End Treeless Asphalt Deserts Downtown

CC 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 gives the interested resident good standing 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 say, well, 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 construction class his version of why there will be little movement absent other factors.

 In the near term, there are several reasons why some surface parking lots won’t be developed including:

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 PAM) 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–such as 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.

While we are waiting to end treeless asphalt deserts with new green development, Urban Forestry should be able to plant and maintain trees along ALL downtown streets. It will then bill the property owners whose property will be enhanced by those trees. Better yet, what if we require surface parking lots, while they remain, to take a page from Ecotrust parking lot and manage ALL stormwater onsite and be fun places to hold events.  Tell City Council that it’s not fair to downtown residents and visitors that owners of treeless asphalt deserts help destroy our air and water quality–not to mention temperature and aesthetic quality–with such impunity.    

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. 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 PAM lot soon!

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

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