Archive | Land Use Politics

“Portland creep” and the density debate

As most of you are aware, election day is Tuesday, May 15. Portland Afoot and others have thoroughly covered many of the races that are on the ballot, including the races for the open Metro council positions, the Portland city council, and the Portland mayoral race. One set of races that hasn’t gotten as much coverage in the urbanist and alternative-transportation blogosphere, but which are also important, are the races for the Clackamas County Commission. A conservative political action committee, the Oregon Transformation Project, is running a slate of candidates for the commission, hoping to transform the 5-seat county board from one which openly supports what the region has been doing, to one that opposes it. Like the Portland mayoral race, any candidate which wins a majority in May wins the seat; if no candidate wins an outright majority, the top two vote-getters face off in November. In either case, the new commissioners take office in January of 2013.

As Portland Transport is a 501(c), I’ll have no more to say about theses races or any of the candidates; if you’re interested the county elections website is a good place to start. However, the Oregon Transformation Project has coined a new term in the local political lexicon: Portland creep
The density debate

Various political factors seem to drive the various participants in the broader anti-density coalition, if I may call it that. Some density opponents are staunch conservatives, motivated by cultural politics, free-market economics, or political solidarity with other conservative constituencies such as big oil. Many other density opponents come from the left–viewing big-ticket capital transportation projects (as well as urban renewal projects designed to encourage infill) as little more than corruption and cronyism, indistinguishable (other than in scope) from the antics of Wall Street banksters, with greenwashing being used to deceive a gullible public. But a common theme that motivates many of the critics on both the left and the right, is a dislike of density itself.

A billboard run by OTP (you can see it here) compares a picturesque view of Mount Hood with a grainy, black-and-white photo of downtown Portland, with the words “CONGESTION DENSITY CRIME” lying under the latter. The implication being is that if the current course continues, much of Clackamas County will soon resemble the worst attributes of Portland. There seems to be a fear that single-family neighborhoods all over the tri-county area will soon be overrun by apartment housing of the worst sort, and that middle-class communities will be transformed overnight into budding Rockwoods. In some cases, this fear is expressed in near-apocalyptic terms, with dire warnings about an urbanist tyranny literally forcing people out of homes and cars and into Soviet style block housing. (The term “Potemkin Village” gets used quite a bit as well–although the term originates from Tsarist Russia and has nothing to do with communism or forced living arrangements).

In short–the fear that the communities that people love and live in will be transformed beyond all recognition–if not destroyed outright.

The death of the American city

Jane Jacobs’ most famous book is called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. At the time she wrote it, the death part was well on its way to becoming a fait accompli; the life part was her sincere hope for the future. For in 1961, many American cities were being destroyed: both literally, by the wrecking ball and the bulldozer, and figuratively, by abandonment. In many cities, including Portland, neighborhoods were ripped apart to build freeways. In many cities (again including Portland), thriving African-American communities were branded slums and demolished (often replaced by housing projects which were invariably far worse and more blighted and dangerous than the neighborhoods they replaced); in more than a few cases, such neighborhoods were deliberately targeted. (The urban renewal project that gave us what is now the Rose Quarter reportedly came about so white Portlanders could go shopping at the then-new Lloyd Center without having to pass through a black neighborhood). And in many cases, central cities were abandoned wholesale by the middle class, who fled to the suburbs, where they would be protected by discriminatory lending practices, exclusionary deed restrictions, and low-density zoning which had the effect of pricing the poor out of the market. Much of this migration was racist in nature (I’m speaking of the 1950s and 1960s, not of today), and likely exacerbated by the forced integration of inter-city public schools.

I do not recount this history lesson to ascribe mid-20th-century attitudes to 21st-century politics. Modern suburban communities are far more integrated; redlining and “whites only” covenants are now illegal. While some bigots do exist in the modern anti-density crowd; I have no reason nor desire to tar everyone with that brush.

I instead recount this bit of history as a warning to the urbanists in the crowd. The death of many great American cities is an event that still burns bright on the landscape–and many people in the suburbs have reason to fear that their communities are next.

