Archive | Land Use

“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.

UPDATED: Land use/transportation issues on the ballot, other land use odds and ends

Unofficial election returns on the items discussed in this post:

  • C-TRAN operating level appears to be PASSING, 54%-46%.
  • Clackamas County urban renewal: Both measures 3-386 and 3-388 PASS; 3-386 (which requires a countywide vote, rather than a vote within a proposed or existing UR district) passes with a wider margin (70% for 3-386, 64% for 3-388) so it prevails.
  • Beaverton UR district PASSES, 54-46%.
  • Washington State initiative 1125 (concerning highway tolls) appears to be FAILING, 51%-49%; though KIRO-TV reports that it is too close to call.

To repeat, these results may be preliminary.
Previous content after jump.
The general election is coming up soon (on November 8) and there are a few land-use related things on the ballot in various communities in the Portland metro area, as well as other government business to report.

In Beaverton
The city of Beaverton has an Urban Renewal program on the ballot, for revamping downtown Beaverton. The proposal, if passed, would authorize the city of Beaverton to issue up to $150 over 30 years, for various projects in the downtown area, much of which is notoriously hostile to pedestrians and bikes. TV Highway/Canyon Road, and to a lesser extent Farmington Road, both impose barriers to human-powered mobility; strip development and car lots abound, and there are insufficient safe pedestrian crossings of the various railroad tracks in the area (both the MAX line, and especially the P&W freight line). This despite good transit access in the area–MAX, WES, and numerous bus lines (including the frequent-service 57) converge upon the area.

Beaverton has not used urban renewal since 1972; for nearly four decades the practice was banned within the city, until a 2008 charter amendment lifted the ban. However, creation or expansion of new UR districts requires a public vote at a May or November general election.

Clackamas County

Beaverton’s UR laws are a nice segue into what is going on in Clackamas County, where there are two competing urban renewal proposals on the ballot. One (Measure 3-388), backed by the county board of commissioners, would require a majority vote of residents within an urban renewal district, in order to create or expand one; the other (3-386), backed by citizen initiative, would instead require a county-wide vote. The two initiatives are competing–should both pass, only the one with a higher vote total would take affect. Neither measure would affect UR districts located within cities, which are the responsibility of City and not county governments to manage.

Beaverton’s policy is essentially similar to 3-386, but on a city-wide scale. Portland Transport previously covered the citizen initiative last year.

In related news, the board of commissioners also pledged, via non-binding resolution, that proceeds from urban renewal would NOT be used to fund the county’s contribution to Milwaukie MAX–it’s long been suspected by critics of the project that a proposed UR district in the Oak Grove area was really about funding Milwaukie MAX, not about other improvements within the district. (A proposal to incorporate Oak Grove has been put on hiatus due to lack of popular support).

North Bethany

Not election news, but the Washington County commission voted 4-0 to upzone the North Bethany area, roughly bounded between NW 185th, NW Springville, and NW 147th streets. PCC Rock-Creek lies within the westernmost part of the area. Despite the vote, planning for the area is still in flux, with much contention as to how dense it ought to be. 185th Avenue serves as a mobility corridor which connects the area to US26 and to MAX, but the rest of the street network through the remainder of the Bethany area is already clogged by the existing sprawl–in particular, Bethany Boulevard, which is the predominant N/S route through Bethany. (One other useful road connection for the area is Germantown Road, albeit one which is presently unsuitable for most modes of transportation other than cars).

Washington and Clark County

On the Washington statewide ballot one finds several things:

  • Initiative 1125, which would “prohibit the use of motor vehicle fund revenue and vehicle toll revenue for non-transportation purposes, and require that road and bridge tolls be set by the legislature and be project-specific”. The bill, sponsored by Tim Eyman, would additionally ban variable tolling, and limit tolls to capital construction costs. If passed, this might have interesting effects on the CRC.
  • Within the C-TRAN service area, there is a proposal on the ballot to increase the sales tax (which funds C-TRAN) by 0.2%, to preserve existing operations. Without a yes vote, C-TRAN claims that they will be forced to ” cut 35% of bus and C-VAN (Paratransit) service. These cuts are real: loss of fourteen routes; elimination of all Sunday, holiday, and special event service such as 4th of July and Clark Co Fair; and elimination of the Camas Connector. Remaining routes’ hours and frequency will be reduced, leaving commuters, senior citizens, the disabled, and students without a way to get to work, church, doctor, school, and shopping. All revenue from Prop 1 will fund bus service only, not light rail.” C-TRAN opponents note that the agency has $50 million in unrestricted funds on the balance sheet, which they argue could be consumed to preserve service levels during the recession, and claim that the promise to not fund MAX expansion with the proceeds from the ballot measure is an empty one.

