Tag Archives | suburbia

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.