The Portland/Suburbia Divide

A discussion of the growing cultural and political divide between the city of Portland and its suburbs.

If one thing was clear from the past election, it’s that there seems to be a growing rift between the City of Portland and its suburbs concerning land use and transportation issues. (Unless explicitly indicated otherwise, only the Oregon suburbs are discussed in this article–parts of the metro area in Washington State are not part of the discussion). We saw evidence of this in the two region-wide races that Portland Transport covered: the Metro presidential election, and Measure 26-119. In both races, Multnomah County largely voted one way (in favor of the more “green” position or candidate), and Clackamas and Washington Counties went the other; and in both cases, the suburbs “won”. We’ve seen it in recent squabbling over the Sellwood Bridge, Milwaukie MAX, and other pending projects of regional significance. The election of Tom Hughes itself had the urban/suburban divide as one of its main issues–the fact that Hughes is the first non-Portland Metro president is itself noteworthy, and he made suburban concerns a keystone of his campaign. And we’re seeing the ongoing debate between Metro and Washington County (and Oregon LCDC) over the County’s desire to add large tracts of industrial land–a desire which the Metro council has been highly skeptical of.

More after the jump.

Doughnut cities

If you compare Portland to many other cities in the US, we’re fortunate to even be having this debate. Quite a few cities in the United States, particularly in the Midwest and South, have become “doughnut cities”, with a big fat hole in the middle. Such places have downtowns and inner cities which consist of vertical office parks (commonly known as “skyscrapers” :) surrounded by acres and acres of decay and blight, largely due to decades of capital flight to suburbia. In some of these cities, even the inner ring suburbs are starting to experience decay, as those who can afford to do so move further and further out from the core, to greenfield developments devoid of any legacy social and financial liabilities. In these places, there is no discussion of what is good for the city versus what is good for the suburbs–as there is no forum to have this debate. There is a constant race to the bottom, as communities compete with each other for industry and for wealthy and middle-class residents, while trying to leave the poor behind. And the losing cities die a long, painful death, while newer suburbs continually spring up on the fringe, repeating the cycle.

The mere presence of Metro–a regional planning authority that actually has some authority–and the UGB, which places severe constraints on new greenfield developments, so far has helped save Portland (the city) from such a fate. Portland maintains a vibrant downtown, and much of the prime real estate in the metro area has a 972xx zip code. (The only Really Wealthy suburban enclave–Lake Oswego–is centered around a unique bit of geography that has no equivalent elsewhere in the metro area). Metro, and the other components of the regional planning framework, provide us with a forum to have such conversations. And if anything, the tone and tenor of the conversation has consisted of suburban complaints that the city is getting all the proverbial goodies, and the suburbs are getting neglected.

Trains are from Mars, and cars are from Venus.

In this debate, transit (especially capital investments in transit) is frequently posed as an urban amenity–and not without good reason. For transit to be effective (and for investments in rapid transit corridors to be worthwhile), there has to be sufficient levels of density in the service area. Transit can work in autopia if there is a big park-and-ride at one and, and a place where parking is difficult or expensive at the other end, but the most cost-effective transit lines have users all along the line, not just at the ends. Given that most suburban dwellers are not going to be within walking distance of MAX (even given an extensive rollout of lines), many view transit with skepticism–something they only would use in order to get downtown. Otherwise, so goes the argument, they’re driving.

Many suburbanites instead want more money spent on roads and highways. Cars are ubiquitous in the suburbs, and if one ignores environmental and energy issues (and focuses entirely on traffic), cars scale well in low densities–up to a point, at least. (When a low-density area gets big enough that commute distances start to get really large, then this urban form hits a big brick wall). Automobile mobility performs poorly at high densities, as simple geometry limits the number of vehicles that can be driven or parked within a given area of land. Automobile traffic can be highly disruptive in places where many people get around on foot or by bicycle–which is often the most convenient way to do so in dense urban neighborhoods. And far too much as been written about the devastating impact freeways have had on existing urban neighborhoods.

Thus we have this debate: Should we add more transit out to the suburbs, as Metro intends to do–with MLR set to break ground next year, the LO Streetcar well in design, and the Barbur project now starting initial planning? Should we improve freeway capacity on existing corridors–such as the Columbia River Crossing or the proposal to widen I-5 in the Rose Quarter (or, for that matter, numerous capacity improvement projects already complete or under construction on I-5, I-205, US26, I-84, and OR217)? Should we build new freeways, such as the proposed Sunrise Corridor (whose Final EIS should be published any day now), or other proposals such as the Westside Bypass, and when?

And what about the Sellwood Bridge–is it intended as a shortcut for Sellwood and Westmoreland residents to reach downtown, or as an arterial route for South Metro commuters? Should it be designed differently–perhaps as a direct highway-to-highway connection between OR43 and OR99E rather than as a direct replacement of the existing bridge which lands on Tacoma Street? And how should it be funded, and who should build and maintain it? Should it be an ODOT facility, or a Metro facility, rather than a Multnomah County facility? Today brings word that former Oregon City commissioner Dan Holladay plans to refer the $5 registration fee for funding the Sellwood, recenctly approved by the Clackamas County Commission, to the voters. What would happen to the project were Clackamas County’s contribution rescinded?

