Travel November 1992

How Portland Does It

A city that protects its thriving, civil core
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This may seem to suggest that Portland's accomplishments in downtown development were inevitable. The fact is, twenty years ago the city had an undistinguished downtown. In the 1960s and early 1970s Portland went through difficulties like those of other cities. The privately owned bus systems went bankrupt. The downtown emptied out daily at five. Retailing was in decline; stores were going out of business or considering moving to the suburbs.

One study in the early 1970s claimed that the downtown needed 10,000 more parking spaces to reinforce its economy. Portland's leadership, however, instead focused on making mass transit efficient and the downtown convenient and pleasurable for people on foot. Neil Goldschmidt, Portland's mayor from 1972 to 1979 and later Jimmy Carter's Secretary of Transportation, led Portland to develop an attractive bus mall in the core of the office district. This speeded bus service, which was reorganized under a new three-county transit authority known as Tri-Met. Rather than go all out to provide parking, Portland imposed a limit on the number of parking spaces in the downtown core and insisted that new buildings, including parking garages, have stores or other pedestrian-attracting uses at street level. Blank walls at ground level were banned. Even the Justice Center, containing police headquarters, courtrooms, and jail cells, has a delicatessen, a camera store, a hair stylist, and a sandwich shop at street level.

A key asset for urban designers has been the decision by nineteenth-century Portlanders to lay out the downtown in small square blocks, just 200 feet on a side. The short blocks help make the downtown inviting to pedestrians—there are more ways to get from one place to another, and no dull streets that go on and on without a break. Architects like small blocks, because a single new building can fill an entire block and be seen from every direction. In return for the greater prominence this gives their buildings, architects are obliged to make the buildings completely hospitable at ground level. "No building can have a backside," says Gregory Baldwin, a partner in Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, Portland's best-known architectural firm. "You always put the dumpsters inside the buildings. The trucks pull into the buildings."

During Goldschmidt's tenure as mayor, officials began planning a lightrail system called MAX, which loops through the shopping district, passes Pioneer Courthouse Square, crosses the Willamette, and proceeds twelve miles east to the suburb of Gresham. Because of limited funds, the initial plans called for MAX to travel on streets with asphalt pavement, concrete sidewalks, and no new trees. "A number of us thought that was not appropriate," says Robert Packard, a managing partner in Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, which designed the light-rail facilities. "The local business community along the line stepped forward, raised additional funds, and improved the quality." Today the entire route through downtown is paved with cobblestonelike Belgian blocks, often complemented by brick pavement and trees (the effect can be less charming for women in high heels). Such comprehensive planning has enhanced the downtown's attractiveness and boosted MAX's ridership beyond what had been forecast. Nearly 40 percent of downtown employees travel to work on light rail or buses—one of the highest rates of public transit use in the United States.

Portlanders' willingness to work for a common purpose has played a pivotal role in the city's achievements. Downtown property owners contribute the largest share of the $4 million annual budget of the Association for Portland Progress, a thirteen-year-old organization aimed at keeping the city center healthy. Some of the money goes to clean the sidewalks daily and wash the faces of buildings. Sixteen previously homeless people make up the cleaning crew, which last year erased 700 patches of graffiti, helping to maintain Portland's pristine appearance.

The Portland attitude of "we're all in this together" implies a right—and even a responsibility—to intervene when individuals threaten to tear at the carefully woven fabric of public life. Panhandling and obvious mental illness do not go unaddressed. Eighteen green-jacketed Portland Guides employed by the association help tourists and watch for "street disorder"—public behavior that makes people uncomfortable. "We try to get help for the chronically mentally ill," says Ruth E. Scott, the association's chief executive officer. "With panhandlers, we'll ask if we can get them food, housing, or other assistance." A persistent panhandler may be discouraged by guides who stand on both sides of him or her, doing paperwork. But there are still street people and panhandlers in Portland's parks and squares, and occasionally they are threatening. Also among the hundred people on the association's payroll are twelve armed patrol officers, who do not make arrests but who can get to the scene of trouble in an average of three minutes.

The political scientist Daniel Elazar has identified Oregon, along with Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and a few other states, as having "a moralistic political culture," in which politics is expected to lead toward "the betterment of the commonwealth," as opposed to more strictly individualistic ends. Elazar traces this moralism to the Puritan legacy brought westward by many of Oregon's settlers. When citizen responsibility and devotion to the well-being of the community are widespread, as they are in Portland, a fine city—though a rather restrained one—can arise.