…and the life

In many American cities, with Portland being acknowledged as a leader in this regard, an urban revival is occurring. Young Millenials and (to lesser extent) Gen-Xers are eschewing suburban living in large numbers, seeking instead to live in more urban environments. Many trends undergird this transition: greater levels of poverty affect housing (and transportation choices); the Internet and social media has replaced the automobile as the means by which the younger generation communicates, shops, and works. Gas prices reached higher (on an inflation-adjusted basis) than their 1970s peak back in 2007, and after crashing in the Great Recession, are back above $4 a gallon again, and are continuing to climb. The rise of other economic powers such as China and India have both driven up oil prices, and posed a challenge to American global supremacy. The threat of global warming looms large. And whereas the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s were greenfields unencumbered by urban pollution, corruption, and debt; the communities of today are struggling under the weight of pension obligations, decaying infrastructure, and (in many cases) the flight of capital to the next greenfield. The recent collapse in the housing market devastated many communities which were built in response to real-estate speculation; there are several cities in this country where perfectly good housing is next-to-worthless.

Given all of that, what can politicians do to rein in burgeoning costs? In many cases, the answer is “upzone”.

The cost of suburbia

Suburbia is expensive. It’s a simple matter of geometry–many types of infrastructure have costs (both construction and maintenance) which scale with the amount of land they have to cover. A 6″ water main that’s two miles long costs nearly four times as much as a 12″ main that’s only a half mile long, even though they may serve the same number of customers. This principle applies to all sorts of things–electrical distribution networks, telecommunications, sewers, roads, and public transit. If you limit the number of people that can live in a given chunk of real estate, adding more people requires adding more real estate–more roads, wires, and pipes. For this reason, US-style suburbs are a feature only commonly found in wealthy countries–and much like a Versace handbag or a Mercedes-Benz; for many Americans, suburban living has become a status symbol of American affluence.

But in the modern economy, many communities are finding it harder and harder to keep up appearances. Some are continuing to try to do so, of course; and some communities (particularly those with thriving export economies) are still staying above water. Other communities, however, are starting to adjust to what may well be the new reality.

One such community is Portland, which recently announced a moratorium on major-street paving. This decision resulted in howls of outrage, as the city is continuing to invest in its expansion of the bicycling network, as well as the Portland Streetcar. Many opponents of this decision have wondered loudly why the city is prioritizing frivolities over basic maintenance of existing infrastructure. It’s a perfectly legitimate question, of course–and one which I expect to get more discussion over the next few months, especially if nobody wins the mayoral election outright on Tuesday, and the city goes to a November runoff.

The city’s answer, of course, is that it is essentially trading in its Mercedes Benz for a Honda Civic–that instead of continuing to maintain the expensive sort of infrastructure (roads which handle auto traffic need replacing frequently; and construction costs have been going steadily upward over the years), it’s working on replacing it with things which are cheaper over the long run, even if doing so requires a big capital outlay up front. (TriMet makes much the same argument to justify light rail construction over simply expanding bus service).

Holding the bag

This argument may be well and good on an abstract level. But there’s one big problem. Many people–people who pay taxes and expect city services–are left holding the bag. If it’s your street that the city declines to pave, or your bus line that TriMet cuts because it doesn’t perform well, you’re not likely to be comforted by the existence of a new bikeway or rail line in some other part of town. Many people have made significant investments in their homes and their communities, and see them threatened by recent developments. For many people, public investment in new urbanism represents public disinvestments in where they live. One other geometric fact about density is that unless the local population explodes, density can’t go up everywhere. If the overall population stays more or less constant, and one neighborhood sees its density rise, then simple mathematics dictates that some other community will see its population decline. Property values and tax base will go down; and the quality of services will decline, leading to a vicious cycle of decay.

Just like what happened to America’s cities sixty years ago.

And the other side of the coin isn’t necessarily much better: the smooth functioning of many established neighborhoods can be disrupted by increases in population. A community geared around the automobile, with copious amounts of free on-street parking, may take umbrage when new apartments go in and suddenly finding a parking space requires circling the block, or feeding a parking meter. Many people, especially of the older generation, equate density (particularly apartment living) with crime, poverty, or with lifestyles viewed as unsavory. While many successful (and safe) neighborhoods have high levels of density, getting to these types of urbanism from the starting point of a residential-only single-family neighborhood is not a trivial undertaking; you’ve got to do far more than just throw a few apartments and trendy restaurants into the mix.

Fighting for home

Given all of that, it’s not surprising that a backlash is continuing to brew. The recession hit many people hard, and when government elects not to maintain the status quo, it’s not hard to see how people feel abandoned or even threatened. People are attached to their homes, and will often go to great lengths to defend them.