The UGB debate, land use, and the quest for tax dollars

Similar debates affect land use. Many developers of both residential and industrial properties, especially industrial users, prefer to develop on greenfields–and greenfields are mostly to be found on the suburban fringe of the metro area. There are plenty of vacant and underused industrial tracts in the metro area which could be returned to productive use, and many of these are located in Portland (and in areas which are not suitable for other uses, such as agriculture). Portland would love to see these tracts open to new industrial development. However, some industrial users insist, and the suburbs are happy to back them on this, that only greenfield property is suitable–if industrial clients can’t find tracts without prior industrial uses (and the corresponding need for site demolition, cleanup, and other prep work) in the metro area, they’ll simply locate in other cities with less stringent land use controls.

And it’s hard not to suspect that much of this fight is about money–under the current system of taxation, the bulk of local taxes paid by industry only goes to the enclosing city (if within an incorporated area) and county–an Intel plant in Hillsboro is of minimal benefit to Tigard. Industrial land is the best sort of property to have (from a tax revenue perspective)–it comes with a high assessed value, important for property taxes; it provides jobs and payrolls, and industrial users don’t produce excessive number of police calls. It’s tempting to reduce the current brouhaha about Washington County farmland to Portland and Hillsboro (and tiny Cornelius!) fighting over tax base. (Such a simplification would be in error, as many participants in the debate don’t care about local government tax revenues; but the issue is there). Obviously, a more equitable system of revenue collection and distribution could be devised–one in which cities such as Hillsboro (with large tracts of flat land) no longer enjoy advantages over cities such as West Linn (mostly built on a hillside). That’s unlikely to happen, of course, as the winners are unlikely to surrender their windfall voluntarily. (That said, it’s worth pointing out that a century ago, West Linn’s position along a navigable waterway gave it advantages that Hillsboro lacked; advantages which are no longer relevant today).

Is there hope?

Given all of that–is there hope that some level of agreement can be reached on how to develop the region in the future?

I think so. I hope so. It won’t be easy, but a few thoughts on the subject.

  • First and foremost, the increasing cost of energy (and the environmental affects of lots of portable internal combustion engines running about) probably does mean that continued reliance on the gasoline-powered automobile is not a sustainable path going forward. It’s often asked why transit supporters such as myself continue to support controversial and expensive projects like MLR, despite TriMet’s unending ability to look and act positively clueless, and despite the lukewarm reception that the project gets in Clackamas County–this is it. It’s a long-term investment, one in providing useful alternatives to the automobile for a future where gas costs $5/gallon or more. And as 2007 taught us, $4/gallon seems to be the tipping point that significantly changes people’s behavior.
  • Second of all–one of the things to note on the 26-119 ballot is that while Washington County was opposed, the margin was much closer than in Clackamas County. While I don’t know the answer to why this is–a key point is that the two biggest cities in Washington County are on MAX. And outside Portland proper, one of the densest areas in the metro area you’ll find is the Baseline/185th/Cornell corridor roughly along the westside MAX line. Gresham also has lots of dense developments along the original eastside line. And in both cases–many of the same anti-rail arguments being made against Milwaukie MAX (too expensive, nobody in suburbia will use it, existing bus service is adequate, people hate to transfer and will drive if their one-seat ride downtown goes away) were made against the original Blue Line projects. Yet the Blue Line is by far the most successful and useful line in the system–one of my biggest concerns with the Milwaukie line, and I’ll repeat it again here, is that it is too short–it ought to be going to Oregon City. (And the Yellow Line needs to reach Vancouver, for the same reason).
  • One remaining issue is that the various governments, particularly the cities, still act as competition–and business leaders are more than happy to play the various city halls off against each other. Just recently, the Port of Portland gave gave a tax break to local software company Rentrak after it suggest it might otherwise relocate across the river to Vancouver. (The value of the break–$35k-$65–is probably far less than it would cost the company to pack up and move, so this news makes one go hmm). Such regional competition can undermine regional planning (or in worst cases, cause it to be used as a bludgeon to stymie the growth of other cities), as mayors and councils pay lip service to regional land use goals, and then look to obtain exceptions for their adjoining greenfields, while enforcing the letter of the law on their neighbors.
  • There are also a lot of unfortunate cultural attitudes involved. Portland is considerally more politically liberal than its suburbs–particularly Clackamas County–and some urbanites regard anything in Fare Zone 3 in the same manner that New Yorkers regard Jersey. And such attitudes of contempt are often reciprocated. It’s difficult to see the value of regional cooperation in such an environment.
  • Some US cities, such as Indianapolis and Louisville, have been experimenting with creation of regional supergovernments, encompassing the central city and suburbs, albeit with mixed results. In theory, such arrangements can reduce the amount of intra-regional friction, and provide a more equitable distribution of resources and infrastructure, though in the US examples cited, many of the inequities found in non-unified urban areas still exist, with wealthy neighborhoods (mainly suburban) insulated from having to subsidize the higher expenses associated with poorer ones (mainly urban in the examples given). A strong regional government in the greater Portland area would have a much different political dynamic (you’d see more Frank Ivancie’s winning elections and fewer Vera Katz’s; and almost certainly no Sam Adams’). I’m not endorsing this idea, certainly, but in an article on regional competition and cooperation, the idea of unified government is worth mentioning.

