Making TODs Work: Lessons from Portland's Orenco Station

A project manager gives a real-world account of the successes and failures of one of the nation's most closely watched new transit-oriented communities, and its role in the regional growth management strategy.

Untitled Document

MAX at Orenco StopPhoto: Michael MehaffyThe
planning practices of few jurisdictions are as closely studied – or as
hotly debated – as those of Portland, Oregon. The region's innovative
growth management system and transit-oriented development efforts are hailed
by some as near-perfect national models for livable growth, and bashed by others
as clumsy infringements of property rights and free enterprise, reflecting only
the unworkable utopian dreams of planners.

A growing body of evidence suggests the truth may lie somewhere between these
extremes. Some things are indeed working in Portland, and ought to be studied
as models – or at any rate clues for how to make things work better elsewhere.
Other things are not working, and ought to serve as cautionary tales.

A key strategy of the Portland regional approach has been to rezone land adjacent
to light rail stations to create new mixed-use, transit-oriented development.
In several prominent cases, the station areas have been designated as mixed-use
town centers, following the New Urbanist program of well-connected, pedestrian-friendly
streets and a diverse mix of housing, retail and civic uses.

Aerial view of Orenco Station Orenco Station logo
Aerial view of Orenco
Station with town center at center and light rail line beyond
The community's logo,
summarizing its appeal

Orenco Station has emerged as perhaps the most prominent laboratory in that
regional experiment, in part because it offers a real-world test of a great
many specific aspects of that program. In Orenco Station there is a pedestrian
axis to the light rail station, around which a grid of alley-loaded "skinny
streets" extends; a walkable town center of mixed-use shops, services and
residential; "liner" buildings with limited on-street parking and
lots tucked behind; a range of housing types and prices, from $79,000 to over
$500,000, as well as rental units; pedestrian-friendly street design and scale;
"granny flats" and live/work units; loft units above retail; and of
course, much higher density than is typical for the American suburbs, up to
25 units to the acre.

Orenco Station town center
Central park
Orenco Station's mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly
Town Center
Cottages and rowhomes line the
central park
Park pavilion
Bungalows with shallow setbacks
and privacy grading
Park pavilion, a terminating vista
from light rail
Park bench
Bungalows on park
with side yard use easements
Typical alley scene
with "granny flat" carriage house

Skeptics suggested that PacTrust -- the pension fund partnership and master
developer for whom I served as project manager -- was unwise to cooperate in
creating this kind of development. After all, there were no real precedents
even for attached product in that suburban market, let alone the kinds of radical
densities and other features proposed. But while the company was certainly wary
of the dangers, research also suggested an unmet appetite in the market for
this kind of community, one that has since been borne out.

In addition, a number of steps were taken to mitigate risk, including early
sale of some parcels to co-developers. Most significant, the company made it
a condition that it would be given the flexibility to follow the market and
protect its interests as needed; with that important limitation, it would commit
to implementing the regional policy goals. This meant the company would become
a full participant in writing the new zoning and working out the vision of the
community, based on extensive market research, study of precedents, private-sector
expertise and entrepreneurial vision.

Master plan Pedestrian inset
Orenco Station Master Plan
Inset - pedestrian axis

This relationship of trust and pragmatic collaboration with public entities
was perhaps the most critical element in the decision to move ahead, and to
pursue all the ambitious features that were later realized. It may also have
been the most critical element in the ultimate success of the project, as it
set the stage for the detailed problem-solving with jurisdiction staff that
is critical in such a complex project.


Central park
Central Park, part of a hierarchy of open spaces alternating
with high density

In spite of the early skepticism, it is increasingly clear that the community
is an encouraging success. Initial sales and subsequent appreciation have been
strong, and town center retail occupancies are at 99% in spite of the slump.

Moreover, a sociology study (Podobnik, 2002) has shown very high levels of
resident satisfaction with the community, very high "social cohesion",
and relatively high transit and alternate mode transportation habits (a 22%
modal split versus about 6% regionally). Many of those automobile trips are
also "captured" within the community, reducing overall travel. Considering
the suburban setting, this achievement should not be underestimated.