The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that some of the tools used by new urbanists, notably urban renewal, were the same tools used by Robert Moses and his progeny several generations ago. While most modern instances of urban renewal are simply a matter of financing–redevelopment is more expensive than greenfield development, and thus developers on such projects insist on public assistance; there is significant stigma with declaring a neighborhood “blighted” (and some such declarations are plainly fatuous). And even today one can find abuses of urban renewal and eminent domain, where perfectly viable neighborhoods are demolished against the will of the occupants. (Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn comes to mind). Given the history, it’s not unsurprising that some communities have restricted use of urban renewal, or abolished it altogether (as did Beaverton until recently).

The problem is, is that unless there is a significant restructuring in the both the national and global economic orders, the battle for suburbia is probably a losing one. The economic and political conditions which made the suburban boom of the mid-20th century no longer exist, and it is my belief that long term, suburbia is fundamentally unsustainable. Some of the choices that Portland is making voluntarily may be forced on communities in the future. Detroit is a favorite target of scorn, but perhaps it should serve as the canary in the coal mine: when cities (no matter what form) no longer can afford to provide basic services for their residents, bad things happen. And the policy response of Detroit has been to try and shrink–to abandon portions of the city (no longer providing services) in order to focus on a smaller core that can be served. Which is unfortunate for those stuck living in the parts that are abandoned.

My dire premonitions could be wrong, of course. Manufacturing could make a significant return to the US; new discoveries could resolve the impending energy crisis and counteract global warming; comprehensive healthcare reform could greatly reduce public payrolls, and the Federal Government could find some way of absolve countless municipalities of their crushing pension debts. But my suspicion is that most of these things will not occur, and that significant belt-tightening at the municipal level will need to occur (above and beyond what has been occurring for the past forty years, since the rest of the world recovered from World War II). And that sooner or later, many city, county, and state governments will have some rather unpleasant choices to make–choices that have been postponed until now.

On market urbanism, zoning, and freedom

An article on market urbanism, a movement of libertarian-thinking (or leaning) urbanists whose essential case is that suburban sprawl, and other inefficient land use forms, are in significant part the result of zoning codes, parking minimums, and other legal intrusions into the marketplace.

This post, admittedly, is inspired by a brief conversation over in the February 2011 open thread on the merits of zoning, centered on an Edward Glaeser article criticizing land use laws in many cities restricting the supply of skyscrapers.

The subject today is therefore market urbanism, a movement of libertarian-thinking (or leaning) urbanists whose essential case is that suburban sprawl, and other inefficient land use forms, are in significant part the result of zoning codes, parking minimums, and other legal intrusions into the marketplace. Rather than being a response to the demands of a “free market”, as many defenders of suburbia (including many other self-described libertarians) like to assert, market urbanists claim instead that suburbia is in fact codified and mandated, and propose that by merely rescinding or loosening this legal regimen, that more sustainable development patterns will result.
There are many notable writers on the subject, among them:

The Zoning Debate

One area of public policy where market urbanists certainly have a point is the subject of zoning. The Nobel Prize-winning economist, New York Times columinst, and self-described liberal Paul Krugman wrote several columns (in 2005 and 2007 respectively) in which he partitioned the US into what he termed “flatland” and the “zoned zone”, roughly corresponding to the interior of the country and the coastal regions. Krugman then noted that the housing bubble (which was starting to burst by 2007) was more pronounced in the “zoned zone”, a phenomenon that he attributed to more stringent land use regulations that restricted the supply of housing, driving up prices and creating the conditions necessary for an asset bubble. Many conservative/libertarian writers, including Randall O’Toole, have extrapolated Krugman’s columns to a broader claim that land-use laws were the primary cause of the housing bubble (and some go so far as to blame the subsequent near-collapse of the financial markets on land use regulations). The columns have been criticized in some quarters; a common question is how Krugman’s model accounts for cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas (Krugman responds here). My biggest beefs with the column itself is that it fails to control for other aspects, such as the state of the economy generally and the levels of organic demand needed for a bubble to start–the reason there was no housing bubble in Detroit or St. Louis or Buffalo has little to do with a land-use laws or a lack thereof.

