A blog about how we can become a better city, WITHOUT losing our livable heritage
Author: Michael Mehaffy
Michael Mehaffy, Ph.D., is Senior Researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Executive Director of Sustasis Foundation in Portland, Oregon, and a strategic development consultant and urban designer with over 20 years of international experience in economic development strategy, urban planning, infrastructure, public involvement and communication, and inter-disciplinary project management. He is on the editorial boards of two international journals of urban design, and he has held seven research and/or teaching appointments in six countries. He has been active in Portland-area planning and building since 1991. Among his most noted projects is Orenco Station, a walkable mixed-use transit-oriented development with 1,800 homes and 600,000 square feet of retail, for which he served as project manager for the master developer. The project successfully introduced compact walkable development to a sprawling area of the Portland suburbs. Michael has also consulted for many area governments, NGOs and private clients. He holds a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.
Planetizen, the Los Angeles-based US planners’ website, ran some of our material on HB 2007 for a nationwide and international audience of planners and policy experts. The comments were very interesting.
Jeff Joslin, Director of Current Planning at San Francisco Planning Department, wrote:
Since this is a national forum and not a local op-ed, I thought I’d shed light on one aspect.
The reviews the bill would obviate are not onerous, and there’s no data to support the case that eliminating them would result in more housing faster or meaningfully reduce the cost of housing (and increasingly true as projects scale up and the cost of review is spread across multiple units). This is because Oregon – since the 70s, has had in place a requirement that ALL discretionary reviews (even the largest and most complex in the land) be complete within 120 days of an application being complete, including any local appeal. This is remarkably streamlined by any measure, and provides a level of certainty that is readily incorporated into any project budget.
If this legislative effort was genuinely about the affordable housing it feigns to address, exceptions to certain types of reviews would be a carve-out rather than universal. Such is not the case. It is a jaded, opportunistic effort by certain forces (with a local and a national agenda) to wave the “housing crisis” banner and use it to significantly erode land use controls in the one state and city where they’ve been most effective (and which have served as a replicable model elsewhere). By bringing down a cornerstone of Portland and Oregon’s systems, the strategy can be applied throughout the land.
The problem is a genuine one, and the solution needs to be as well; not the cynical hijacking of the affordable housing issue to suit other agendas. This legislative effort is not that solution.
June Weenen, an advocate of “Georgist” land value tax policy based in the UK, wrote:
Affordability issues have zero to do with the supply side. A 100% tax on the rental value of land would half average selling prices and rental incomes while raising the disposable incomes of working households by thousands of dollars. Sorted.
It would also allow the market to allocate immovable property at optimal efficiency eliminating excessive vacancy and under occupation.
Sure, more building is always needed to put people where the economy requires and give them the living space they need. But until the demand side is sorted out first, then a dysfunctional market cannot know what to supply or where.
This is the kind of focus on a broader set of tools and strategies that we think is so badly needed. (See more on Georgist policy and “Land Value Tax” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax)
Closer to home, Ethan Seltzer, Professor of Urban Planning at Portland State, made a rather shocking comment in criticism of our piece:
When livability gets equated with faux tudor bungalows hyped up as historic, you know you’re in trouble.
From this it appears that Professor Seltzer believes that Portland’s classic bungalow neighborhoods (full of “faux” houses, apparently) are entitled to no historic protection, and we should be free to demolish them at will — anyone, at any time, for any reason. Let’s demolish them all then!
I must say I find it a sad day when Portland and Oregon are willing to sell out their own livable legacy, on so slender a foundation of evidence and sloppy thinking.
A story on NPR’s Weekend Edition on May 28th illustrates why “Build, Baby Build” — the strategy to force existing neighborhoods to accept tear-downs for new housing under Oregon’s proposed HB 2007 — is an inept approach to deal with the challenges of affordability and urban diversity. Indeed, it is likely to feed the opposite outcome.
The interviewee is Svenja Gudell, Chief Economist for Zillow. Host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Gudell what was causing the sharp spike in unaffordability in many cities around the country (not just Portland):
GUDELL: You know, it’s a little bit of everything, and it’s hard to kind of narrow down the exact reason. But a lot of builders that we’ve talked to say that due to the cost of regulation, land and even labor and supply costs, they don’t believe they can build a house on the periphery that would be considered, perhaps, more an entry-level home at a price point that they think they can sell it for.