But it is important to note that many features of the plan deviated substantially
from planners' original prescriptive intentions. Most significant, the
automobile -- still the choice of most suburbanites for most trips – has
been realistically accommodated, though in ways that better mitigate its negative
effects on livability.

Other aspects of the community show room for improvement. The natural character
of the place has not fully developed, leaving a somewhat unreal quality, in
part because of some unbuilt parcels now owned by other entities, and in part
because of top-down design and production methods to achieve economies of scale
and control. Both economic and ethnic diversity, though unusually broad for
the American suburbs, are nowhere near true urban levels.

The brownstone-style Live/Work townhomes

The live/work townhomes, while successful enough to prompt a second phase,
were not the successes expected, in part because the workspace was too small
to be effective, and the split-level design complicated ADA access.

Perhaps most importantly, the team did not have control – or, in one
notable case, sold off control -- of key parcels of land surrounding the station.
It was also an unhappy fact of history that the station location was eccentric
to the community and removed from the major arterial that bisects the site.
In a more ideal world, the team would have had better control over these conditions
– and would have maintained it.

Unbuilt phase
The unbuilt phase between the light
rail station and the town center

Some key "lessons learned":

  • Density demands design. Abstract land use designations are only the beginning,
    and the essential task is to create a coherent neighborhood structure with
    livable features and services.
  • Build a great team. Assemble a skilled and talented consultant team early
    on, led by private entities with vision and risk-management skills, to closely
    collaborate and problem-solve together.
  • Bring the jurisdictions onto the team. Major challenges are still posed
    by obsolete national building codes, traffic engineering practices, and local
    zoning; and their solution requires the close cooperation and collaboration
    of public entities – from elected representatives down to desk staff
    – as well as skilled private consultants.
  • Do your homework. The devil will be in the details of the design. Start
    with good market science, not only in assessing what buyers have already bought,
    but in understanding potential buyers and envisioning what they will want
    and need. Then be prepared for lots of detailed problem-solving and research.
  • Learn from history. There are many valuable lessons in successful older
    neighborhoods, and in how their mix of uses functions successfully. Do not
    slavishly copy, but do not ignore the great problem-solving resources collected
    in traditional design.
  • Keep a firm hand at the tiller. Do not let disparate owners or builders
    destroy the standard of design quality. Do not surrender control prematurely.
  • But let the design evolve. At the same time be prepared to allow many inputs
    and many hands, and let the design evolve with changing real-world conditions,
    while preserving a coherent neighborhood structure.

Perhaps the final lesson of Orenco Station – to be further established
with ongoing research -- is that there is indeed great potential for such transit-oriented
and mixed-use development to create more livable, more sustainable neighborhood
development. At the same time, formidable challenges remain: the diseconomies
of mixed use construction, the burden of obsolete codes, the complex entitlement
process, the demands for top-notch design, and the political challenges to public
infrastructure funding needed for light rail itself. But in our view, such public
subsidies come under the entirely proper Constitutional mandate to provide for
the general welfare. In that sense, the freedom of consumers to choose to live
in such communities – as they clearly do – is matched by the freedom
of voters to choose the kind of public realm they will create in a democracy.

Additional useful links:

Michael Mehaffy is president
of Structura Naturalis Inc.,
a Portland, Ore. based urban design and consulting firm. For five years he has
served as PacTrust's project manager for Orenco Station, and he now serves as
a project manager and consultant for mixed-use projects on the Oregon coast
and elsewhere.