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”.

Thoughts

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 hard part of higher density

Efficient transit and denser land use go hand in hand; but increasing the density of an established urban area is often difficult and painful. An examination why.

Portland is often feted as a successful example of a quality transit system. And for a mid-sized North American city, such praise is well deserved–even if that qualifier is tantamount to grading on the curve. But many transit advocates from the “real” transit cities are fond of pointing out that our little burg is nothing compared to the large cities of the world–or, perhaps more importantly, to midsize of cities of similar size in Europe. (Or even in Canada–the city of Calgary, which has only slightly more than half the population of metro Portland boasts a light rail system with over twice the ridership. And greater Vancouver BC, slightly larger than the Portland/Couv metropolitan area, blows Portland away in transit metrics).

And such criticisms are, in many ways, entirely correct. Outside the “core” (which I define here as the West Hills to I-205, and Columbia Boulevard to Johnson Creek), and a few dedicated corridors in the suburbs (such as the Baseline/185th/Cornell corridor in Washington County), the metro area consists mainly of auto-centric suburban sprawl–not the sort of land use which is conducive to quality transit. By numerous metrics (such as cost/passenger and passengers/route-km), Portland’s transit is less effective than many of its international peers. The major contributing factor to this is land use, in particular, a lack of density–any efficiency parameter that has distance in the denominator is going to suffer if a longer route is needed to serve a critical mass of customers–as lower density means a lower number of passengers in a given route or stop’s catchment area.

One on hand, it can be argued that comparing Portland to, say, New York (or even a small European city such as Strasbourg, France) is unfair and pointless. Transit is not fungible; we can’t solve mobility problems in Portland by building transit in Manhattan–we need to serve the city in which we live. But if you want transit (and other forms of urban infrastructure such as utilities) which are really cost-effective, the density question is one of fundamental importance. And while we can’t serve the Portland area by building transit elsewhere, we can serve it better by encouraging higher density and more efficient forms of land use.

Why bother?
A common criticism of Portland’s transit plans is that we don’t currently have the necessary density to support a Really Good System, especially in corridors not already established–so why bother? An oft-proposed alternative is to focus on roads for the masses–build more (and wider) freeways instead for the bulk of suburban commuters to use, and keep just enough bus service so those who can’t drive can still get around; and to concentrate transit where it already makes sense, and generally, already exists in a reasonable form. To limit infrastructure enhancements to support transit to the core city, and provide ample park-and-rides to make crossing between “autopia” and “transitworld” less painful.

The issues with this approach (and the motivating factors of this blog) are as follows.

  • When engaging in planning, especially of long-term infrastructure, it’s wise to plan for what conditions are expected to be over time, not just what they are today. Building out MAX throughout the region might not be a wise investment were the energy, pollution, and storage problems associated with automobiles to suddenly go away, but if one predicts a world with increasingly expensive gasoline and increased concerns about pollution, then it makes perfect sense.
  • The problem with a Portland-centric approach is that TriMet is a regionally-funded and chartered agency; for TriMet to only focus on Portland is not politically viable.
  • “Social service” transit is extremely inefficient, especially if it tries to be comprehensive–and services mainly used by the poor are increasingly viewed as a form of welfare–which can result a loss of political support and funding for the service, resulting in it becoming even more a service-of-last-resort, resulting in a greater stigma and even more withdrawal of public support, ad infinitum.

However, if we assume that Peak Oil is coming or already here, and given that we’re increasingly turning to more expensive forms of oil production such as shale oil extraction and deepwater drilling, it’s a good bet to make–then driving is going to get more expensive. Higher fuel costs will make comprehensive transit will become more and more of a necessity. (The tipping point currently seems to be somewhere between $3 and $4 a gallon; last I looked regular gas was $3.199 per gallon at a random gas station in Beaverton). Increasing service to suburbia will need to be part of equation. And to make the needed transit cost-effective, it helps to increase density. As venture capitalist Peter Christensen wrote:

Basically, any city that’s building a light rail or subway line and not dramatically increasing the zoning around it is throwing money away. Without the proper land use, there’s not enough population to drive demand, without demand there’s not enough incentive to provide good levels of service, and without good levels of service people will find it faster to drive.

