one of the densest and most popular neighborhoods in Portland.

Most pedestrians don’t find this wasteland a compelling place to be either.  In fact, they cross the street in order to avoid them.  How does such awful urban design continue to exist in one of the most popular neighborhoods in Portland?

 

NW Pettygrove Condo Garage with single curb-cut

This NW Pettygrove condo building w/garage has a single curb-cut and is an example of how off-street residential parking should be handled–if it is necessary at all.

Okay, we can keep some off-street parking.  In really popular neighborhoods that folks from the suburbs flock to on evenings and weekends, residents with cars can really benefit from off-street parking.  This 12 unit condo building with it’s single driveway and garage exists immediately adjacent another abomination like the one above at NW 23rd & Pettygrove in Portland.  This building is an example of how off-street parking should be done–if it is done at all.

 

Let me know your thoughts!  I will pass them on to Portland policymakers and planners.

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!

Camas Council: Consider Trends Before You Decide!

Below is the Draft Testimony of Mary Vogel,CNU-A, principal of PlanGreen, regarding the Lacamas Northshore proposal that Carolyn Foster covered in her blog earlier in August.

I know that you are concerned with the city’s economy—in the long term, not just today.  I suspect that you believe that the proposed master LN Concept Plan Mapplan will help the city’s economy.  But I want you to consider some future trends before you make up your minds.

Maureen McAvey, Senior Resident Fellow for the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, DC  was in Portland last year to discuss the ULI publication “What’s Next? Real Estate in the New Economy“.  The event notice read: A paradigm shift is unfolding over the course of this decade, driven by an extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends. Taken together, these trends will dramatically change development through 2020. My notes indicate that McAvey said:

  • More single-family homes are being occupied by renters, changing the feel and politics of suburban communities
  • Seventy-five percent of households in the Portland area do not have children under 18
  • 47 percent are non-families
  • Twenty-somethings on tight budgets prefer places to congregate with friends — in parks, bars, restaurant clusters and building common areas — and can tolerate smaller living spaces.

Arthur C. Nelson, one of the nation’s most prescient housing market researchers, says declining homeownership, tighter lending standards, a sell-off of single-family houses by the nation’s fastest growing demographic — senior citizens—and even rising household sizes due to more multigenerational living will have an impact on the market you may be trying to attract with the single family home portion of the plan.

Nelson, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Utah, reports that the US faces a massive oversupply of large-lot single family houses and an undersupply of multifamily units. By 2020, Nelson sees 1.5 to 2 million homes from seniors coming on the market, and between 2020 and 2030, there will be a national net surplus of 4 million homes that they cannot sell. And Nelson believes those are conservative figures for what has been dubbed “The Great Senior Sell-Off.”

The 2009 American Housing Survey (AHS) found that 28 percent of houses are attached, 29 percent are detached on small lots, and 43 percent are detached on large lots. Three studies — by National Association of Realtors, the Robert Charles Lesser & Co. (RCLCo),USPreferencevSupplyHouseType and Nelson — all found a nearly identical, imbalance in US housing supply and demand.  Only 24 to 25 percent of Americans would prefer to live in large-lot single-family houses (see graph “Housing preference versus supply”).

Consequently, there’s an oversupply of approximately 28 million units in what developer, professor and author Christopher Lineberger calls “the drivable suburbs.”  Attached housing and small-lot housing, on the other hand, are undersupplied — by about 12 million and 13.5 million units, respectively.

Millennial Renters Survey

Source: RCLCo Consumer Survey

This imbalance is likely to grow in the years to come, reports Nelson. The generation that is currently moving into the housing market — Millennials — is the most urban-oriented cohort since World War II.  Melina Druggall with RCLCo reported at a National Association of Home Builders conference in January 2011 that 81 percent of Gen Y renters want to live in an urban setting.  (Wall Street Journal reported that number as 88% at that time and they were quoted in numerous sources such as Better Cities & Towns and Grist).

Ninety percent of the increase in the demand for new housing will be households without children, and 47 percent will be senior citizens (the latter resulting from the rising tide of Baby Boomers who started turning 65 last year). Both of these demographic groups—the Millennials and the Boomers—lean toward multifamily and away from large-lot SFH.

Referring to a recent National Association of Realtors (NAR) finding on percentage of households that prefer to live downtown or in mixed-use city or suburban neighborhoods, Nelson says “Back in ‘70s or ‘80s, people wanted drivable suburbs. Now 70 percent want to walk to discernable destinations, from transit to grocery stores. This wasn’t the case until recently.”  Nelson believes the most popular locations will be mixed-use, walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods.

This Lacamas Northshore master plan is being portrayed as both walkable and mixed-use, but the concept plan I’ve seen so far indicates to me that it is not.  The zoning proposal shows a segregation of uses. Business parks, by their very nature, are drive-to!  The single-family and the multi-family seem quite segregated from each other and all are segregated from the shopping area.

Amazon Headquarters image

Rendering courtesy of NBBJ. Amazon Headquarters adjacent downtown Seattle, WA

As far as economic development is concerned, there is increasing evidence that the kind of high tech, light industrial firms that you hope to attract are choosing to locate near where their employees want to live.  Consider the choice of Amazon to locate adjacent to downtown Seattle and Adobe Systems to locate in downtown San Jose.

I hope you will take into account the “extraordinary convergence of demographic, financial, technological and environmental trends” that ULI talks about before making your decision on this zoning change and the future development that it presages.  I agree that a master plan with changed zoning is what is now most desirable for this area–but NOT the kind of segregation of uses we see in this plan. I urge you to delay approval of a zoning change–until you can get it right!