Obviously, working out these issues is hard. And in the current economic climate, when the pie has been shrinking and everyone is fighting to hold on to their piece, it’s hard to cooperate and tempting to try and “beggar your neighbor”. But given that many of our region’s needs need to be addressed on a region-wide basis, some level of regionwide cooperation and trust is essential.

39 responses to “The Portland/Suburbia Divide”

  1. Excellent post as always. A couple thoughts:

    1) I’m surprised that in all this discussion about regionalism and planning, you dance around the biggest question of them all: Vancouver. Would a super-metro government include our friends across the river? Would a super-metro government be able to foster the compromised necessary for a decent bridge coalition, and would that perhaps come with stipulations both about highway projects in the oregon area and density/transit/land-use requirements in Clark County?

    1a) (by the way, Toronto’s super-metro government recently ousted a very Sam Adams-esque mayor in favor of a very bland Dave Lister-esque type of fellow, thanks to a tide of votes from its more conservative outlying suburbs, and the vote stands to potentially stall many of Toronto’s ambitious transit/bicycle plans.)

    2) Do people in Washington County really want more highways? I mean, I know that the county has been eager to expand arterials and do a lot of projects that look pretty naked in terms of livable streets. But once 26 and 217 reach their full capacity, I get the impression that voters would be pretty hesitant to vote for more highway expansion considering it’s magnificant costs, both in terms of livability, urban space and financial cost. I get the feeling there’s more of a Tom McCall-esque “stop developing” political motive in the west metro than a “we need more roads” argument. I think its also worth keeping in mind that many people in the West Metro, with their jobs located in Nike and the Silicon Forest out in Hillsboro, are pretty content to travel to downtown Portland only for the occasional dinner out or Trailblazer game. I must admit I’m very intrigued to see what a Tom Hughes-led Metro will bring with regards to how Beaverton and Hillsboro see themselves in the larger regional picture.

    3) You hinted at this, but our suburbs actually do have a fair amount of density in certain spots. The work of Metro over the past few years (and hopefully the continuing work of Metro) to build a few more Orenco Stations and Gresham Town Centers will not only make transit a more viable option for the citizens who will choose to live in this denser node, but will also provide the suburban buffering areas a closer destination for that bite to eat or that grocery store. Building denser (and more “urban”) corridors along 185th, for example, will not only make it easier for some individuals to think about transit for their daily trips, but will reduce the distance others in the Rock Creek/Bethany/Somerset neighborhoods have to drive to get to destinations, thereby reducing VMT without much of an impact on mode split.

  2. I agree — thoughtful essay as usual.

    I share Aaron’s read on Washington County as Tom McCall-esque, though I’m sure there are lots of rah-rah-roads folks there too. I don’t know enough to more than speculate.

    I’m sure the MAX is good for TriMet’s image in Washington County, but I’d be surprised if transit voting doesn’t correlate very closely, throughout the metro area, to residential density. I assume a larger share of Clackamas folks live on larger lots than Washington folks.

    As to Vancouver: I think I can safely predict that it would take a generation or a cataclysm to get Vancouver to share a regional government with Portland. The state line and the lack of interaction (caused by the lack of local bridges!) greatly strengthen the urban/suburban cultural divide Scotty describes.

    Not that many Vancouver residents would strongly object, if their leaders were in favor of regionalism. But the sort of people who get into local politics in Vancouver are the sort of people who are most opposed to ceding authority to Oregonians. Whatever their actual politics may be like.

    That said, Clark County would be fertile ground for Scotty’s notion of using revenue-sharing to reduce the jurisdictional tug-of-war over businesses. Governmental collaboration and revenue-sharing is the pet project of Bill Barron, Clark County’s administrator. Marc Boldt, the pivotal commissioner there, is on board, too. If nothing else, Clark County and Vancouver might eventually come up with a model that we Portlanders could emulate.

  3. As an urbanist, I can’t help but think: There are too many suburbs. The city would die if we were all governed by an over-arching authority, because in democracy, majority rules. As a result, it seems like from Portland’s perspective, we might want to just keep annexing things slowly instead of trying to jump to a regional level all at once.

    On a related note, the central city has gained huge advantages over the last 20 years at the expense of the rest of Portland. I’m wondering if this trend will even itself out over time… There are already plenty of suburbs within Portland’s jurisdiction, the city doesn’t end until 156th on the east side. There is a tug-of-war within municipalities as well.

  4. I left out Vancouver for precisely the reason Michael indicated–the state line complicates things greatly. There’s a Canadian city called Lloydminster, which straddles the boundary between Alberta and Saskatchewan, but I can think of no examples of this in the US. The most famous “state line cities” in the States, such as Kansas City and Texarkana, all have separate municipal governments on each side of the boundary.

    One other important point concerning Washington County that applies far less to Clackamas, is the amount of industry in the Silicon Forest. This helps with “self-containment” and the building of regional communities–whereas in many towns which function mainly as bedroom communities, the need to handle lots of traffic to and from elsewhere is a bigger problem.

  5. While meditating about the Sellwood Bridge and following TriMet’s new span it crossed my mind that TriMet–about to be in the bridge business in a big way–is the best agency to own and operate all our bridges.