In addition to increasing transit service (and connections for human-powered mobility as well), it also helps to obviate the need for longer trips in order to reduce total person-miles traveled. One way to do this is to encourage more mixed-use development. Many suburban neighborhoods are residential-only; buying a gallon of milk requires getting in the car (though biking will work for the sufficiently motivated). In theory, usage patterns and density are orthogonal; in practice, though, higher density areas tend to segregate different uses less.

But increasing density, and changing established usage patterns, are hard–especially in a democratic society, where the government cannot simply order this outcome by fiat. (The fact that we live in a democratic society is something I regard as an unqualified good thing, BTW…) One of the main reasons that it’s hard is because often times, the people who live in established lower density areas simply happen to like it that way. Not all do–many people who aren’t wealthy live where they can afford to, not where they would necessarily like to, and it’s been often argued that established land-use regulations have produced a surplus of sprawl. But many suburban dwellers dislike what they perceive as negative externalities (some of which stand up to scrutiny and some of which don’t) of high-density living, and thus choose to live where they can avoid these costs (not all of which are financial).

A few other points ought to be made up front:

  • Experience teaches that high density requires that at least one of the things be true: Geographic limitations, strong land use controls, or high land prices. If land on the perimeter of a region is both cheap and available, then it’s more rational (from a short-term economic perspective) to consume it for development, rather than conserve it.
  • Any attempt at growing density is almost assuredly fruitless without a growing population. The reason for this is that while populations grow and shrink over time, as people move in, move out, are born, and die; the urban footprint of an area generally only trends in one direction–it continues to grow. Large-scale abandonment of urban areas generally only occurs due to catastrophic events. As a result, if we assume that the denominator of the density fraction never shrinks, it follows that the numerator must increase for the ratio to rise.
  • A region that has a shrinking population (current examples in the US include Buffalo and Detroit) has far more serious problems to consider; for much of the same reason.

Portland’s population trend remains upwards, however, even if there is evidence that the growth rate is slowing down. With that in mind, here are the different ways to accommodate the housing needs of a rising population without paving over farmland and expanding the urban footprint.

The really easy way: reducing vacancy
Much of this post discusses ways of increasing the supply of housing stock within a region, without expanding its perimeter. But before we go there, it’s worth stating the obvious: Building more housing is generally not a wise idea from a density-improving point of view, if there is a significant amount of existing vacant housing. Lots of vacancies may indicate a downward population trend, which is frequently a Bad Thing. It may also indicate one of several other things which are easier to deal with.

  • Housing mismatched to the demographics of a region–such as lots of larger homes in an area dominated with retired couples; or a surplus of houses for sale when the market is demanding rentals.
  • An oversupply due to a recent housing bubble. Characteristics of this include sellers frequently demanding more than buyers are willing to pay (often to a desire to minimize losses or to avoid going underwater on a mortgage), lots of inventory which is bank-owned or short sale, and tight credit. This all should sound familiar to any of you who’ve checked out the real estate market in Portland, recently.
  • The housing stock is excessively dilapidated or otherwise viewed as unsuitable
  • The housing stock is concentrated in areas considered undesirable or blighted. (If the entire area is considered undesirable, this is a serious problem; the existence of blighted areas within a larger community, far less so.

One other important thing to remember here is that the homebuilding industry (by which I mean developers as well as other construction and real estate interests) frequently is a major player in land-use planning. While their technical expertise is frequently useful, this is a group that makes money when homes are built, not when existing housing stock is re-occupied. Despite the large amount of unsold inventory (not all of which is necessarily vacant, but much of it is), homebuilders still want to build more, and are agitating for increasing the supply of available land. It is in the economic interests of this industry to encourage urban sprawl, not to prevent it. Something to remember.

The large number of vacancies in Portland at the present time seems to be tied to the bursting of the housing bubble. Prior to the bubble bursting, Portland was definitely a sellers’ market; and in such conditions, adding new housing stock made more sense. With that in mind, we now turn to ways to increase the supply of housing stock while maintaining the perimeter; focusing on particular on ways to do so that optimized land use for transit.

