Facebook Twitter

Portland shining, imperfect ‘smart growth’ example

American planners look to the City of Roses for wisdom

SHARE Portland shining, imperfect ‘smart growth’ example

PORTLAND, Ore. — If the "smart growth" movement has a Holy Land, you can find it here in this rainy city astride the Willamette River. With a population about the size of Sacramento's, Portland is a much more urban place, with lively inner-city neighborhoods, public gathering places and a light rail system lined with new offices and housing. About 15 miles outside of downtown, subdivisions abruptly give way to fields, orchards and pine forests.

Vice President Al Gore, campaigning for president, has held the city up as a shining national model. Conservatives like columnist George F. Will, in turn, have bashed it as a place where overzealous bureaucrats squander millions on public transit and squeeze residents into crowded, expensive housing.

Even within the boundaries of this meticulously planned metropolis, a serious case of self-doubt has taken hold. Local planners, builders and journalists fret about soaring housing prices, lack of political leadership and ugly subdivisions.

So when planners and architects from all over the country gathered here in mid-June for the eighth annual Congress for the New Urbanism, the chief question on their minds was this: What — if anything — can the Portland experience teach cities trying to hem in suburban sprawl and revive older neighborhoods?

Grantland Johnson, a former Sacramento County supervisor and current member of Gov. Gray Davis' Cabinet, said Sacramento, the City of Trees, has plenty to learn from the City of Roses, even if it isn't perfect.

"The values that underlie their planning decisions are dramatically different than Sacramento's. They value quality of life over profitability," Johnson said of Portland. "It's an ethic that says, 'You don't just throw away old neighborhoods; you revitalize and re-use them.' "

As he waited to board a bus that would tour Albina, one of Portland's slums-turned-success stories, Johnson lamented what he called "the lost opportunities" of Sacramento County's 1993 general plan. Language that would have required developers to build a dense mix of housing, shops and offices along light rail and bus lines was watered down. In practice, it hasn't been applied at all.

Portland, which has pushed the concept, now can boast $2.4 billion worth of housing, offices, shops and other development built within walking distance of light rail, including the basketball arena where the NBA Trail Blazers play.

Having people live and work near light rail is key to increasing ridership and improving air quality, said Mary Fetsch, spokeswoman for Tri-Met, the Portland regional transit agency. Each workday, an average of 282,900 people board Portland buses and trains, compared with 95,000 in Sacramento.

"We're probably at some of the same levels Portland was at 15 years ago," said David Mogavero, a Sacramento architect who attended the New Urbanism conference.

Portland wasn't always a community that others looked to for guidance. In the early 1970s, its downtown consisted of "a few office buildings and surface parking lots," said Portland City Commissioner Charles Hales. As in Sacramento today, a freeway cut off downtown from the Willamette, which was badly fouled with industrial waste and sewage.

It was about that time that a few local leaders got together to change things. Their idea: Tear down the freeway, clean up the river and string a park along its edge for the people to enjoy.

Today, the park is filled with people jogging, strolling or just hanging out. Luxury apartments under construction nearby testify to the river's pull.

In addition to improving downtown, Portland leaders also set out to protect surrounding farmland and forest. In 1973, the state of Oregon passed a law requiring all cities within its borders to create urban growth boundaries.

For the first 15 years or so, Portland's boundary wasn't tested. It had been drawn miles away from downtown, with plenty of room for growth. Meanwhile, people were moving away from the Portland area as the timber industry declined.

"One of the important secrets of Portland's success is, you have to make sure you have net out-migration for a number of years," said Jon Chandler of the Oregon Building Industry Association. "It's easy to manage growth if there's not much growth to manage."

The situation changed dramatically in the 1990s. Portland is now one of the fastest-growing areas of the country, and in some spots the urban growth boundary resembles an invisible wall hemming in the office buildings and suburban tract homes from the farms on the other side.

But critics — most notably members of the building industry — say this success story has a downside.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Portland was one of the most affordable housing markets in the country. Today, just 43.6 percent of residents can afford to buy the median-priced home, said David Crowe of the National Association of Home Builders. That compares with 61.6 percent in Sacramento.

Much of the increase stems from the region's hot economy. High-tech jobs abound in the Western suburbs. And to buy homes, transplants from California are willing to plunk down sums that seem huge by local standards.

The building industry also contends that the urban growth boundary has added to the escalation in real estate prices.

"Housing prices in Portland have increased more rapidly than can be explained by simple population growth and the economy," Crowe said at a conference session examining the issue.

In Albina, a former slum on Portland's east side, rapid gentrification has meant some longtime residents no longer can afford the rent, city planners acknowledge.

"People who lived in detached rental houses are being evicted, and they've had to move into apartments," said Michael Harrison, chief planner for the city of Portland.

Another downside: a backlash by some residents against the apartment buildings, office buildings and other developments being squeezed into their existing neighborhoods in the name of higher density. In the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, for instance, residents recalled a mayor and two City Council members who strongly supported the regional planning agency's approach.

Neighborhood associations "have become a lot more active and a lot more angry than we've seen in a long time," said Patricia McCaig, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Barbara Roberts.

Yet whatever Portland's problems, it is clear that the city has plenty of successes.

Builders moan about high housing prices, but the city of Portland is currently building about 1,000 publicly subsidized affordable housing units a year, more than the city of Sacramento built in the past 10 years.

The median home price, meanwhile, is $160,200, slightly higher than Sacramento's $140,545.

"We no longer have slums like we used to, but it's still less expensive to live in Portland than Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco," said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents the area.

The Portland formula can't just be plunked down in California. Sacramento and other California cities are far more ethnically diverse than Portland, which as a result lacks the racial tension that can complicate efforts to revive communities, conference attendees said.

Portland, by far the largest urban area in Oregon, also has the kind of municipal muscle that makes it easier to pass and maintain state laws that uphold regional planning. In California, where numerous cities push their own political agendas in the Legislature, achieving consensus is more complicated.