    TriMet is the only public agency that has demonstrated the ability to conceive, design, engineer, construct, operate, maintain major works of infrastructure: I cite the Robertson tunnels. I testified to this at its board meeting last November.

    ODOT, the power behind the grossly bloated Sellwood project (ODOT–bloated projects–well, yeah!) is bent on extorting an unnecessary $250 million at Sellwood. TriMet, with Vera Katz chairing its LRT bridge committee, did a superb job–the entire bridge costing LESS THAN ODOT’S MONSTER INTERCHANGE at the west end of Sellwood!

    Put TriMet in charge of our region’s bridges.

  6. You may be interested in following what transpires in Toronto, an amalgamated city in which the suburbs just recently elected an anti-transit and essentially anti-city caricature of a mayor. Rob Ford has vowed to end the “war on the car”, replace streetcars with buses, and cancel Transit City — a provincially-funded plan for a city-wide LRT network — and instead to build one subway extension to one suburb. See here for a thoughtful discussion of the “two Torontos”.

  7. Super-municipalities (often consolidated city-county governments) are usually a death sentence for the central city, but as you allude to we do not have quite the same formula here, with Portland proper home to much of the region’s wealth and high property values. However, voters in the City of Portland are outnumbered in the region by voters in the “suburbs,” so to consolidate away the City government would still have the affect of ceding authority of the City to primarily suburban interests.

    Unlike most American cities, with our urban growth boundary, this region is safe from the risk of running businesses or residents to the next county over to avoid paying for aging infrastructure or social services for a growing number of poor (except, arguably, for Vancouver/Clark County). As such, we could, without much flight risk of the tax base, establish pilot programs that promote management of a particular government service to a regional body. For example, we have obviously already regionalized transit in this fashion. While Trimet has not been perfect in it’s implementation, it is not unreasonable to expect that regionalization of some services could be beneficial from a social-equity perspective. To compare, we have also regionalized waste management (while preserving private operations and competition for serving commercial and multifamily properties). This should have the affect of a consistent cost and quality of service across jurisdictions within the region.

    Services that are the best candidates to be managed regionally would be those in which there is a major equity issue across municipal boundaries within the UGB, whether the equity issue is in quality of service (such as schools, parks, or police) or in cost of service (such as sewer), those services that serve the region at-large (such as highways and bridges), and services that provide a commodity which is or will eventually be in endangered supply (such as water). As with the waste management example, in all cases it is not necessary that the service be provided by a government agency, just that it is regulated in a way so that there is consistency in quality and price throughout the region.

    One challenge is that all of these individual little cities and towns have identities they want to preserve and many would likely feel as though they’re being assimilated by the “New World Order” if they were to sacrifice even a little piece of their identity (such as their police force or school district), even if there would be a net gain for the taxpayers of that jurisdiction (and realistically, for many it wouldn’t be). The psychological importance of community identity cannot be overstated as a factor when considering regionalization.

    Regionalization of targeted services wouldn’t eliminate the need for individual cities. To the contrary, consistency of services should allow cities to compete for businesses and residents on the basis of place rather than quality or cost of services. Cities would still be free to bid against each other to lure businesses and developers to properties within their boundaries, as they do today. Unfortunately this would still allow for cities (or Metro) to cut off their own hands trying to lure a particular employer or development. I would prefer allowing the market to determine where to locate a given business or development based on place (including infrastructure), market demand, and availability of workforce rather than who is willing to give the steepest property tax breaks or provide the largest subsidy for infrastructure improvements in greenfields.

  8. Excellent comments, everyone.

    The case of Toronto is an interesting one–and closer to Portland’s situation than either Indy or Louisville, as it has a strong central city–and a similar demographic split between the city and the suburbs (although some of Toronto’s suburbs are as large as the city of Portland). That said, the current super-municipal structure has been around since 1998–and it replaced a structure with a strong regional government and independent cities that had been in place since 1954; so it’s hard to blame (or credit, if you prefer) the election of Rob Ford to a refactoring of government. (The prior mayor–David Miller, a staunch liberal, was elected under the same arrangement). And it is worth mentioning that Ford won in a three-way race, where he garnered a plurality but not a majority.

    Here’s another thought. One reason that many businesses prefer greenfields to brownfields is that the latter incur costs due to cleanup–and also add risk that prior activities on a site might pose problems for the new owners (such as an undiscovered toxic waste problem). Rather than throwing away public money on tax breaks–an activity much of the public finds distasteful–might it be a useful idea for cities with brownfields to spend money on reclaiming them and eliminating the main objections? And going forward–passing an “as you found it” law requiring industrial greenfield developers to put money aside for reclaiming the tract should the industrial activity cease? (Developers on brownfields would be exempt; another incentive to not consume more pristine land while other suitable land sits unused).

  9. Sometimes I feel like I live in a bi-polar metro area, where both sides don’t listen to the other in any way.

    The key to both succeeding is balance. Put yourself in each other’s shoes and the answers will be there.

    Does Portland need to keep twittering about how riding a car is so evil? We get it already. Would it kill you to look at what makes suburbs successful like schools and family, and maybe try and accommodate more of that growth? (how many single-family homes have been built in Portland in the last 10 years). Condos are great, but do we need to make new high-density district (SoWA) when our very own downtown has dozens of surface parking lots and vacancies? Maybe we can start there and work our way outward.