The easy way: transit oriented development.
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The Pearl District viewed from the US Bancorp Tower. Image courtesy Wikipedia

One of the easiest ways to increase density–and the one which produces much lower levels of resistance from existing residents (because there aren’t any), is to build new high-density (and mixed use) developments on greenfields or brownfields. Such things are commonly called “transit oriented development”, especially when done in cooperation with a transit agency or project, or which boast efficient transit access as a feature. Such developments avoid the NIMBY problem almost completely, as the land is generally unoccupied beforehand. (Here, I’m assuming that large tracts are developed, not the occasional vacant lot; for the latter, see the next section).

The problems with TOD and other forms of greenfield/brownfield development are as follows:

  • When done in cooperation with a transit agency (and especially if developer-financed funding schemes are employed), such developments raise issues of excessive entanglement between the transit agency and the developer(s); and in some cases lead to charges of corruption or of “developer-oriented transit” (Portland Streetcar actually uses the term “development-oriented transit” in one of their online brochures).
  • When new development is done in conjunction with new infrastructure, it raises the question as to whether the agency is neglecting existing riders and communities in favor of new neighborhoods, especially if the development isn’t on the way to somewhere else where large numbers of people already work or live.
  • New developments require the availability of greenfields or brownfields to develop on. Greenfield development on the periphery of a region is generally available, but using such land increases the overall urban footprint–which is what we call “sprawl”. Greenfields in the interior of a region are often hard to find. Brownfields are often more readily available, but brownfield development is expensive, as the prior use has to be cleaned up and removed. Conversion of land from industrial or commercial use to residential use also raises economic questions–a city needs someindustry to survive, after all.
  • Some transit projects, particularly those intended as “trunk” routes or located adjacent to freeways, aren’t as conducive to TOD. This is a common criticism of both the Green Line along I-205, and MLR along OR 99E–the highway (and the UPRR tracks in the case of Milwaukie MAX) make redevelopment along the line more difficult, and/or potential developments less attractive.
  • Some transit projects which don’t suffer from being adjacent to highways, still haven’t seen as much redevelopment as might be ideal. There have been pockets of redevelopment along the Blue Line in Rockwood and Beaverton, but many tracts remain unchanged, and there are a few noted failures such as The Round.

The hard way: infill and upzoning
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Infill development in the UK. Image copyright Nigel Chadwick, courtesy Wikipedia

Many critics of opening up new tracts of land for residential development, whether green/brownfields internal to a region, or new tracts of land on the perimeter, point out the obvious: There’s room to grow within the existing urban footprint. Most neighborhoods have vacant lots (parcels zoned for residential use, but without any building), oversized lots which could be subdivided, and other properties which could be used to add housing units. In addition, there’s always the potential for redevlopment–removing existing housing stock to replace it with new, higher-density housing stock. Here’s where things really start getting controversial.

Many people like living in large lots. My personal opinion is that if you have one, more power to you–I don’t support coercive land-use policies of the sort that force people to subdivide, or the condemnation of housing stock to build other housing stock. (More on this topic below). On the other hand, many people who like living in large lots (and thus who do so) also like to insist that their neighbors should live in large lots as well–and therein lies the rub. There are several different ways that such preferences get enforced; the two most common in the US being covenants and zoning. While some places (famously Texas) lack zoning laws and land-use policy is done entirely through covenants, zoning is the most common way communities determine land-use policies.

Zoning has many purposes, for better or worse. Among the purposes of various zoning designations–explicitly stated or otherwise–include segregation of incompatible uses (nobody wants a hog farm or oil refinery next door); preservation of neighborhood “character”, preventing the overuse of infrastructure such as roads or sewerage, exclusion of poverty, and safety. Among the more controversial types of zoning, especially in the land-use field, are those which impose density maximums not justified by safety or infrastructure concerns. Many people view upzoning (increasing the maximum permitted density in an area) as an infringement on their rights, particularly if doing so adversely affects property values or requires new infrastructure be constructed (such as sewer conversions). A good way of mitigating some of these concerns is ensuring that developers who increase the need for infrastructure in a community bear the brunt of the costs (the same applies to new development); rather than externalizing the cost.

