Should we re-zone Northwest Portland and King’s Hill to allow high rises?

An open letter to Portland’s Planning and Sustainability Commission

Dear Commissioners,

RE: Opposition to proposed re-zoning of King’s Hill to RM4; request rezone to RM3

I am writing to offer this testimony on the above-referenced topic (part of the Better Housing by Design proposal) as a resident of King’s Hill. For the record, I am also president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League, a business owner in sustainable development consulting with an international practice, and president of a non-profit think tank in sustainable urban development, called Sustasis Foundation ( However, I wish to make it clear that in this letter, I speak as a citizen on my own behalf.

My residence is at 742 SW Vista Avenue, Apartment 42. My six-story apartment building has a net density of 196 units per acre (45 units on a 10,000 SF parcel). My neighborhood of King’s Hill, as well as the surrounding areas of Goose Hollow and the Alphabet District, are among the densest in all of Oregon (approx. 22 units per acre gross). As my Ph.D. dissertation research has shown, this density and mix is optimal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing other valuable benefits of sustainable urban development. Indeed, I have published books and lectured extensively about this area and its remarkable urban characteristics. It is featured in the book Cities Alive and in the class I teach in the School of Sustainability and School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University, among others. (I have also taught at U of O and elsewhere.)

Large parts of our region, including areas within the City of Portland, are very low-density, sprawling and with high greenhouse gas emissions. They desperately need new and more livable forms of development that are more sustainable. This was a major effort in my own career when I became project manager for the master developer of Orenco Station in Hillsboro, taking an extremely low-density area (<1 unit per acre gross) with no walkable amenities, and building a “complete community” that offered a much more compact, walkable neighborhood (density >12 units per acre, plus extensive mixed use).

Through the best of intentions, we could all too easily destroy the priceless urban asset represented by King’s Hill, the Alphabet District and Goose Hollow. In my research and consultancy in other cities around the world, I have seen exactly this tragic result. In fact, the momentous changes in development practices in the 1950s and 1960s left us with sad remnants of once great cities, and horrific damage committed by very well-meaning people for the best of reasons – economic growth, opportunity, better living conditions, “modernization” and so on. The past is a warning to the present.

Today I believe there is also a well-meaning but terribly misguided approach that has come to dominate in Portland, which may be reflected in the current proposal to upzone King’s Hill and the Alphabet District. As in the 1950s and 1960s, it places great faith in “modernization,” and in the capacities of new development to better reflect the spirit of the age and its needs and ambitions. In particular, there is what some have called the “Vancouver Model” – to accommodate the needs of a growing city by upzoning, replacing older low-rise and mid-rise buildings with high-rise buildings, adding more units, and also encouraging mixed use and transit-served development. At least the addition of mixed use and transit are improvements over the older 1950s and 1960s models, it is felt.

But there is a warning today emerging from Vancouver, and other cities like it. Leaders like Patrick Condon – head of the urban design program at UBC, and now a potential candidate for Mayor – have cautioned places like Portland to learn from their mistakes, and the highly problematic results. Vancouver thought it could add many units to the core and thereby meet demand with supply, thus lowering prices.

But this approach didn’t work – to put it mildly. Vancouver is today one of the least affordable cities in the world, and significantly higher than Portland. (As Patrick Condon and others have pointed out, this outcome was not explainable as a one-time event related to Chinese investment; indeed, international investment is accelerating, in Portland as well as other cities.) Meanwhile, Vancouver has lost much of its priceless historic neighborhood fabric, including older and more affordable buildings that once occupied the site of expensive new condominiums.

One of the people praising the high cost of housing in Vancouver is Donald Trump Jr., in charge of building the luxury Le Corbusier-style Trump Tower there. “We’ve done it time and time again — when you combine a great location with incredible architecture and incredible amenities … it’s sort of a formula for success.” He was speaking of the eye-popping sales prices for the 214 luxury units in Trump Tower Vancouver, which sold at an average $1,610 per sq. ft. — the highest rate in Vancouver, or for that matter, all of Canada. One single unit sold for over $6 million.

