June 18, 2014

For New Central City Plan, Look to History


By Tim Ramis

Spring 2012

No other area of the country can match our region's depth of experience with building livable cities. In virtually all areas of city building, the planning jurisdictions of this metropolitan area have been innovators. They have pioneered new ways of addressing urban sprawl, walkable neighborhoods, transit issues, historic preservation, citizen participation, and infrastructure finance. From a national viewpoint, the region is considered a laboratory for testing new ideas in regulating development.

In the core area of Portland, this work has been guided by the principles set out in the 1988 Central City Plan. The plan took inspiration from the best ideas of that era but it was flexible, allowing for evolution and innovation. The document was an agenda of generalized goals, providing direction while leaving the door open to new techniques for accomplishing the city's late 1980s vision of a vastly more interesting downtown. This was a successful approach to land use planning and it played an important role in Portland's transformation into one of the most livable cities in the country.

Portland has now embarked on a new planning initiative that will replace the Central City Plan and eventually rewrite the development code. The product of this work is expected to shape the future of the city for the next twenty years. The process will challenge the council-appointed Steering Committee to apply the lessons learned from three decades of experience to the many development issues that have surfaced in recent years.

It is a big job to evaluate which strategies have worked and which have not and to derive practical lessons from our experience, but given our long history of land use planning we have raw data to do it. Some of the land use related issues that we face are major issues of public policy, others are important urban design choices. Among the many historical issues are:

  • Turning Livability into Job Growth: The region has invested heavily in supporting a livability agenda, believing that it would draw talented workers and the companies that would employ them. We have attracted a talented workforce, but we have not been as successful as other cities, like Austin and Pittsburgh, at converting livability investments into job creation. The new Central City Plan will need to identify the strategic changes necessary to realize our employment goals.
  • Spreading the Benefits of Gentrification: Much of Portland's success has involved the upgrading and renovation of areas close to the core of the city. The results have been widely praised, but we have rarely been able to make the pregentrification residents of those areas the direct beneficiaries of changes in their neighborhoods. Can we find ways to change this outcome?

Other current planning issues center on the procedures and design requirements needed to create great neighborhoods and great places.

  • Open Space Planning: The current process has produced spectacular results like Jamison Square, which is a magnet for human activity. But it has also given us parks that are much admired as concepts but little used by the general public. If we think of these places as experiments in park design we should be able to distill principles that will guide us to success in the future.
  • Mandatory Street Level Active Uses: Our current zoning code attempts to create active and energized streets by mandating vast amounts of street-level active uses. In some situations this has worked, but in others we have produced deathly quiet streets with thousands of feet of empty retail space. Seattle has had a similar experience and is now rewriting its development regulations to change course, confining mandatory storefront zoning to places where it can be concentrated to produce successful pedestrian areas. Whether that is the right midcourse correction should be considered here. Is our problem regulatory, or is it a lack of creativity by developers, owners and architects?
  • Historic Design Review: The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission deserves high marks for its many successes with restoration and adaptive reuse of historic structures. It has been criticized, however, for its work on new construction. Some blame it for driving Apple Computer away from NW 23rd Avenue and others are unhappy with the use of historic design guidelines to reduce height and density designations that were intended to reduce Urban Growth Boundary expansion pressures. West Linn solves this problem by making new development in historic areas subject to a hearing before its historic review commission, but the result is advisory to the planning commission and city council which retain authority to balance other factors in reaching a final decision.

In Portland we have the opportunity to build our new plan and regulations on the foundation of our real-world experience with smart growth. The city will benefit from planning staff and a talented Steering Committee cochaired by Portland State University historian Chet Orloff. This team has the skill to evaluate our historic experience and distill from it, the development outline we need to improve the civic vitality of the Central City, build on its role as an employment center, and keep it connected with healthy neighborhoods.

Take the opportunity to follow the work of the committee through the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

This article is intended to inform the reader of general legal principles applicable to the subject area. It is not intended to provide legal advice regarding specific problems or circumstances. Readers should consult with competent counsel with regard to specific situations.

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