Michael Mehaffy Responds

Speaking as one who likes to think he is open to cogent and credible critique, I have to tell you fellows - Jay, Robert, Tom, Craig - that much of this libertarian Portland-bashing strikes me as downright loopy stuff. I have not held up a panacea here, but on the other hand I hardly think your description of an unconstitutional dystopia is anything like fair and balanced. May I modestly suggest that your personal bitterness (perhaps fuelled by a radically simplistic ideology) is severely clouding your sense of balance. For instance, Jay Bozievich offers this gem:

"I wonder if a 'majority' in Mr. Mehaffy's 'democracy' determined that in order to 'provide (sic) for the general welfare' that mustaches are illegal because they are inherently unsanitary and increase health care costs. Would he meekly shave his off."


I refer you to a more detailed critique of a particularly persistent libertarian attack on Orenco Station and on New Urbanism in general, made in this case by Randal O'Toole. This critique of O'Toole's arguments is not, as Robert Coté alleges in the comments, a "vicious personal attack," but rather a spirited rebuttal of many of the persistent, vicious and unfair attacks on the truth made by O'Toole and other libertarians who employ (as I allege) demagogic means rather than fair and intelligent discourse:

Cheers, m

correction well taken, but still don't understand

Mr. Cote and all.

thanks for corecting me on the constitution. i was thinking about the 200 odd year old document itself, not any particular update or highway legislation. nevertheless, correction well taken...i am always open to learning...

still, i are you trying to tell me that highways are completely self-financed by highway users (i.e., thru tolls)?? or are they funded(built) from state and federal funding choices?

how do non-toll roads ever get built?

secondly , are tolls explicitly for road building or road use?

federal spending comes from budget appropriations ... congress decides every fiscal year how much and what types of things get funded. isn't that necessarily a subsidy?public spending is public spending. n'est pas? it's not private dollars building the highways - obviously - because it is public infrastructure.

there is a lot of public spending on pubic transportation, but there should be.

the constitution does not force policymakers to choose highways over transit...but that is what happens. federal transportation officials are highway builders more than anything else...and the result of this is that people can live further and further away from cities. that is a public spending decision.

those types of (fiscal) year-in-year out spending decisions are what I am referring to.

government spending choices, be they "subsidies" or not, are still government choices --choosing to support those who have cars and live in suburbia or providing choices to a wider range of constituents.


by the way, i am not the biggest lefty - i am as put off by the extremes of the left as I am by equally specious claims from the right. it's all idealist rhetoric , and that gets us nowhere...

Dueling Subsidies

"How about protesting the subsidization of higway development and sprawl? That is not in the constitution either..."
Actually, it is there. Section 8 - Powers of Congress. Regardless, the claim of federally subsidized highways is specious. A quote from the Legislation:

Federal-Aid Highway and Highway Revenue Act of 1956, Public Law 627, 84th Congress, approved June 29, 1956

SELF FINANCING: To make the federal-aid highway program self-financing, the Highway Revenue Act of 1956 was incorporated as Title II of this legislation that imposed new taxes and increased others levied on highway users who directly benefitted from this program.

So you see, there is a fundamental difference between TOD and CSD, only one is self-financing.

Dear Mr. Rubin

Mr. Rubin,

How about protesting the subsidization of higway development and sprawl? That is not in the constitution either...

While I often applaud libertarian and free-market interjections amongst some of the overly left-leaning planners, individualists of all stripes have to admit that markets don't function correctly without government frameworks (laws, contracts, etc.). Secondly, the constitution has one boldface lie - "all men are created equal" - you know and I know that status upon birth is a large determinant (though certainly not the only one) of how far one can go in life. Perhaps one should revisit Rawls' "veil of ignorance" when making policy decisions...OR, we can take the lead from a reformed cokehead who landed in the presidency because of his WASP, royal (Plantagenant bloodline) birthright - oh yeah, his dad was president too.

Public policy in this country exists to promote the market AND mitigate the excesses/bad side effects of capitalism. It's not one or the other.

"BEAVERton Round"

Now that the "Beaverton Round" has been mentioned, before anti-New Urbanism skeptics go ballistic and condemn it as a way too expensive example of failure of transit-oriented development, some clarifying background.

