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 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's mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly
Cottages and rowhomes line the
Bungalows with shallow setbacks
and privacy grading
Park pavilion, a terminating vista
from light rail
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.
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, 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.
The unbuilt phase between the light
rail station and the town center
Some key "lessons learned":
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