They need to be able, of course, make some profits if they’re willing to build that home. And they think they have to price it as such a level that no one that would be able to pay that price would be willing to commute for an hour and a half to their job into the city. And so that means they simply don’t build those types of homes. So most builders have been concentrating on what’s called Class-A locations. That means usually fill in…
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Luxury properties.
GUDELL: Luxury properties – really nice locations within the city that oftentimes come at a really high price point.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’re also seeing another effect for lower-income homeowners, at least in the cities. We’re seeing gentrification. People are moving in to places where working-class people lived, and their properties are being developed and marketed to people with more money. What is behind that push?
GUDELL: You know, it’s really a drive, oftentimes, to make cities more dense. You know, as many cities are experiencing population increases right now, you have these developers coming into neighborhoods that used to be a little bit more rundown or a bit cheaper, and they buy up single-family homes that were built in the ’50s or even older. And they try to put townhomes in or condos – any sort of higher-density living. And that, of course, displaces a whole bunch of residents that used to live there because most of time, they aren’t able to afford to still live in the neighborhood at these new places because they often run at a much higher rate than they’re used to paying for their old place.
Or, as we see in Portland, they simply tear down more affordable single-family houses and build much more expensive… single-family houses. Or maybe duplexes or triplexes if we’re lucky — but far short of a meaningful response to the metro-wide scale of new demand for housing.
So why throw existing neighborhoods under the bus, for such a dubious gain? Have we really run out of suitable empty sites in the metro region — parking lots, wasted space, “SLOAP” (Space Left Over After Planning), greyfield malls, etc? Hardly.
Have we really run out of good compatible infill types that would likely be accepted by residents, instead of the current polarized and counter-productive attacks on “NIMBYs”, shoving ugly, incompatible “space invaders” down their throats? Hardly.
What we’ve run out of is the vision and the expertise to develop the tools and strategies needed for actually effective results.
But it feels good to do something — anything! And to make it symbolic of social justice, demonizing advocates of livability and historic preservation as the problem. Even if the actual evidence should tell us that we’re… dead wrong.
Author note: The aim of this testimony was not to “rally the troops” but to reach out to legislators who are undecided about HB 2007, and might reconsider some of the flawed assumptions behind its logic. This is a “teachable moment” to reconsider what the great urbanist Jane Jacobs called “the kind of problem a city is” — not a problem that is amenable to “command and control” approaches. Still, there ARE tools available, but we must be careful to use them wisely, if we are going to actually meet our urban challenges. HB 2007 still has a long way to go in that respect.
This is a companion post to an earlier report here.
Good morning, and thank you for the invitation; these are certainly serious issues before us today. I’m Michael Mehaffy, and I’m a consultant in sustainable urban development, and currently a senior researcher at KTH University in Stockholm. I’m also a resident of Portland, and president of the Goose Hollow neighborhood association, and I’m executive director of the Sustasis Foundation, an Oregon non-profit developing tools for sustainable urban development. I’ve also taught at the University of Oregon and elsewhere.
Over my career I have also served as a homebuilder, developer, planner, designer, and consultant, working on sustainable development policies for the City of Portland, for Metro, and for a number of other area governments. I’ve also worked on projects in North America, South America, and Europe, and most recently for the United Nations, on the challenges of rapid urbanization, affordability, equity, and cities for all.
I wanted to preface my remarks with this background, because I think what we face today is really a global challenge – the failure of many cities to work well for all their citizens, particularly as they grow rapidly. And to meet this challenge, I think we will have to better understand what the great urbanist Jane Jacobs called “the kind of problem a city is,” and learn from our considerable mistakes of recent decades – especially our tendency to focus on top-down approaches that produce regrettable unintended consequences – as my colleagues have alluded to.
As Jacobs pointed out, urban diversity is not only a matter of justice – it’s really a question of how well our cities actually perform, as engines of sustainable economic and human development. The research shows that, to the extent that some populations are cut off from open access to the city and its benefits, the city will under-perform economically and socially, with impacts on prosperity, quality of life and health for all the residents.