Opposition to upzoning can be particularly fierce when multifamily housing, particularly rental apartments, become part of the mix. (Similar issues apply to developments such as trailer parks). Many homeowners associate such housing with poverty, and the numerous social pathologies that poverty can bring, and are terrified by the prospect of a “project” moving in next door. (Country/western signer Tom T. Hall once penned a song about the perceived evils of upzoning, famously complaining that “they put in a trailer park before I could move”). Of course, adding in apartments is as an easy way to increase density of an existing community, and inexpensive to boot.

Infill has one other difficulty: Developers don’t like it as much. While homebuilders are generally happy for any opportunity to make money, the biggest moneymaking opportunities are found in subdivision development: when an entire parcel is subdivided, built up, and marketed as part of a development project. This gives the developer economies of scale that simply aren’t present with one-off construction, and in new developments, the developer frequently gets to set the rules, rather than having to abide by existing covenants and regulations. Infill which involves tearing down existing structures (particularly ones which still have value) is even more expensive–buying a perfectly good building only to bulldoze it costs money–all else being equal, developers would rather buy vacant lots.

The poverty issue is a tough one. The social pathologies associated with it (crime, addition, dysfunctional family arrangements) are real, and can impose negative externalities on the surrounding community. However, the negative externalities of poverty are exacerbated when the poor are herded into ghettos or slums, rather than distributed throughout the larger population–this is one reason that subsidized housing sprinkled through “nice” neighborhoods is actually an effective measure, as the problems don’t compound anywhere near as much when the poor aren’t concentrated. On the other hand, many view the segregation and concentration of the poor into slums to be a good thing–as it keeps the pathologies and negative externalities away from their own homes and families; this attitude seems to be frequently common among those who view the poor as the architects of their own misery, and thus not a problem which society at large has a moral obligation to deal with. Physical isolation of the poor also permits political arrangements by which impoverished neighborhoods aren’t subsidized by weathier neighboring communities–a longstanding cause of capital flight to the suburbs in this country is the ability of separate municipalities to keep their tax dollars to themselves. Portland is fortunate, to be sure, that it doesn’t have any truly awful slums–there is nothing in our city that remotely compares to places like Camden or East St. Louis.

The really hard way: forced redevelopment and condemnation
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Downtown Portland, middle 20th century. Harbor Drive occupies west bank of the Willamette River, I-5 and I-84 are under construction on east bank in background, and many blocks of South Portland have been cleared for redevelopment. Click on picture for larger image. (Photo courtesy of Portland Development Commission)

And now we get to the really controversial part–forced redevelopment. This refers to various schemes where the the occupant of a property (or a larger tract) is forced out, the properties are redeveloped, and then made available for re-occupation in a new form. Occupants can include both owners (who are forced out by eminent domain) and renters (who are evicted from a property, either as a result of a condemnation or a voluntary decision to sell by the landlord). Renters frequently suffering particularly adverse effects–their only reward is frequently higher rents, if they come back at all; unlike owners, they don’t enjoy any of the windfalls of redevelopment such as increased property values or condemnation awards.

Often times, though not always, forced redevelopment schemes are done under the aegis of urban renewal. Many African-American (in particular) communities around the country suffered the bulldozer as part of grand schemes to clean up “blighted” areas–in some cases, the targeting of black neighborhoods was intentional. The history of urban renewal in Portland is littered with examples of abuse and error–schemes which seemed like good ideas to the powerbrokers that planned them, but today are regarded with regret. Much of Portland’s Albina neighborhood was destroyed to make room for the Memorial Coliseum, Emanuel Hospital, and the Minnesota Street Freeway (now Interstate 5); likewise the South Portland neighborhood was ripped apart to make way for highways and the high-rise developments to the east of Portland State University. Lest anyone think that this is a phenomenon of the past, consider the current brouhaha around the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a development which included a controversial Supreme Court case, where the Court refused to consider a lower court’s ruling upholding the power of the government to exercise eminent domain on behalf of a private developer.