However, I have one other (minor) criticism of Krugman’s work here: Zoning, strictly defined, is not the problem. (Krugman’s a sharp enough fellow that I suspect he knows this and was merely using “zoning” as a metaphor; though I’m less certain about many of his readers and critics). All major US cities not named “Houston” have zoning, and Houston has other regulatory regimes (and aggressive enforcement of covenants) which have largely the same effect. More to the point, many of the cities where bubbles didn’t occur have widespread zoning laws which essentially mandate the creation of low-density suburbia, prohibiting more compact urban forms which allow the placement more dwelling units within a given area of land. The vast majority of zoning regulations specify maximum densities, not minimums, and thus act to restrict the supply of housing within a given area. The biggest difference between places like Atlanta and Portland isn’t what’s permitted within the urban footprint, but the rate at which that footprint is able to grow. And while Oregon’s land use laws constrain the power of zoning boards to change zoning (upzoning lands outside of an urban growth boundary is seldom permitted), the nexus of the constraint lies elsewhere. (In some cities, geography or nature rather than law limits the growth of sprawl). Within the “zoned zone”, there was lots of construction going on in response to the ridiculous levels of demand that occurred during the bubble (and this is a necessary condition for a bubble to occur–massive overproduction in response to the rising prices). The difference between Portland and Atlanta in this regard is that here, homes here weren’t being built on quarter acre lots. Places, like San Francisco or Manhattan, which have truly constrained supplies of housing, haven’t seen crashes in the housing market. (Real estate in both locales was expensive before the crash, and remains so now).

The freedom to not live near renters

Yet in many quarters, the notion that zoning (and land-use regulation in general) is somehow a pernicious tool of urbanistas looking to force everyone into “Soviet-style” housing (the Soviet Union has been dead and gone for nearly 20 years, yet still is routinely invoked as a strawman), remains a common belief; as is the belief that suburbia is the “natural” state of affairs in a free country, and other urban forms result from market distortions and unwarranted political interference.

In 2007, the GOP-controlled Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring counties to designate so-called “urban development areas”, areas within the county boundaries which would be upzoned to a higher density than commonplace. The law doesn’t require any higher density development (or redevelopment) to actually occur; no restrictions are imposed upon property owners. (In fact, the affected owners have restrictions eased somewhat, as the number of dwellings which are permitted increases). However, a conservative political group, the Roanoke Tea Party, is sponsoring a new bill (HB1271) in the General Assembly to essentially make the provisions of the bill optional–and many other conservative organizations, affiliated with the broader tea party movement, are lending support. Their arguments, unsurprisingly, are couched in terms of liberty. Quoting from their website:

Speaker Howell [William J. Howell, a Republican] is siding with big corporate developers and eco-extremists to rob you of the right to own and control the use of your private property. He is blocking a critical piece of legislation that is vital to preserving the property rights of every Virginian. If he has his way, you’ll be forced to forfeit your land in the suburbs for the development of high-density ‘urban development areas’ also called ‘smart growth’. This is a gross violation of property rights. The inalienable right to own and control the use of private property is perhaps the single most important principle responsible for the growth and prosperity of Virginia.

Virginia Campaign for Liberty is leading the charge against one of the most egregious schemes the political establishment pushes to control our lives and bankrupt our communities. I am talking about the land use provisions imposed on us in 2007 that Speaker Howell was instrumental in getting passed into law. These provisions are now being used by special interest groups to tag team Virginians with abusive regulations to strip you of your livelihood and property. You see the corporate developers stand to gain high profits from the construction of up to twelve homes on a single acre of land. They also get huge tax breaks for their green building practices in the “new urbanism design”.

Eco-extremists are heavily funded for their lobby effort to grab and preserve up to 90% of all the land that would be off limits to humans and move you into government controlled high-density feudalistic transit villages. They use global warming and environmental disaster to scare the citizens and politicians into abolishing private property ownership. If they have their way, single family homes will be a thing of the past. We’d become mere lease holders of the homes we live in.

The land use provisions passed in 2007 mandating “urban development areas” enables corporate developers and eco-fanatics to capitalize on your loss of property ownership. You and I have an opportunity to stop this violation of our property rights if we can get HB1721 to the floor for a vote and ultimately passed into law. HB1721 would simply make “urban development areas” optional rather than mandatory.

If passed, the decision whether or not urban development areas are appropriate for the community would be kept local where it belongs. It is essential that vital planning decisions for communities stays local, and not in the Capitol, where they can easily be manipulated by nefarious special interests.

Please join me in the fight to pass this crucial legislation! Contact Speaker Howell today and tell him to stop blocking a vote for HB1721. You can contact him by phone at [redacted] or email [redacted].

The right to own private property is as sacred as life and liberty. You either have the right to own property or you become property.