So in that respect, I applaud the motivation behind this legislation, as my colleagues have. At the same time, I think we have to ask very hard questions about what the actual outcomes will be from our approaches, and who will actually benefit. So in that spirit, I’d like to share with you what I think are three significant lessons from an international perspective:
Lesson one is that real estate markets clearly do not follow a simple supply-demand-price formula. Building more supply does not always lower cost – not if the supply itself is more expensive than the existing supply, or if it serves to make the location more desirable relative to other places – if we are more affordable, for example. Of course, we are not in an isolated, fixed housing market here in Oregon. There is a dynamic problem of “induced demand” – the more affordable we make our housing, the more we attract residents from the more expensive markets of California and elsewhere.
Of course, we do need to build to accommodate a growing population – but I think it is essential to do so in places and ways that build on, and do not destroy, the existing assets of our cities. There are indeed many diverse places within the Portland region and other Oregon cities, where “gentle densification” can and should occur.
As we saw when I was working with Metro on development within its centers and corridors plan, there is a surprisingly large capacity of building sites, in many existing infill sites, in parking lots, and other under-utilized places. The result can be popular mixed-use assets for the surrounding neighborhoods, as I think we showed at Orenco Station, if you’re familiar with that project, where I was project manager. We do not need to destroy our livable heritage, or force existing residents to accept major disruptions to the quality and beauty of their neighborhoods. We do need better tools to unlock and incentivize development in these other places.
Following that, lesson two, I would say, is that more broadly, complicated formulas and mandates are no replacement for a careful “toolkit” based approach, as I’ll call it, using locally applied fine-grained tools to incentivize the kind of growth we need, and to provide the kinds of protections also needed for existing residents and disadvantaged populations, and also for our heritage assets, as Peggy talked about. You’re on the right track in some ways, but again, I think it needs a lot of work.
Lesson three is that I think it’s vital to work with existing residents, not against them. Over my career in public involvement I’ve seen how residents can be converted into partners to find good win-win solutions. For example, discretionary review can be supplemented, not replaced, with a streamlined “prescriptive path” for projects to be essentially “pre-approved” – but only if they follow specifications developed with the neighborhood residents to assure compatibility and maintain quality. Portland and other Oregon cities are full of wonderful compatible examples of what we might call “beauty in my back yard,” and that neighborhoods would support, and could support.
I know my colleagues have already pointed out the important economic and cultural value of Oregon’s heritage assets, and I probably don’t need to remind colleagues of that here. And these are resources we should value and protect, surely. May I also point out that when residents are upset over demolitions, it may be less a case of fear of change, and more a case of seeing beautiful structures replaced by ones of much lower quality. And I think that degradation is something we all have to take very seriously as environmental stewards, of both the natural and the built environment. And of course those have to go hand in hand.
By the way, I want to say, I regard my colleagues at 1000 Friends of Oregon as friends and allies on most issues. Like them, I believe that accommodating new residents and managing affordability does not require us to make bad decisions outside of our urban growth boundaries – decisions that would compromise our natural heritage. That’s a false choice, and Oregon’s land use legacy shows that if we work carefully, much better choices are available to us.
Just so, may I say that accommodating new residents and managing affordability does not require us to make bad decisions inside our urban growth boundaries either – decisions that could cause irreparable harm to some of Oregon’s most vital urban environmental assets. I would have to conclude based on the evidence, that in its present form, this bill still poses that grave danger. Thank you.
What we learned from a hearing at the Oregon Capitol: HB 2007 has not improved, but at least it has gotten more complicated
Representatives of the homebuilder lobby were conspicuous by their absence at a May 25th hearing before the Oregon House Committee on Human Services and Housing. That is particularly curious, because it’s homebuilders that clearly have the most to gain from HB 2007, the Oregon bill titled “Relating to housing development; declaring an emergency.”
Instead, seven of ten invited speakers joined two legislators to speak largely in praise of the bill, and to re-frame the argument as a broad-brush attack on Oregon NIMBYs (short for “Not In My Back Yard”). Precious little evidence was examined on effective tools for affordable housing or even housing supply. Little consideration was given to the actual impacts and possible unintended consequences of the bill. It became clear that the central argument for the bill was an ad hominem attack on Oregon neighborhoods that allegedly “want to self-segregate,” in the remarkable words of bill sponsor Tina Kotek:
“HB 2007 would get rid of some of the loopholes that allow NIMBYism to block development when wealthy neighborhoods simply want to self-segregate, and prevent affordable housing development in their communities.”