    Does Washington County need to keep making requests to expand the urban growth boundary for more ugly and environmentally degrading growth — when it holds some of the largest tracts of commercial and industrial vacancies in the metro region?

    Portland and Multnomah County needs to take a deep look at itself. I mean really, it’s the only county that assesses a business income tax on net proceeds!

    Which city or county would you rather do business in?

    The divide is in how they all do business, and while Portland is not terrible, it can do a lot better.

    Portland needs to leverage itself as the place to live and work — whether it’s DINKS, college grads, families, seniors, or big and small companies.

    That starts with good schools and living wage jobs.

    The sexy transit stuff will be easy to implement when people see it benefiting them, and Portland can only do that when it sells itself as the city to live in for all people.

    And I’m not some anti-transit, conservative redneck either and I have these beliefs.

  10. There could be a lot of reasons for that perceived divide. Nearly anyone living in this country who actually believes they have arrived at a “vison” acceptable to most people and that will stand unchanged is living in a dream world. I think the biggest stumbling block to the mass transit vision we have been on, since the 70’s, is simply that the costs have gone too high. That can happen in personal visions, too.

    I don’t think that means scrapping the vision of a livable central city or suburban areas with less dependence upon automobiles. That is a worthwhile vision that needs to be continued. It means rethinking it a bit, so that everyone concerned with paying for it can find it a reasonable investment. The road building vision is going to set some serious challenges, too, as fuel tax revenue starts dropping with higher fuel efficiency standards and the introduction of fuel-miser vehicles.

  11. “the central city has gained huge advantages”
    Such as?

    All I can think of are negatives:
    Traffic congestion.
    Crime, shootouts.
    Hard to find parking
    Shrinking retail.
    Increased housing ONLY because of subsidies.
    Loss of manufacturing.

    All that seems to increase or stay stable is government, subsidized housing and trendy eateries.

    Lets face it, the central city has been obsolete for decades and survives only through subsidies from the surrounding region. One may suspect that any regional government would be hijacked to further support the obsolete central city at the expense of the rest of the region.

    Regional governments get too big to manage. A smaller government, around a hundred or two thousand people is easier for the individuals to influence and harder for the lobbyists and special interests. Running for office is cheaper, again reducing the influence of the special interests. Go to the city council meetings of a few smaller towns and compare them to Portland – night & day difference in how they treat citizens.


  12. how many single-family homes have been built in Portland in the last 10 years

    Where? I mean, there’s some infill potential out there, and I’ve seen new single-family homes go up in my neighborhood (Montavilla)with subdivided double-lots and sometimes skinny houses. But where in Portland is there even room to build a large number of single-family homes? And if there are any large parcels (50-100 acres), I think they might be better used for industrial development. The bigger picture is that Portland (the city) doesn’t have any real room to grow except up.

    As far as capturing growth goes, it’s hard to capture families when they can buy so much more house out in the suburbs. I know a lot of people who would PREFER to live in Portland, but it’s gotten too expensive. Other than letting our city become undesirable to the point that people WANT to leave, I can’t think of any way to reverse that trend.

    Does Portland need to keep twittering about how riding a car is so evil?

    Can you provide a link to even ONE person (that is, a person who could fairly be described as speaking for “Portland”) who has claimed that riding in a car is evil?

  13. All I can think of are negatives

    I suggest that there are also positives, and that some of your negatives aren’t entirely true.

  14. Douglas K:

    I wouldn’t take anything I say as factual, and I was ranting as I tend to do. Nobody has ever twittered that cars are evil to my knowledge, though, the city and the mayor like to tweet and you’d be blind to think that the city is not critical of people driving their single occupancy cars. That’s what I was alluding to.

    Regarding skinny homes, you’ve proved my point well that Portland seems to be missing the mark. Rather than enhance existing single-family neighborhoods, Portland tries to extract every last bit of density out of them. And in the end, the results will be very marginal at best.

    Is a 2,500 sf lot going to do that much more for density in a typical neighborhood? Probably not, but the ugliness factor and the cheapness of some of these homes is utterly startling (not to mention some knocked down existing homes and split the lot sizes in half). That’s not very sustainable…

    And I am a huge density fan, just in the right places.

    There was good amounts of land in SoWA and there is going to be land in NW Portland with Con-Way’s future development. Portland’s running low, but it’s not out.

    I’m not saying build 5,000 sf lots; but there’s more to neighborhood development than mixed/use 30+ story condos, unless one considers dwelling units filled with singles and DINKs dense.

    NW Portland is already the densest neighborhood in Portland, but most of its buildings are 3 to 4 stories. Something to consider.

    I just find it silly to develop so intensely in Portland’s neighborhoods when it’s damn near impossible to find decent rentals in downtown.

    Maybe we need to start there first?

  15. Looking at JK’s alleged “disadvantages”–I’m a bit skeptical.

    * Traffic congestion.

    Got plenty of that in the suburbs. And unlike the city, where there is usually good transit service and shorter distances, much of suburbia is drive-or-else territory.

    * Panhandlers

    Got them in the suburbs, too.

    * Crime, shootouts.

    Ditto. The roughest parts of the Portland metro area aren’t near downtown, other than the homeless population in Old Town. Portland’s slums are generally found at a distance–places like outer SE (“Felony Flats”), Rockwood, and much of Aloha, for instance.