Portland is rightly celebrated as having charted a different path – revived and built on many historic assets like the streetcar system, the Skidmore Fountain area and others. The Alphabet District, Goose Hollow and King’s Hill have also become models of livability, after a wave of destructive tear-downs and insensitive modern buildings in the 1960s. We should recognize and protect what we achieved.

This is a kind of “Jane Jacobs urbanism” – accommodating new projects, yes, but carefully, and retaining a mix of old (and cheaper) with new. This diversity of age matches other kinds of diversity, including income, ethnicity and other factors. It assures that new projects achieve a “gentle densification,” as Patrick Condon has termed it – building on under-utilized sites like parking lots, before allowing affordable historic buildings to be torn down. My own apartment, built in 1911, is a case in point – it rents for $1.60 per foot. If this site were upzoned, I might (from a pure business perspective) advise a developer, perhaps with foreign capital, to demolish this building and put up a much taller and more profitable building. (Its rent would likely be closer to $3.50 per foot, not counting the small amount of “inclusionary zoning” that would be required, quite possibly in a remote and much less livable location.) I would make money doing this — but the city would be much the poorer for it. This might well happen to the next affordable building, and the next – and soon, we would transform the city, into a pale imitation of Vancouver, with perhaps only the worst of its attributes.

Instead I think we must follow the old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If we want a more sustainable, affordable region, we need to re-focus away from the neighborhoods that are already models of sustainability, and toward the lower-density, sprawling, monocultural places, as I did in my years with Hillsboro and Orenco Station. It is in these suburban areas that over 80 percent of the region lives, and arguably, over 95 percent of the region’s sustainability challenge remains.  These areas deserve beautiful, livable, walkable urbanism as much as others do.  THAT is the takeaway for equity and justice — NOT trying foolishly to cram everyone into the core, only to further damage the core, AND the suburbs.  Following Jane Jacobs, we need geographic diversity as well as other kinds of diversity.

Therefore, I strongly oppose the proposed re-zoning of the areas of the King’s Hill historic district currently zoned RH to RM4. I hereby request that this area be re-zoned to RM3.

In addition, I believe the same issues apply to the Alphabet District, and I support the request by other affected parties to re-zone this area to RM3 as well.

I do appreciate the efforts to provide historic protections within the current proposals. However, beyond preserving individual landmark and contributing historic structures, I strongly agree with the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/ Architectural Heritage Center and the local preservation community on the need to maintain the distinctive character of designated historic districts, which contribute so vitally to Portland’s irreplaceable heritage, livability, and yes, affordability.


Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D.

Is ONI – er, OCCL — still broken?

New director Suk Rhee brings in refreshing values of diversity — but basic principles of geographic representative democracy seem to be lost in the shuffle

Previously we wrote about the disturbing name change of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement, to the “Office of Community and Civic Life,” — dropping the word “neighborhood” altogether.  As we wrote, that’s not just a bit of feel-good cosmetics, but we think reveals a disturbing new low for Portland’s once-celebrated neighborhood association system.  It also doesn’t seem to reflect a responsiveness to the scathing City Auditor’s Report of November 2016 — before new director Suk Rhee took the helm.

That report included  a telling passage:

While some respondents noted that Council’s responsiveness varied by issue and by Commissioner, only 46 percent of the leaders said City Council is responsive to input from their neighborhood association.

“The City of Portland seems unconcerned about the perspectives of residents as reflected through their neighborhood associations.” – Neighborhood leader

That’s a pointed criticism, suggesting the need for reforms that restore and empower the neighborhoods as grass-roots channels within the City.  The name change seems to go in the opposite direction — downgrading neighborhoods to become competitors with other voices that the City decides it wants to listen to.  Whatever its altruistic intents, that is a top-down, command-and-control approach at best, and a formula for marginalization and muddle at worst.

But are neighborhood associations even relevant anymore?   Aren’t they in decline, no longer representative (if they ever were)? Full of rich white NIMBY homeowners? Isn’t it time to move on, and listen to other voices?


The Portland neighborhood association system has been responsible for some of the City’s most important achievements, including its focus on walkable, transit-oriented, livable neighborhoods,  its preservation of priceless historic assets, and its denial of some truly disastrous planned projects, for which we can all be grateful.  The answer to a neighborhood system that is not as representative and accountable as it should be is NOT to throw neighborhoods under the bus — but to listen to the Auditor, and to reform the system.  (And with respect to Commissioner Eudaly and Suk Rhee, it is not to put a naming band-aid on a much deeper structural problem.)