But does the evidence show that “NIMBYism” in wealthy neighborhoods is actually a significant barrier to affordable housing? How much of the problem up to now has been, to be blunt, a heavy-handed failure to work WITH residents to find good win-win solutions? (I say this as one who has put his own money where his mouth is on this issue, winning entitlements for affordable housing projects as well as much higher density infill developments.)
And when new housing is created over neighborhood objections, how often is it really more affordable? What actual percentage of new units are occupied by people of color for the first time? More pointedly, what is the evidence that those who oppose HB 2007 (like the National Trust for Historic Preservation or Restore Oregon, to name two) do so out of a desire to “self-segregate”?
And to be blunt, how much of the proposed “solution” is a fantasy, inspired by ideologically charged identity politics and ill-conceived “command and control” thinking, and egged on by self-interested lobbies — and how much is grounded in real evidence of what works, including the cautionary evidence from other cities and countries?
In one of the few citations of actual evidence, Restore Oregon president Peggy Moretti gave statistics of how many homes were demolished in Portland in 2016 (376) and showed a series of examples of single family units in the $300,000 to $500,000 range being replaced by other single-family homes or duplexes of up to a million dollars each.
Moretti concluded, “As it currently stands, this bill is a case study in overreach, unnecessary complexity, and bad unintended consequences.”
Moretti and others (including this author) were at pains to acknowledge the real problems, and the value of “gentle densification” from accessory units and multi-unit conversions. We also pointed to alternative tools and strategies that are likely to be more effective, on the basis of the evidence of what actually works.
Let us hope that this bill will get more considered review on the facts and the merits, and that the over-heated and divisive attacks on existing residents and historic preservation advocates will subside.
So to recap, what did we learn on May 25th?
No evidence has been presented that HB 2007 will significantly increase housing supply in Oregon.
Even assuming it did, no evidence has been presented that HB 2007 would increase affordability.
Even if it did, no evidence has been presented that the bill would increase neighborhood diversity.
Instead, HB 2007 is being sold with a largely symbolic ad hominem attack on existing neighborhoods and advocates for Oregon’s urban heritage.
The consequences will not be symbolic: continued slow (and not so slow) destruction of the livable and historic fabric of Portland, and other Oregon cities. And possibly, an increasingly ugly and divisive tone in Oregon’s urban politics.
We give the final word to the great urbanist Jane Jacobs:
“Communities that want a certain thing are derided for saying ‘not in my back yard.’ If you listen to ‘not in my back yard’ people, their objection is often to something that shouldn’t be in anybody’s back yard. What has been proposed should be done differently”.
Recently, NIMBY has become shorthand for anyone who is set in their ways, who is old and outdated. And since the arrival of the YIMBYs, it’s become a simple one-word way to dismiss any disagreement about development, no matter the basis…
In some ways, this is a battle over how economics works: will building more market-rate (i.e., very high-end) housing in San Francisco actually help or hurt? Can we simplify housing economics in a hot market to basic principles of supply and demand? Does an unregulated real estate market actually benefit everyone? I have data and figures to battle theirs, like the recent report by the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project that shows that market-rate housing can take DECADES to become affordable to middle- and low-income residents — a timeline that is far too long for the people and communities that are being displaced right in this moment.
Without assuming too much or making ad hominem attacks, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YIMBYism is appealing to young folks who are relatively new to San Francisco, who maybe aren’t rich but who don’t appear to be poor either.. I understand the appeal of YIMBYism, because I feel it, too. I am a young, well-educated, white woman who was raised by comfortably middle-class parents, and I currently earn a living wage. I identify as liberal and progressive… So YIMBYism appeals. YIMBYs claim to have the solution for making room for everyone…their assessment of the cause of the housing affordability crisis and the solution means that I don’t have to question whether I am playing an active role in displacing folks, and in bringing gentrification. It’s not my fault that these changes are happening in this city — it’s the fault of old NIMBYs and bad planners and progressives from previous generations who thought they could keep San Francisco in stasis. I don’t have to question what I want, or who suffers when I get it. And instead of taking part in the long, tiring, sometimes fruitless fight against the money and power that steamrolls communities, I can just open my arms, and say “Yes, please!,” and embrace the changes that are happening in this city, the changes that feel inevitable and that in some ways I am bringing and that frankly, benefit me and the folks that I know….