    * Hard to find parking

    Some of us consider this a good thing, although we would phrase it as “not as much land wasted on parking lots”.

    * Shrinking retail.

    There has been much contraction in the retail sector due to the recession–but is Portland taking it harder than elsewhere? Obviously, if parking is hard to find, people are coming downtown for SOMETHING…

    * Increased housing ONLY because of subsidies.


    * Loss of manufacturing.

    Plenty of manufacturing still in Portland; I’m not aware of any factories leaving the city for the suburbs. I’m aware of a few offices that have done so; and I’m aware of a few industrial concerns that have left Portland altogether. And as heavy industry has been replaced with high-tech, that transition has benefited Washington County. But I don’t see evidence of industrial migration out of the city of Portland.

  16. Re: loss of manufacturing
    BLS stats tend to back up JK on this one. I’m not seeing specifics on manufacturing jobs by city or county, but jobs are migrating from Multnomah County to the suburbs and manufacturing jobs are down overall.

    Employment by county:
    —————1/2001——–3/2010 (provisional)

    Manufacturing jobs in metro region (in thousands):
    —1/2000—-11/2010 (provisional)

  17. Such stats need to be interpreted carefully, RA. The gains in Clackamas and Washington Counties can be explained by population growth, and the loss in Multnomah correlates nicely with the overall decline in industry. Over the last decade, there has been MUCH outsourcing of industry–primarily overseas–and heavy industry has been a big part of that. In Multnomah County, we’ve seen Freightliner dramatically reduce its Portland-area presence, we’ve seen numerous chip fabs out in Gresham shuttered, etc.

    Obviously, this is a big concern for the metro area, but does not appear to be a Portland/suburbia issue.

  18. The word “migrating” was used to signify that there are fewer jobs in Multnomah and more in suburban counties, not that specific jobs were relocating. Job losses in Multnomah were much greater than the job gains in Clackamas and Washington Counties, with the Multnomah drop somewhat close to the MSA manufacturing job loss. So, everybody’s “right” on this issue.

  19. @JK:

    Without charging a fair, market rate to use roads and the land to store your vehicle, vehicle congestion and hard-to-find parking will be challenges faced by any desirable location.

  20. Great analysis. If Portland proper could find it in it’s heart to stop ridiculing those of us that live on the MAX line on the west side it would probably go a long way to realizing a cohesive metro view. Until that happens us folks over in Jersey will continue to look for a third way, no matter how liberal and on the same page we really are. There is even the sense that we WashCo residents fund much of the development in the region while getting nothing but some jeering and sidelong glances in return.

  21. If Portland proper could find it in it’s heart to stop ridiculing those of us that live on the MAX line on the west side

    Where does this come from? I’m genuinely curious.

    I live in “Portland Proper” and have bumped into a few people in planning/development/politics circles but don’t know anyone who makes of point of “ridiculing” those that live on the west side, MAX or not.

    I mean, if you read the Portland Mercury comments section (for example), you might get that impression. But the Mercury, irreverent, snarky, and occasionally mean as it is, isn’t “Portland Proper.” You could also look to films like “My Own Private Idaho” where a band of hooligans justifies the safety of robbing a rock group because “they’re from Beaverton”. But that was a movie and that was twenty years ago.

    Conversely, if you read the majority of OregonLive comments or KATU comments, etc., you’ll find way more anti-Portland expressions than anti-Suburb expressions.

    So what really generates this perception that Portlanders, overall, look disdainfully upon Washington Co. or Clackamas Co. residents? Is there any truth to it beyond anecdotal comments from various unrepresentative quarters?

  22. If Portland proper could find it in it’s heart to stop ridiculing those of us that live on the MAX line on the west side

    Where does this come from? I’m genuinely curious.

    Well, personally, I look down on everyone who lives west of the West Hills. Even all my friends who live out in Beaverton and Hillsboro and the businesses out there that I frequent. But I’ve never said anything about my snide, condescending attitude even privately, so I’m pretty sure I didn’t contribute to the “ridicule” JG mentions.

  23. This might be fodder for a different post, but how about thinking about different household structures and how that influences the choice of community. Families with children possess a radically different preference structure compared to people without. I would posit that suburbs are essentially communities designed to cater to those preferences. If you accept that, the development question becomes, how do you bring families to the city?

  24. Anecdotally, I find the snarkiness/toxicity more from the suburb side of things than from the city, as Bob R. mentions. More is going on in the city so there’s more to criticize, plus there is a perception of their voice not being heard. Some of it true, some of it not. Is a business in a remote part of the Metro area going to be open to paying into the Tri-Met tax system when they see a downtown centric light rail system only? Sometimes you have to put yourselves in their shoes. (Excluding the fact that providing simple bus service to their disconnected, low density business is expensive).

    I think the suburbs of Portland have built such a laughable environment that even many its residents fight growth at all costs. We should want growth, to a limit of course, and not have to fight it all the time. I don’t disagree with “suburbanites” support of the things in life they tend to value: family, safety, and community.

    These are not my priorities at the moment, but it’s still something Portland needs to promote. If Portland wants to create a dynamic city, it will need to develop more to a wide range of demographics. A wide demographic base supports more types of businesses and a diverse economy. Coffee shops and bars can only go so far.