It goes without saying, of course, that the despised law in question does not have any of the effects alleged by the Roanoke Tea Party. It doesn’t impose any regulations, or require homeowners or developers to do so much as lift a finger. It has nothing to do with the spectre of “Eco-extremists” trying to “grab and preserve up to 90% of all the land that would be off limits to humans and move you into government controlled high-density feudalistic transit villages.” It only requires that zoning restrictions be loosened in a few areas–yet this is painted as a grievous assault on civil liberties. The Roanoke Tea Party seems terrified of the “urbanist” bogeyman, a straw-man commonly conjured up in such diatribes that paints environmentalists and their allies as an unstoppable (even in a conservative state like Virginia) juggernaut which will destroy civilization as we know it the moment that a downtown highrise condo is built.

But the only freedom being threatened is, as Conor Friedersdorf so brilliantly noted, the “freedom to not live near renters”. As noted in a prior article here, many land use regulations aren’t implemented in order to increase density, but instead to limit it in order to keep out the riffraff by pricing them out of the market–in particular, to prevent the construction of apartments, which might cause poor people to move to the neighborhood. (And there is evidence that anti-density zoning contributes to other social problems as well).

There has been much debate over the proposed Virginia legislation in market-urbanist and libertarian circles. David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington criticizes the Roanoke Tea Party for a blatantly “statist” piece of legislation (for those unfamiliar with libertarian dogma, “statist” is a not a nice thing to say). On the other hand, Marc Scribner from the Competitive Enterprise Institute expresses some concern with the 2007 law, claiming that it doesn’t go far enough in undoing zoning and other land-use laws, and that it doesn’t protect affected landowners from “eminent domain abuse”–he’s concerned that upzoning might be followed by condemnation were affected landowners to decline to (re)develop their properties voluntarily. (The law is silent on the subject, and AFAIK no such condemnations have occurred).

However, no non-tea-party affiliated libertarian groups have come out behind the bill, to my knowledge. One interesting thing about the above-cited rant is its frequent anti-corporate language–according to the theory, big business is in league with the political left to screw hardworking Virginians out of their birthright. (Which ought to be news to both big business and the left, who seldom cooperate on anything.) And the non-libertarian right is fond of inverting concepts of freedom and liberty in other contexts as well–the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other anti-Jim Crow legislation were opposed on grounds such as “states rights” and “freedom of association”, and many religious conservatives oppose recent expansions of gay rights as an affront to their religious liberty–essentially asserting that in the name of religious tolerance, those so inclined should have the right to practice discrimination in the public sphere, as allegedly required by their faith.

The other side

The market-urbanist position, however, does not enjoy uniform support from the US libertarian movement. Many writers claim that low-density suburbia is a widely-preferred development form in the US, and arises primarily due to consumer choice, and that land-use policies in many cities (as well as other policies, such as the mortgage interest deduction) simply codify what the bulk of consumers want. USC professor Peter Gordon writes, in an interview with Reason Magazine:

Compact cities are archaic forms, and they are not coming back. When you study the economics of location, all the textbook models say a firm wants to locate near the urban core or other advantageous sites, and workers must make their living arrangements so that they are close to their jobs. That may be the way it was once upon a time.

But all these firms have become much more footloose. And they go where the workers want to live. The orientation has flip-flopped. Even manufacturing businesses are no longer locked into specific sites, so they have more locational choices. They want to go where the labor force wants to go. The workers and their families want to live where the land is cheap and the air is clean and the schools are good and there are high amenities and so forth. There’s a lot more spatial flexibility than ever before, and the consequences are pretty benign.

Another “sprawl supporter” is ex-Portlander and noted transit/urbanism critic Randall O’Toole, who also writes under the nom de plume of The Anti-Planner, summarizes the argument that sprawl is natural and good for you here, taking a few swipes at market urbanism for good measure. He concludes with:

Sprawl is not the result of central planning and libertarians need not hesitate in their opposition to smart growth. The real hypocrites are the so-called progressives like Yglesias who claim to care about low-income and disadvantaged people yet support policies that will prevent most such people from ever owning single-family homes.

O’Toole does embrace the reduction of zoning laws, while calling for increased use of deed restrictions and covenants (as is done in Houston) to promote the same effect of ensuring neighborhood “stability”.


My first observation is to note that as far as the intra-libertarian arguments go, I don’t really have a dog in that fight. I’m not a Libertarian, and don’t start from the political axiom that government and law is bad until proven otherwise. So whether Glaeser and Ryan are more in line with libertarian dogma, or Gordon and Randall, I don’t much care. However, in terms of describing reality, I think the market urbanists are closer to correct.