But government powers like eminent domain and urban renewal are not necessary for disruptive redevelopment. Many powerbrokers in Beaverton are promoting the planned Murray Village development, a mixed-use development set to break ground next spring near the corner of Murray and Jenkins, across the street from both Nike and Tektronix/Maxim. This project has been lauded as an example of redevelopment that does not depend on urban renewal, and has even been praised by the proponents of the anti-urban-renewal petition drive in Clackamas County. What many who promote this project gloss over is that several years ago, there was an active community on the grounds (a trailer park), whose residents were kicked out several years ago when the landlord decided upscale real estate was a better market to be in. (And I’m quite certain that both the city and county were more than happy to see the trailer park closed down and the poor residents therein dispersed). As a result, the northeast corner of Murray and Jenkins has been vacant for over three years now.

A major difficulty for large redevelopment projects is that they frequently require large tracts of land; which often must be aggregated from separate lots owned by separate individuals–many of whom may not be interested in the project. Thus getting anything done often requires some sort of coercive method (eminent domain, or mass evictions); with the result that the beneficiaries (and residents) of the new development are seldom the old residents. (And even when people aren’t kicked out, redevelopment often leads to gentrification–residents can no longer afford rents and taxes, and are force to move anyway). Such wholesale disruptions of neighborhoods, for whatever reason, frequently damage communities far beyond the properties directly affected.

Regardless of the merits of an urban renewal project, and regardless of the demands and goals of regional planning bodies such as Metro, there is a dirty little secret, however: These sorts of redevelopment simply don’t happen without the cooperation of municipal government–either county commissioners for unincorporated areas, or City Hall for cities. Metro can prevent a city from expanding beyond an already established urban growth boundary, but it cannot force a city to upzone. A decade ago, many thought Damascus would be the next community to urbanize in the Portland area, and many current infrastructure plans assume a significant increase in the area’s population. But Damascus incorporated, taking control of land use planning from the county board of commissioners, putting the brakes on such plans. Damascus may still densify, but it will be on terms much more favorable to exisitng residents. Following the example of Damascus, the communities of Oak Grove and Jennings Lodge, also considered for major changes by Clackamas County government, are also considering incorporation.

The unspeakable way: AbandonmentUrban_prairie_Detroit_2.jpg

Abandoned neighborhood in Detroit, MI; so-called “urban prairie”. Image copyright JT Michcock, courtesy Wikipedia

Earlier, it was noted that the urban footprint of a city grows monotonically, barring catastrophe. “Catastrophe” can take many forms, including natural disasters which destroy cities or neighborhoods; but it can also take the form of economic disasters. The West is littered with numerous examples of “ghost towns”–settlements which were abandoned when they lost their economic vitality; on which stand the ruins of what used to be a thriving community. In many cities and towns, one can find plenty of examples of neighborhoods which are full of boarded-up buildings, neglect, and disrepair–in some cases, inhabited by the poor and desperate, in other cases not inhabited at all.

And then there’s Detroit. The Motor City, a place which once was one of America’s economic and cultural crown jewels, has been buffeted by widespread political corruption (a former mayor was sent to jail last year), devastation of the US automobile industry, decades of “white flight” to the suburbs, and the foolish decision to draft Joey Harrington (seeing if anyone’s still paying attention–both Bob and I went to Oregon State :). As a result of this, Detroit’s population has been shrinking, and those that are left are increasingly those who cannot afford to get out. At a time when demand for urban services (the cost of which are highly dependent on land area) is steady, and pension costs are escalating, the city’s tax base has been plummeting.

As a result, the city is considering taking the unprecedented step of abandoning some of its neighborhoods: Enticing residents to move out (and relocate closer to the city center), and stopping all urban services to the abandoned neighborhoods. Essentially, the city is trying to shrink in a controlled fashion; to become more smaller and compact–to become more dense–as a smaller urban footprint will be easier for the city to serve on a limited budget.

Unfortunately, the abandoned properties don’t magically revert back to productive agricultural land. At least not overnight. Many such properties will house vagrants and squatters, and a few leftover residents who simply can’t afford to move, and will for a long time. Many of the properties being abandoned are industrial sites; full of the waste products of heavy industry. But some of them are slowly being reclaimed by nature, as buildings are overgrown and unmaintained pavement is undermined and cracked by new plant growth and washed away by the wind and weather. The phenomenon known as “urban prairie” has arisen in other blighted areas where people gave up and left, and now it’s happening on a large scale in the Motor City.