    “If you accept that, the development question becomes, how do you bring families to the city?”

    >>Quality schools
    >>”Pro-business” City Agenda
    >>Well-designed single-family home, townhomes or rowhomes.

    It’s not rocket science:,-122.688598&spn=0,0.002064&z=20&layer=c&cbll=45.527111,-122.68848&panoid=NvtUJbchpT04629V6iMLig&cbp=12,246.54,,0,1.37

    A simple 33′ x 100′ row home as pictured above with a decent backyard and 3.00 occupancy is dense. We’re talking densities of 15 – 20 thousand people per square mile if you had a neighborhood with a lot of these sized homes.

    I don’t understand this fixation with mixed-use condos being the panacea to sprawl. It won’t be for families. These are nice housing options, but let us not forget the word option.

  25. I agree, ws. I wonder, are there any hurdles to building new homes as pictured in that streetview link in Portland today? The few houses I’ve seen pop up on skinny lots are awful. There aren’t any rules requiring driveways or something are there?

  26. Mixed-use neighborhoods are important, as they dramatically reduce the need for auto travel–something which is crucial to supporting higher densities, as the need for parking imposes a limit onto what you can put in a given acre. Mixed-use buildings are another matter–they work well in ultra-dense environments, where you can couple ground-floor retail with upper-story residential–but four-story condos with a coffee shop on the ground floor strike me as overkill.

    But in a superheated real estate market, there’s a strong financial incentive for builders to partition their developments into as many separate housing units as possible–and given that a desirable demographic for builders to target is upper-middle-class singles and couples w/o kids, the large number of lofts, studios, and one-bedroom units to be found in places like the Pearl is not surprising. (And indeed–there are probably many Pearl residents who find the lack of kiddos in the neighborhood to be a good thing).

    On the subject of bad attitudes–I certainly agree that public officials are generally not engaging in suburb-bashing (or Portland-bashing), at least not openly and publicly. But there are plenty of residents on both sides who have nothing but contempt for the other side.

    And while we’re on the subject of families and kids… transit itself poses challenges when you take children on board–everything ranging from difficulties using childhood mobility devices (strollers), family-unfriendly fare structures in some places (TriMet is actually rather good), to the occasional issues with discipline or “I have to go poop” that may occur en route or while waiting. My own blogging career kinda got started with a guest post on HumanTransit about this very subject, one which sprang forth from an earlier debate on the subject of children on this blog.

  27. The few houses I’ve seen pop up on skinny lots are awful. There aren’t any rules requiring driveways or something are there?

    If you’re not near a transit line, a single-family home would generally be required to have one off-street parking space.

    The bigger aesthetic issue getting the most debate now is small houses that present a garage door as a major feature facing the street. Developers have been resistant to the City restricting this.

    The other issue is that ‘skinny houses’ are sometimes taller than the houses they are placed next to, which is often seen as detracting from neighborhood character.

  28. If you’re not near a transit line, a single-family home would generally be required to have one off-street parking space.

    Hm. Well, that probably does make sense. How about the neighborhood has no driveways and instead a little parking garage on one of the lots?

  29. with a skinny house, you can have off street parking and no garage. alternately, in an alley neighborhood, the garage can go in back.

    i think most people are not so much upset with skinny houses as they are with “cheap looking” houses. most skinny home developers are looking for the absolute lowest construction cost. if those developers didn’t put in a skinny house, they would have put in some other home that people would complain about.

    skinny houses are a bit out of scale, and these developers do nothing to make up for it. they don’t install mature landscaping (or preserve existing trees). they aren’t careful with siting the house in the most attractive spot.

    i haven’t heard any complaints about the houses at 4131/4127 n albina ave (do a google search for the old house listing). but those are $350k homes, painted in current colors, and have a garage in back.

    the vargas living smart challenge design has a garage in front, but its pretty well balanced out by the details above it. people complain about vargas homes, but in that case, i think thats just the usual distaste for modern architecture.

  30. Who remembers Vera Katz’s infamous crusade against so-called “snout houses”–single-story skinny-lot homes for which the only architectural feature prominent from the street was the garage?

  31. The Urban/Sub-urban thing has been around for a long time. I think a more interesting development is the residential clustering that has occurred in this region around employment areas.
    UrbanTrans did a vanpool study for Metro half a dozen years ago looking at Origin/Destination data for the 16 major employment areas in the region using 2000 census data. Its a pretty amazing picture…people do get it! Its handy to live close to where you work. It would be very interesting to see the 2000-2010 trends for this. Michael Andersen is looking at this and noted to me that Arbor Lodge neighborhood in north Portland has seen a big reduction in travel times…due I think to the relocation of adidas into the old Beth Kaiser Hospital.
    The UrbanTrans study shows that most Clark county commuters are travelling to jobs in N and NE Portland…not an unreasonable trip despite the River. Also I recall that for all the jobs in Hillsboro, there were only TWO dots (each dot=50) for that area’s employees who live in Clark county. Lesson: don’t let transportation investments be driven by the few who make poor choices about where to live and where to work.
    PS I think the O/D study is on the Metro website.

  32. The biggest downfall of snout homes isn’t always that their main architectural feature is a garage, it’s that there’s a giant patch of concrete for 20 feet leading to the garage.