Increasingly, the word “NIMBY” is being used to discount and delegitimize anyone who questions development — no matter the reason. This is a deceptive oversimplification, and we can challenge it by asking two simple questions before writing people off: 1) who is opposed to a particular development? and 2) why?
Is Portland about to throw away one of its landmark achievements… over a fallacy?
The City of Portland may have a “nationally recognized neighborhood system,” as the City’s website crows, but if recent reports are to be believed, there may be efforts under way to dismantle it. (See for example the recent Northwest Examiner article.) The rationale? Anti-NIMBYism, buttressed by charges of racism, classism, and an insular system that serves only the interests of white retired homeowners. Wow.
As a renter who is emphatically not retired, and current president of the Goose Hollow neighborhood association in Portland, I share the goal of a neighborhood involvement system that is much more representative, inclusive, accountable, and constructively engaged in finding win-win solutions to city problems. But before we rush too quickly into yet another profitable greenwashing or progressive-washing agenda, may I suggest that we need to look very hard indeed at the evidence, and potential fallacies in our own thinking. The City has unfortunately shown far too little tendency to do that of late.
I have recently written here about the fallacies underneath current supply-side housing policy, and the tendency to ignore the more complex market dynamics. But the City seems determined to build its way out of the current affordability crisis – which is mild in comparison to other West Coast cities, and which offers instructive comparisons with those other cities’ painful lessons (as we have also covered on this blog). There is a real danger that the City will end up with little to show for the efforts – except the loss of the priceless livable heritage that made Portland a desirable city in the first place.
Then too there are the other unintended consequences of current City policy: tear-downs of relatively affordable housing to be replaced with McMansions, high rises with million-dollar view units as the City’s ludicrous answer to affordability, and a cumbersome, irrational entitlement process that seems to achieve only the worst of both worlds – clunky “space invader” buildings that still cost too much.
Add now, “non-geographic communities” to be placed into competition with the neighborhood associations, in a heavy-handed attempt to create a more inclusive system. The trouble is, who gets representation, and how much? Who selects these “non-geographic communities”? The City, of course. But it is far too easy to put one’s fingers on the scale, perhaps without realizing it, and allow a subtle form of corruption to influence the results – biased towards a favored group, or maybe even a favored industry. Those of us in my own industry of design and development must be very scrupulous our ethical obligations.
At the same time, the City needs to ask itself a basic question: does it believe in local grass-roots democracy at all? In the fundamental concept of geographic representation at all? Why not bring in NGOs from out of state who can represent new voices that are deemed to be under-represented, and let them have a say in decision-making? Why do we need to have local city government, or state government, or any geographic government at all? Why not simply a system of non-geographic national government, consisting of appointed panels that we believe represent the various communities that those in government think need to have a say? What’s so important about one-person, one-district, one-vote anyway? Maybe this democracy thing isn’t really working out for us after all?
I am playing reductio ad absurdum here, of course. But there is a fundamental point: geographic representation is a core principle of democracy, without which democracy itself is in question. Portland has made great advances in anchoring that democracy in the most grass-roots part of the city, the neighborhoods. This work is unfinished, yes — but it is a crucial achievement.
So let us not make the terrible mistake of tossing baby with bathwater.
There is a path to the neighborhood system reform that is indeed badly needed (one that we have already written about previously). Yes, the neighborhoods need to be more representative of their actual residents, including their minority populations, renters, young people, and many others.
But that’s just the point – they need to be representative, as neighborhoods, and not superseded and marginalized by government hand-picked (and very possibly tokenistic) “non-geographic communities.”
The City (as a polis) has every reason to insist that the neighborhoods be representative, transparent and accountable, as a basic condition of participation and funding. This is true no less of Portland neighborhoods than it is of, say, Alabama voter precincts, or any other constituent of democratic government. It is a fundamental principle of ethical government, and of “subsidiarity”. The principle of subsidiarity means that we are all entitled to democratic participation at many subsidiary scales, starting at the fundamental scale of ourselves as citizens, and our own homes and neighborhoods. We are not supposed to have our democratic participation taken away by members of a government’s hand-picked “non-geographic communities.”