There’s no evidence at this point, of course, that any such fate awaits Portland. The metro area has experienced economic stagnation, but the main industries here in the area are not in the same sorry shape as the domestic auto industry. (Indeed, the state of Oregon has managed to withstand an economic catastrophe similar in scope to that which bedevils Detroit; namely the demise of the timber industry in the 1980s). Our politics aren’t anywhere near as corrupt, and the urban growth boundary, in addition to other beneficial effects, limits the ability of capital to flee the city for the suburbs, leaving behind the poor to fend for themselves.

Some final thoughts
This article is a lot longer than I initially planned it to be; those who are still reading this far should give themselves a pat on the back. :) But transit and land use planning go hand-in-hand, and in many cases, the transit part is the easy part of the equation. If newcomers come to the city, it’s cheaper (in the long run) to find places for them to live within the existing urbanized areas, rather than building new homes on the perimeter. But in the short run, the reverse is often true–and many people jealously guard the existing conditions of where they live; it’s home, after all. Which makes accommodating new arrivals in a way which we won’t regret in a future world where gas costs $8 a gallon, a hard problem to solve.

Preparing for that day, with appropriate infrastructure and land use for a world without cheap gas, is difficult and expensive.

But failing to do so, will be worse.

Costco, Buy Local and the Carbon Footprint of my Light Fixture

The hint of a Costco in Rose Quarter had alternative transportation activists up in arms last week. Perhaps the sentiment was best expressed by this tweet:

Or, as my husband put it this morning, “once you’ve bought a gallon jar of mayonnaise, you don’t walk it home.” [from @jessicaroberts]

I honestly don’t know if this proposal is serious or even viable on a number of fronts, and since it could conceivably result in a zoning question coming before the Planning and Sustainability Commission I serve on, it would not be appropriate for me to render a judgment. But it once again calls the question of big box retail in the central city, and I think that merits some reflection.

I’m going to start by relating a story. A few years ago I replaced a vintage 1970’s light fixture in my upstairs hallway. Being energy conscious I installed a fluorescent light. On the evening of December 30th, it went dark.

So on New Year’s Eve day, I opened it up, removed the rather uniquely shaped bulb and trooped down to the local hardware store, which did not stock that bulb. I’m fortunate that my neighborhood also sports a specialty lighting supplier (Globe Lighting) and I headed down there to find that they had closed 10 minutes earlier for the holiday.

Since the fixture lights the stairway, it was a safety issue to get it working again, so on New Year’s Day I made a purpose-specific auto trip to Home Depot, only to find that they did not stock it either.

On Monday (after having strung a utility light in my hallway) I walked back to Globe Lighting. They did not have the bulb either, but referred me to sunlan Lighting, a wonderful shop on N. Mississippi that appears to have every lightbulb known to man, and a resource I won’t forget! I purchased two bulbs (so I would have one on hand the next time it burned out).

For the record, my trip to Mississippi was a transit trip-chain that included a visit to Kaiser on Interstate for a blood test.

As I was buying the bulbs, the proprietor suggested “keep the packaging in case it’s the ballast, not the bulb.” This was prophetic, and today I took another purpose-specific auto trip to Home Depot to buy another fixture (which will use CFL bulbs that I can purchase at my local grocery store).

So what’s the lesson here? Resolving this took six trips, four of which were accomplished or could have been accomplished by transit, walking or biking. But despite my preference for local shopping there were two auto trips to a big box store. Why? One was the only opportunity on a holiday, the other was for selection (my local hardware store had maybe 3 fixtures, Home Depot had 20+ in the category I was looking at). So my VMT and carbon emissions would clearly have been reduced if there were a Home Depot in the central city. And all the items I was considering purchasing could have been transported via a bike, walking or transit trip.

So is big box appropriate for the central city? At various times I have heard arguments against it ranging from the local businesses it would displace (a principal argument against a Home Depot at the Burnside Bridgehead), to induced auto travel, to opposition to a business because of its labor and other business practices (Walmart).

But on the other side of the argument, a lot of people in our society (including yours truly – we won’t talk about my relationship with Fry’s – the local Radio Shack will never come close) shop at these establishments occasionally or more frequently. How much VMT is being created by trips from inner Portland to Hayden Island, east county or Washington County?

That’s certainly something I’d want modeled if we were considering a serious proposal for a big box site in the central city…