First, the City of Beaverton is called "BEAVERton" for a reason: where the "Round was constructed was home to some of the largest beaver dams and ponds on the planet for millenia, before colonization and development. According to my sources, the Round has some of the deepest, most expensive pilings ever installed at a suburban development. Simply put, this cost was so expensive the first developer went bankrupt, leaving unfinished buildings in his wake. In other words, the BEAVERton Round's previous problems had NOTHING to do with MAX light rail per se, and everything to do with a rather deep bog created by the former residents of BEAVERton, e.g., BEAVERS!

This is certainly not the story told by the minions of the Cascade Institute, Wendell Cox, Randal O'Toole, and other anti-light rail prevaricators.

Michael D. Setty

Another View of Orenco

I almost forgot, here is a link to another view point on the results from the Orenco Station TOD:


Here! Here! for Tom

Tom has hit the nail on the head concerning use of the the U.S. Constitution to justify infringement of individual rights and controlling the free market. I find Mr. Mahaffy's closing comments very telling and somewhat scary. "Do not surrender control" when referring to private lands and commerce sounds very close economic facism. I wonder if a "majority" in Mr. Mehaffy's "democracy" determined that in order to "provide (sic) for the general welfare" that mustaches are illegal because they are inherently unsanitary and increase health care costs. Would he meekly shave his off.

In closing I offer the following quote for those of you who believe the preamble of our constitution legalizes plunder to benefit others like subsidizing light rail,

“How can there possibly be liberty and justice for all, when, in the name of justice, people claim rights to income, food, housing, education, health care, transportation, ad infinitum? We can't. Positive rights to receive such things, absent an obligation to earn them, must violate others' liberty, by taking some of their income without their consent. They are really just wishes, convertible into benefits for some only by employing the government to violate others' rights not to have what is theirs taken."

Professor Gary Galles, Pepperdine University

Jay Bozievich, P.E.

Eugene, Oregon

P.S. The United States is a representative republic, not a democracy. True democracies have always failed as soon as the public realizes they can vote to wealth from a minority of citizens for the benifit of majority. The founding fathers wished to avoid this, and thus we have representatives.

Making TODs Work: Lessons from Portland's Orenco

(Michael Mehaffy wrote

"Some things are indeed working in Portland, and ought to be studied as models" )

I'd like to know what is working in Portland Metro area without being subsidized

by the taxpayers?

I'm not talking little subsidies I'm talking about tax forgiveness, low interest loans and

system development wavers look at for some examples

(Michael Mehaffy wrote:

A key strategy of the Portland regional approach has been to rezone land

adjacent to light rail stations to create new mixed-use, transit-oriented

development. In several prominent cases, the station areas have been

designated as mixed-use town centers, following the New Urbanist program

of well-connected, pedestrian-friendly streets and a diverse mix of housing

retail and civic uses.)

During the debate for the first light rail line to Gresham, it was promised that the light rail

would not change the neighborhoods. Back then light rail was suppose to be a

transportation system not a redevelopment tool. I remember hearing that the only difference

light rail will make is, it will run up Burnside St. and your single family neighborhood will

remain the same!

That was the first Promise broken.

Light rail became a redevelopment tool when the ridership did not occur.

Portland invested billions of dollars into a system that didn't meet it's projections .

No one in the light rail corridors were given the opportunity to vote for the zoning


The Portland Metro area use to have a zoning system that allowed

residents to sign off if they wanted their zoning changed. Residents didn't go along

with the change as fast as the planners and smart growth supporters wanted.

Laws were passed so zoning could be changed without the permission of the

property owners and local control was lost in Portland and the Metro area.

We have now spent nearly 3 billion dollars on light rail. Along all the light rail

corridors traffic is worst not better and livability is great if you like congestion,

density and subsidizing smart growth without voter approval.

Light rail does not reduce congestion 2nd promise broken

We have lost the right to vote on smart growth urban renewal districts and taxes in

the Portland Metro area are the highest in the state.