THE main challenge now is to keep the city healthy and the region manageable as metropolitan Portland undergoes a population boom. Companies from California, Japan, and elsewhere are expanding into Portland, and from 1990 to 2010 the metropolitan area's population is expected to jump by 485,000. In many places in the Sunbelt growth of such wealth-generating magnitude would be welcomed, but not in Portland. Already people worry about office employment dispersing to the suburbs. In 1970 the central city contained 90 percent of the region's first-class office space; the figure is down to about 50 percent today. Current patterns of suburban development are generating highway traffic that, if it continues to mount; will make the downtown harder to reach and life throughout the region less relaxed.

Portlanders have a tradition of opposing sprawl. "We don't want to be like Los Angeles" is practically the region's motto. Recently Portlanders' consciousness of the problems of metropolitan development has been heightened by the example of Seattle, which once had the same motto. In the 1980s the Seattle-Tacoma area added 466,000 residents—primarily through suburban development, which many blame for tying up traffic and rupturing the region's comfortable scale.

Institutionally, Portland is better equipped than probably any other metropolitan area in the country to deal with these challenges. The Metropolitan Service District, or "Metro," brings urban and suburban interests together in a unique popularly elected government covering parts of three counties. Almost twenty years ago, under Tom McCall, the state began requiring that urban areas establish "growth boundaries" to prevent productive farm and forest land from being consumed by what the governor called the "ravenous rampage of suburbia." (An alliterative moralist, McCall also denounced "coastal condomania.") The Portland area's growth boundary, drawn up by Metro in 1980, takes in 362 square miles. Inside the boundary, where much open land remains, building is encouraged; outside the boundary, governments discourage building through policies such as refusing to allow certain road improvements or sewer service.

The growth boundary and other regulations have already tightened residential development. The average size of a single-family lot has dropped from 13,200 to 8,700 square feet. All communities in the Portland area have been required to enact plans that allow half their new housing to consist of apartments or other multi-family construction—generating affordable housing while conserving land. By raising residential density the region has obtained the capacity to build as many as 310,000 houses and apartments inside its growth boundary—nearly double the number that could have been accommodated under previous planning and zoning.

Still, the growth boundary has not changed the basic pattern of development. Housing, stores, and employment have developed mostly in separate zones. As they have, people have been driving more; total miles driven in the Portland area jumped 55 percent during the 1980s. A regional air-pollution problem attributable to motor-vehicle exhaust is in the making.

Potential solutions are being debated and also enacted. Many planners believe that if a number of sizable mixed-use centers, incorporating offices, stores, housing, and parks, are built—dense, walkable, and connected to public transit—people will have more choices of how to get around and the region can remain compact. Construction will start next spring on a second segment of light-rail transit, a twelve-mile line from downtown Portland to the western suburb of Beaverton. Whether and how to organize development more densely along the current and future MAX routes is now the subject of much talk.

The high public costs that result from a conventional, dispersed style of development may become crucial to the unfolding debate. Many states, counties, and municipalities can no longer afford an ever more extensive network of roads, bridges, utilities. Tom Walsh, the general manager of Tri-Met, estimates that it would cost $100,000 per household to build all the infrastructure that has been proposed to continue the Portland area's current somewhat disconnected form of development. If a more tight-knit form of metropolitan development would cut the cost substantially and offer quality-of-life benefits as well, the Portland area might move toward it.

But persuasion will be required. Charles Hales, who was the governmental-affairs director of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland before he resigned to run for Portland city commissioner, says, "The power base of a suburb is single-family homeowners." These people typically want to live in homogeneous, entirely residential neighborhoods even if they "have to drive everywhere to do everything." Much suburban development continues to take the form of sprawling office parks, which are at odds with the notion of a compact region.

The stakes for the downtown and the city are high. When metropolitan areas grow in a conventional manner, the cities typically become burdened with extensive blighted areas, sometimes including the central business district, sometimes not. Portland officials believe that if the downtown and the city are to thrive, 20 percent of the region's job and population growth must take place in the city.

Portland may well depart from the American norm in metropolitan growth. The sense of common purpose, the easy communication among the area's leaders, and the longstanding conviction that Oregonians should conserve the good life, even at the sacrifice of some self-interest, point toward an outcome at variance with that in Los Angeles and most other American cities. In his wooded office park near an interchange of the Sunset Highway, Richard Porn, a local developer, told me that a large number of complicated issues will have to be worked out, but concluded with a judgment that nearly everyone in this soft, green region appears to share: "If any place has a chance to do things differently and get it right, Portland is it."

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