To illustrate the very real alternative available, I can give an example of a major initiative for reform within our own Goose Hollow neighborhood association. As our Vide President Tracy Prince recounted in a letter to ONI interim director Dave Austin:
“The new board believed that too many powerful people had been listened to for too long, so we worked to recruit a board that better reflected our neighborhood. 46% of our board members are low income, and 37% are renters… After voting out the old board, the new board immediately voted for our bylaws to have the strictest ethical requirements of any neighborhood association. We require board members to disclose their financial interests, leave the room when their interests are being discussed, and recuse themselves from voting on their own financial interests. We believe any organization receiving city funds should be required to follow such ethical standards.”
Our neighborhood association has also placed videos of all meetings on line for any resident (or indeed non-resident) to view at any time. We’ve invited open public communication at the start and end of each meeting, and we recognize members of the audience who raise their hands throughout the meeting as well. We’ve partnered with members of other area neighborhoods to press for ethical reforms for transparency and accountability within neighborhood and stakeholder systems city-wide. We’re also working on further outreach and recruitment to get more citizens engaged (including those in under-represented communities) within our neighborhood.
We also meet regularly and constructively with developers interested in exploring win-win approaches to development and “Yes In My Back Yard”. (For example, about two weeks ago I traveled with our Planning Committee Co-chair to Seattle to meet with the architects of a new project in Goose Hollow, at our own expense; we had a cordial and constructive conversation.)
But that does not mean we are shills for development, or that we will roll over when we honestly believe the best interests of our neighborhood are not being served by a proposal. At that point we have the rights that any citizen should have, to be heard and to be involved. Genuinely involved, not tokenistically so. We now have the proper forum to do so, our own neighborhood community and its duly recognized association. This is a priceless asset that we must be willing to fight to preserve and improve.
The City has a moral choice. Will it destroy the neighborhoods in order to “save” them?
…[When we saved Greenwich Village] we were called names for this: selfish and negative. What a bunch of negative people! But everybody in the neighborhood understood…
“Also communities that want a certain thing are derided for saying ‘not in my back yard.’ If you listen to ‘not in my back yard’ people, their objection is often to something that shouldn’t be in anybody’s back yard. What has been proposed should be done differently.
“I see over and over your [World Bank] emphasis on the importance of community participation, and I want to make sure you understand what traps can be arranged under its name…. This is vicious stuff, and under such nice names: community participation, power to the people, and so on. You always have to look for the substance of these things, not how nice they sound.”
– Excerpts from “Urban Economy and Development” conference with the World Bank, February 4, 2002. Quoted in Vital Little Plans: The Short Woks of Jane Jacobs, Edited by Samuel Zipp and Nate Storring.
Building more may not lower prices, and may actually raise them. Funny stuff, that real estate: instead of just supply and demand, there’s location, location and location, and other funny dynamics. Who knew? Our much-envied big sister city in B.C., for one.
“The City of Vancouver is finally admitting that they cannot build their way out of the housing affordability crisis. The supply myth has been driving ever-escalating amounts of market housing, but affordability is getting worse, not better…
“The industry must be pleased that the same supply myth continues to be applied even though the city admits it doesn’t work.More expensive market supply will not make things more affordable. It will, in fact, continue to intensify the affordability crisis as millennials are demo-victed from their older housing and priced out of Vancouver. How many more times will the city do the same things expecting different results?”
The City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance has sent out video “fly-bys” of the proposed renovations to the Portland Building. Gone is the most horrible mistake of the original plan, the garage entry that consumes the park side of the building (likened to an “anus” pointing toward one of the most important public spaces of the city).
On the other hand, it cannot be said that the proposed new design is sympathetic to Michael Graves’ original post-modernist project. (Which, like many others of its generation, sought imperfectly to provide an alternative to the widely-perceived failures of modernism.) In what seems to be a clumsy Mies-take, dull curtain walls with black mullions replace the ground floor exterior walls. Yes, the building needed more light — but with such an ill-fitting, fashionably thoughtless design?
The website tries to explain it, showing in the process how laughably anachronistic retro-modernist the architecture profession has gotten. “Notice how historical elements coexist with the modern,” it gushes. Historical, as in 1982, and modern as in, what, 1960?
Neither is destroying the heritage and livability Oregon cities. But that’s the false choice being proposed by the new Oregon House Bill 2007, sponsored by Representatives Tina Kotek (D), North Portland, and Duane Stark (R), Grants Pass. Styled as “anti-NIMBY” legislation, it would strip local governments of most powers to regulate the design of new residential construction, except in a few cases. It would also greatly weaken the ability to provide heritage district designations, which offer sometimes crucial protection against demolitions of historic structures. Not surprisingly, Restore Oregon, the Architectural Heritage Center, neighborhood associations, and many other groups are beginning to mount fierce oppositions to the bill.