We are repeatedly told by adding urban renewal districts our taxes

will go down in the future. 3rd promise broken

Subsidizing Smart Growth have lead the way to a shortage of tax money for

every government agency and major cuts to schools.

Smart growth would be fine if neighborhoods wanted it and the rest of us

didn't have to subsidize. The biggest supporters are those that are being subsidized.

Smart Growth isn't smart, 4th promise broken.

We are being told this is done to Preserve our Neighborhood and Livability.

5th promise broken.

I grew Up in Metro area when we use to brag about living in houses with big

yards and property was affordable. We could buy a big or small lot to live

on and you could choose the type of neighborhood that suited your lifestyle.

Some of the pocket parks proposed now are smaller than what our back yards

us to be. Portland had more parks space per capita than most cites and we had

room to move.

We are told smart growth promotes choice

6th promise broken

Craig Flynn

Portland Oregon

Old School falacy

To Promote or To Provide, that is the hair-splitting question. If the "Free Market" Promotes general welfare, it's constitutional. If the Market does not Promote the general welfare, it's NOT contitutional.

Smart Growth has the potential to outperform the so-called Free Market, both Promoting and Providing for the general welfare.

Beside this, Orenco Station should not be considered the prominent example in the Regional experiment. Orenco is designated the smaller "Town Center", not the larger, more diversified "Regional Center", (Hillsboro, Gresham, Gateway, Oregon City, Vancouver, etc). Development of Regional Centers will provide far more valuable experimentation of infill, rezoning, construction, transit, etc.

Orenco can expect a great future, but because it's a wholly new development, it won't answer, (or provide), as many of the more important questions on how to infill growth, with conservation and restoration and general welfare kinds of thingybobs in mind.

PS: The Beaverton Round is beginning Open House.

Question for Tom

Hello Tom,

Interesting point, and you misunderstand me if you think I suggest that there is any automatic Constitutional call for funding "smart growth" or any such thing. But let me ask you, what if the voters of a region so choose? Is the choice of voters less sacrosanct in a democracy than the choice of consumers?

Are you saying, in other words, that in a democracy we SHOULD NOT allow voters to choose to create the civic realm -- that "only the markets can decide"?

I must tell you that this troubles me greatly, and strikes me as a fundamentally undemocratic idea. In fact it is a kind of oligarchism -- not one person, one vote, but one dollar, one vote.

I hope I am misrepresenting your position.

A Few Thoughts

First, for decades, the tail end of Article I., Section 8. of the Constitution, which reads, "To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer therefo," has been referred to as the "elastic clause," because it gives Congress quite a bit of flexibility to do almost anything it wants to as long as it can find a justification in any of the other Sections of Article I. (Supreme Count allowing, of course.)

Second, if his most interesting interpretation is followed, it would put the above to shame.

Third, what he is referencing is NOT found in the actual body, the "working text," of the Constitution, where the Powers of the Congess, et al, are detailed, nor in any amendment. It is found in the preample ("We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more Perfect Union, ..."). Some legal advice from a non-lawyer, for those of you dumb enough to take legal advice from a non-lawyer -- do not try to cite the preample before a Judge, you will not get too far. In this case, if this cite was allowed, one might think that counsel for the other side would cite what appears immediately
after, "... to form a more perfect Union" (a rather abstract concept), namely, "ENSURE JUSTICE." Where is the justice in requiring some members of the public to subsidize benefits for others? (I think it should be rather easy to see the preample is not seen too often in actual trials and decisions.)

Fourth, it is NOT, "... to PROVIDE for the general welfare," it is "... to PROMOTE the general Welfare" (it does say, "to PROVIDE for the common defense"). (All full-word capitalizations added.) There is a very significant difference between "provide," which implies necessity and a standard of performance, and "promote," which implies choice without any
standard of performance.

In short, if there is anything in the U.S. Constitution that requires governments to subsidize "smart growth" or the "new urbanist" agenda, it ain't here. If you want to cite a higher authority for your justification, I suggest you find something else.

Tom Rubin

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