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. . .
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.
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.
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