While there certainly is a market for detached single-family homes on large lots (many people with sufficient income to live wherever they want choose suburbia), there’s a market for high-density urbanism as well, especially when co-located with high-quality urban amenities. However, there are a lot of forces at work–and not just legal codes–which tend to encourage suburban development. Cheap(er) construction costs in areas where land is not scarce. Much more stringent building codes for multifamily housing. Lending and finance policies, and numerous government subsidies, which encourage home ownership. Historical (albeit now illegal) practices such as redlining. And the longstanding phenomenon of capital flight–migration of people with money out of political entities containing poverty, into separate entities where it is excluded. And yes, many residents of lower-density housing prefer to avoid any higher-density housing nearby, particularly if it consists of rental units.

Furthermore, many of the other benefits assigned to suburbia don’t really have anything to do with density itself, but with other factors. “Good schools” essentially means “few poor people in the district”; likewise with observations about amenities. “Clean air” was truer back in the days when point-source industrial polluters were routinely located in downtowns, but is far less true today; transport-related pollution is easily worse in suburban areas than downtown. (Air pollution from cars downtown is frequently a problem, but one frequently caused by suburban commuters).

The interesting question, though, is one posed by the Roanoke Tea Party’s panicky broadside, and by O’Toole’s missive, and one which ought to give pause to those who claim to value liberty: To what extent should one property owner be able to restrain his neighbor? Some uses are fundamentally incompatible, of course; but many of the arguments about “stability” or “neighborhood character” strike me as questionable–to what extent should a homeowner have to expect that his neighborhood not change, and how far should those rights extend? Deed restrictions, arrangements which are typically imposed on a neighborhood by its initial developer, rather than negotiated and agreed to by neighbors acting at arms length, are very difficult to get rid of, and frequently used for far more nefarious purposes than simply keeping out renters. On the other hand, issues of safety and fundamental incompatibility are easily dealt with via general nuisance laws and building codes.

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.

UPDATED: LCDC rejects Forest Grove, Council Creek plots, accepts remainder of urban reserves

While it isn’t official, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Condition is set to issue a ruling accepting all of Metro’s recent designations of urban and rural reserves, without amendment, according to Metro councilor Robert Liberty.


Councilor Liberty’s report of the Oregon LCDC affirming all Metro urban/rural reserves designations was in error. Today, the LCDC issued their recommendations, and many environmentalists are happy–whereas the mayors of Cornelius and Forest Grove, both of which were looking to add industrial tracts within their respective city limits, are not. The Council Creek parcel–a 624-acre plot north of Cornelius was rejected outright, and a plot north of Forest Grove was remanded for further consideration. The list of rural reserves was also remanded for further investigation, with metro permitted to add these plots to rural reserves if it deems appropriate, and find other parcels (including those currently designated as rural, but less suitable for agriculture) to add to urban reserves instead.

The remainder of the Metro’s recommendations, including all designations in Multnomah and Clackamas Counties, were accepted.

Due to the delays involved in the partial remand of the designations, Metro stated that it was unlikely any UGB expansions would occur until next year.

(The remainder of the post below the line is the original content, which is preserved–but is now largely superseded.)

While it isn’t official, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Condition is set to issue a ruling accepting all of Metro’s recent designations of urban and rural reserves, without amendment, according to Metro councilor Robert Liberty. The decision, which was set to be announced last Friday and delayed, is expected this Friday (the 29th). Quite a few objections and amendments were raised to the LCDC, which rejected the lot of them. The LCDC only has authority to rule on legal objections, not technical objections.

While the LCDC is expected to approve the designations, it did have a few sharp words for the process–suggesting that Senate Bill 1011, the 2007 legislation which created the urban/rural reserves designations, results in a more politicized process than the prior method. This claim drew a rebuke from Mr. Liberty, who articulated the opposite opinion–that the UR/RR process involves more technical analysis, and less horsetrading, then before.

One example of that, of course, is the Stafford Basin. The basin, an area which is surrounded by urbanization on three sides, bisected by I-205, and is too hilly to be useful for agriculture, had nonetheless resisted any urban designations for years–unsurprising given that its full of wealthy homeowners living on large lots. The three cities bordering the basin–West Linn, Lake Oswego, and Tualatin, all oppose its inclusion, and were busy trying to convince the LCDC to overrule Metro on its inclusion.

Other parties bound to be disappointed by the upcoming ruling include 1000 Friends of Oregon, who were hoping that LDCD would overturn the inclusion of Washington County farmland in the Cornelius area into the urban reserves. It would be interesting to see how Bob Stacey, should he win next Tuesday, goes about implementing a decision he disagrees with.