    I think this is a good alternative:,-122.674456&sspn=0.012471,0.033023&g=4131+n+albina+st+portland&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon&ll=45.503189,-122.679756&spn=0.006211,0.016512&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=45.503262,-122.679748&panoid=phBZ40aQOKqg4ps8PBIY-w&cbp=12,262.86,,0,6.29

    Maybe some difficulties pulling out and sight lines, but that home is only on a 28′ wide lot.

    The issue with alleys is regulation, again, for the firetrucks. New ones probably need to be 20′ wide.

    Ladd’s Addition has alleys that are close to 10′ wide only.

    My contention with regulation on alleys is that it’s extra fire fighting space for fire trucks that wouldn’t be there in the first place.

  33. Families with children possess a radically different preference structure compared to people without. I would posit that suburbs are essentially communities designed to cater to those preferences. If you accept that, the development question becomes, how do you bring families to the city?

    I would argue that Suburbs were NOT designed for families – they are designed for cars and to maximize the number of buidable lots for tract housing, and in fact, many millions of children are raised in urban settings worlwide in safety and turn out to be just fine.

    This just seems like fearmongering to me. I mean, as a kid, I used to take trips up to Portland and Seattle with friends and wander downtown. We were just fine.

    I wish people would get past the 80’s/90’s worldview that “cities = bad” and the “suburbs are winning.” A lot of things have changed since then, as the hundreds of billions of $$$ poured into urban redevelopment will attest. This seems to be a uniquely AMERICAN viewpoint.

  34. bjcefola: Families with children possess a radically different preference structure compared to people without. I would posit that suburbs are essentially communities designed to cater to those preferences. If you accept that, the development question becomes, how do you bring families to the city?

    zilfondel: I would argue that Suburbs were NOT designed for families – they are designed for cars and to maximize the number of buidable lots for tract housing, and in fact, many millions of children are raised in urban settings worlwide in safety and turn out to be just fine.

    There is one area where suburbia provides benefit to large families–it’s far easier to find affordable, large housing units in the burbs; and in the real dense areas, such units are very difficult to find (and expensive). Some of it may be a function of desirability–location, location, location and all of that; a given size dwelling may be affordable to a given buyer in Tigard, whereas a similar-size dwelling may be unaffordable in Laurelhurt or Belmont. OTOH, as noted above, higher density zonings are likely to encourage developers to build as many smaller units as can fit; whereas low-density zonings tend to encourage construction of larger homes (up to and including “McMansions”)–doubling the size of a building generally won’t double the developers’ cost (assuming the same lot size), but will double the value of the home.

    Low-density zonings have another relevant affect–they exclude poverty, by making real estate too expensive for the poor to buy or rent. Often times, when suburban NIMBYs fret about possible upzoning in their neighborhood, particularly to levels which would permit apartment construction, they’re not really worried about noise or traffic or any other claimed bogeyman–they’re really worried about low-income housing being built, and poor people (and the various social pathologies associated therewith) moving in. Race and ethnicity often play a factor as well, though in many cases, these issues tend to be proxies for fears of the poor. When suburban advocates discuss the “safety” of the suburbs, what they often mean is precisely this–physical separation from poverty.

    Low density also can exclude the poor via another means very relevant to this thread and this blog: much of suburbia requires an automobile to get around in. This is a lesser barrier than the price of real estate, given that beaters can be bought for the price of an annual bus pass, but it still remains an obstacle. And doubtless some resistance to public transit from the ‘burbs is due to the perception that it’s mobility for the poor.

    Certain urbanist enclaves for the wealthy also economically exclude the poor, obviously–economic segregation from the plebes has been something desired by the upper classes of society for centuries. There’s not many low-income folks living in the Pearl, despite the presence of some subsidized housing there. One difference, though, is that in the city, everyone is closer together–only a few blocks east of the Pearl is Old Town, and a large concentration of homeless. Those living on the shores of Lake Oswego have to go a much longer way to find anything that would be considered a “bad” neighborhood.

  35. There’s not many low-income folks living in the Pearl, despite the presence of some subsidized housing there.

    “some subsidized housing” = 30% of all the housing units

    The Pearl is a mixed income neighborhood as the result of explicit City policy. I think 30% fairly constitutes ‘many’.

    And there are now lots of baby strollers in the Pearl, as the young DINK couples who moved there started having babies. Not all of them opted to move to the burbs.

  36. given that beaters can be bought for the price of an annual bus pass

    Keep in mind that a vehicle in itself does not provide transportation–it sill needs fuel and maintenance.

  37. It was brought up by Mayor Hoffman here in LO that real estate people were telling him that families w/children choose between our schools or the chance for more square footage w/backyard for the same price and square footage wins.

  38. zilfondel, there is no contradiction in saying that suburbs are designed around the auto and saying that they cater to family preferences. The problems of relying on public transit when you have kids, particularly young kids, are well discussed in the Human Transit post. And transit isn’t the only preference involved.

    Scotty covered housing size, I’d add a point that Portland has a LOT of old houses, particularly in the inner east side. Old houses take time and/or money, and they pose significant environmental hazards to young kids. A 1 year old doesn’t know a paint chip from a potato chip.

    Schools are a topic unto themselves, I’ll just say that I think a lot of PPS parents are in for a gut check next year.

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