Let’s be clear about the problem. Oregon is growing – by 69,000 new residents in 2016 – and Portland is driving much of the growth (it’s in the top ten fastest growing metro areas in the nation, according to Forbes). Clearly those folks need housing, and without new supply, competition for existing supply will grow, along with demand — and prices.
But price growth does not occur in a vacuum. Part of the reason for Oregon’s population growth in the first place is its relative affordability in relation to California, Washington and other states. To some extent, those prices will tend to equalize over time, regardless of local policy. For example, a building boom might just attract even more migrants, soaking up any new supply and putting us back in the same position. (This phenomenon is called “induced demand,” and it’s the reason that facile if profitable solutions like “just build more” — houses, freeways, whatever — often don’t work.)
Nor are many of the new projects going to do much about affordable housing anyway. (Like the expensive new high rises with Mt Hood views allowed under the new Central City 2035 plan, and other inherently costly housing that will tend to draw even more high-income residents to Portland.) The City, Metro, and the State all seem at times neurotic in their determination to address quantity without quality. To protect existing residents, the region would be better off to enact targeted policies to help owners and renters, like tax abatements for owners, and incentive tools to help existing renters.
That still leaves an immediate and real problem of accommodating the growth that will occur in any case. The answer is not to blame the victims.
Existing residents are victims when they see historic buildings demolished on their streets, when they see disruptive, ugly new developments, and when they see the livable quality of their neighborhoods deteriorate. The fact is, we in the planning and development industry (and I speak as a long-standing representative) are the ones who create NIMBYs, when we trade a meadow for a strip mall, a bungalow for a McMansion — or a human-scaled boulevard for a street full of boxy, trendy-today, ugly-tomorrow “space invaders”. Residents fear that new development will degrade their quality of life — and based on the evidence of their experience, they are sadly not wrong.
But new developments don’t have to be ugly, disruptive, or destructive of our livable heritage. Neighbors don’t have to be stiff-armed by governments, invited into tokenistic “involvement” that treats them disrespectfully at best – and they know it. (I am often on the development side of that table, and I know how the game is played – although I hope I do not ever give in to that profitable temptation.)
Instead, I think we in the planning and development field — at its worst the “Architectural-Industrial Complex” if I am honest with you — need to do a more sincere job trying to convert NIMBYs to YIMBYs – “Yes In My Back Yard”. At the same time, the neighborhood residents need to do a better job specifying under what conditions that win-win approach might operate. Right now the process is unnecessarily adversarial, and the winner is too often just plain bad development.
Even more important, we don’t need a cumbersome, capricious review process that reliably seems to get us the worst of both worlds — a slow and uncertain entitlement that adds unnecessary cost, AND a result that is increasingly bizarre, formulaic, and/or disruptive of livable character. Too often the only winners in this system are those that can game it for all it’s worth. Too often the system produces jammed-in buildings, reaching the very maximum FAR and other “design by numbers.” Then architects get to sprinkle on the latest fashionable novelty eye candy — theme-packagers for toxic industrial products? — and everyone can then pretend that some great artistic addition has been made to the city. In a few decades, when it’s far too late, we realize again that we’ve been had, with yet another generation of failed modernist buildings.
Portland is full of beautiful, context-sensitive precedents for higher-density housing. A healthier process would bring in residents together with planners early on, to develop “preferred entitlement paths” for designs based on pre-accepted precedents. The precedents would demonstrate, through the evidence of history, how they would mitigate negative impacts on livability, and add positive impacts. If developers came in with proposals that fit those criteria (and others as needed, like preserving or moving elements of historic fabric) they could get a streamlined entitlement – and other incentives too for doing good development. (There are a number of examples of how this can work, including a proposal for Metro a few years back that I helped co-author.)
This is what the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community, my old shop in London, calls “Beauty in My Back Yard” — a win-win approach to development. If we accept the fact that heritage and livability are important, but growth is natural (just as it was in the past), we can map out a win-win future that grows with our heritage and our livability, instead of against it.
Portland desperately needs more thinking like this, surely.