Here are a few of the reasons that neighborhood associations are critical, and need to be elevated — not marginalized:

a) Portland’s at-large commission system desperately needs a complement of geographic representation, especially for Eastside residents.

b) A truly “subsidiary” democracy (flowing from the grassroots) needs a voice for people AT the grassroots, namely from peoples’ own homes and neighborhoods.

c) All politics is local, and nothing is more local than neighborhoods.

d) If the City is committed to transparency and accountability, then it needs to empower its stakeholders, including neighborhoods, even if — especially if — they disagree with the City and seek to hold it accountable.

e) Neighborhood associations have a unique obligation of open participation, public meetings, public records, and transparent disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.

Other advocacy organizations can be exclusive — and many are, by their very nature.  That’s often appropriate — but only geographic representative entities like neighborhoods can represent ALL the people who live there, regardless of any other factor.  And as a city providing participatory funding, we have every right to demand that they do.

That’s a fundamental difference from other stakeholder groups, who — whatever their aspirations or outward appearances — are sometimes dominated by unaccountable interests of wealth or power.

Of course the City needs to listen to other stakeholders. (But not by crowding out geographically representative constituencies, AKA neighborhood associations.)   Of course neighborhoods must be more representative and inclusive, reflecting income diversity, diversity of ownership, diversity of age, those with disabilities, people of color and/or diverse national origin, and others.  But they must also be empowered to have real influence.  The way to make neighborhood associations more relevant is… to make them more relevant, within real City processes.

My own neighborhood association board of Goose Hollow includes people from all of these populations (including a number of renters and low-income members), and we have taken a number of strong pro-active steps to be more inclusive.

Our Goose Hollow board has also taken a strong stand on the issue of ONI reform, well before Director Rhee came into post, and before the current name change and its disturbing portents.  In March of this year we wrote a letter to the Commission and Director Rhee, reiterating previous concerns and expressing further concerns about the still-unmet — and increasingly urgent — need for thorough reforms of the agency.  Here it is in full:

Dear Mayor Wheeler and members of the City Council,

The Board of Goose Hollow Foothills League has authorized me by unanimous vote to send the following letter.
It has been almost a year since GHFL forwarded a letter calling for the reform of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI), following upon the November 2016 audit, Community and Neighborhood Involvement: Accountability Limited, Rules and Funding Model Outdated.
We believe it is time to revisit this. First we note that few of the issues we raised last March have even come up at either ONI BAC or Directors and Chairs meetings. The exception occurred at 2 BAC meetings, where there were briefings on the changes required by City Council’s passage of ethics requirements at its 9 November 2017 meeting, and conflict of interest statements were then signed.
However, it is disturbing to experience the general disparagement of Neighborhood Associations that has become a narrative. This has been noted and examples given in the 29 January 2018 Minority Report re the requested ONI FY 2018-19 Budget, which was submitted by two of our members.
One might conclude from this rhetoric that the ONI Audit faulted the 95 Neighborhood Associations rather than ONI and its neighborhood involvement program. That would be quite a stretch, since all of Portland’s association boards and members are comprised of unpaid volunteers who do not administer tax dollars.
ONI’s new director spoke at the 12 October Directors and Chairs meeting of the need to “create a culture of civic involvement.” We agree with that, and it is what we and other Neighborhood Associations have been attempting to do (and to maintain) for some time. That was the aim of those associations before ONI came into being –and it was supposed to be the aim of the newly established bureau (then called ONA –Office of Neighborhood Associations) in 1974.
The original purpose of ONI was to support and empower its “customers” or “end users,” i.e., Portland’s Neighborhood Associations, so that they would, as grass roots agents of the most basic kind of democracy, “do their thing.” This “thing” was to protect and advocate for their neighborhoods, their health, livability, and sense of community. Good neighborhoods make good cities.
It was understood that this advocacy would bring them frequently into conflict not only with outside interests that threatened them, but with the city itself and its agencies. That was the whole point, as the issues and values they promoted could arise only from the grass roots, not from bureaucracy.
Bureaucracies, having no grass roots validation, are unlikely agents of democratic involvement, as their approach is inevitably a top-down one. We believe that approach to be divisive, fostering disempowerment, frustration, and sometimes anger. Following ONI’s founding, its history over the past decade and more has been to shed its original purposes and instead to have the effect of discouraging inclusiveness and participation in and by the grass roots. By the disenfranchisement outlined in the referenced Minority Report the grass roots are thrown into the compost pile. We would agree that it “strikes at the heart of participatory democracy, fosters concentration of power in coteries, engenders apathy in ordinary citizens, and devastates neighborhood involvement.”
At the same 12 October meeting, it was also admitted that “Public confidence in ONI is at an all- time low.” Further evidence of this appears in the Portland Mercury 2 February story re the attempt to re-brand the bureau: involvement-and-other-great-and-ignored-suggestions-for-renaming-oni
On this matter, we quote a respected colleague: “I’d resist any renaming that omitted the word ‘neighborhood.’ The fact is that place-based neighborhoods are at the center of Portland’s public involvement paradigm and to ignore that would be a serious error. The identity-based organizations are political associations that by their nature exclude others, and, while they should be recognized in the political realm, don’t and can’t provide the same kind of public representation that place-based representation can.” It is essential that the City recognize the fundamental difference between communities of identity and geographic constituencies.
We also find it hard to understand ONI’s “flight from a core function…(originally the only function)” and strange that the bureau has thus far not involved the largest group of its end users in a reform process. Instead this has been kept within ONI and the coalition leadership, which is unlikely to produce reform. Nor is communication with the Neighborhood Associations taking place. Reports of BAC or Directors and Chairs meetings are not made and discussed at our own neighborhood coalition meetings, for instance.
We suggest there is a problem with any bureaucracy choosing to change its own responsibilities. This is backwards, a reversal of the UN-articulated principle of subsidiarity, where it is posited that democracy and social justice work best when decisions are made at the most local level rather than by central authority. The mission should arise from the people, acting through elected representatives. This was the process and the vision at the bureau’s inception.
A bureau exists to serve constituents and if it should choose not to perform core functions, it would be logical to expect that the agency would either cease to be or to have the funding for such function(s) taken back.
We have heard considerable sentiment among Portlanders that the latter should happen. At this point, however, we would prefer “…to see a fully reformed ONI, accomplished through the involvement of those it should serve, not simply staff and vested interests,” and not to relinquish the vision “…which was seen nationally as Portland producing a model of participation by grass roots democracy in the betterment of the city.”
We would also say that the ONI Audit does not level blame on the great majority of ONI staff and we believe them to be dutiful civil servants. Likewise, ONI’s past actions and the deficiencies enumerated in the audit did not happen on Suk Rhee’s watch, and we wish her well as her tenure begins.
Since we discuss many of the ways in which we feel the system has been failing, we believe we have a responsibility to suggest ways in which it can be reformed. Along with many other citizen advocates in Portland’s Neighborhood Associations, we have thought long and hard over what ONI has been and what it should be and we are prepared to share that and to work with our city so that it once again can be a model of grass roots advocacy and participation.

Sincerely, Michael W. Mehaffy, Ph.D. ,President, GHFL
Copy: Ms. Suk Rhee, ONI



Advice to Design Reviewers: Beware of False Renderings!

Unreal transparency, happy people, and lots of trees and shrubs are among the sins of “Photoshopping”

From our friends at the “Architecture Uprising” (Arkitekturupproret) in Sweden, here is a timely warning to design review boards, to clients and to citizens: what you see is too often not what you get.  Sexy renderings that look like glowing crystal layer-cakes, smiling crowds of people and bikes everywhere, nice soft trees and shrubs, might translate into… something different.  Objects may be uglier than they appear…

First up is the “crystal box” (above, top).  This is a common trick: the building is going to be a luminous jewel, an absolutely lovely sight to behold.  It won’t be an ugly strip of panels and glass, festooned with even uglier signage.   But that’s what residents of Gothenburg, Sweden actually got (above, lower).

Next up is the “throng of pedestrians” trick.  It’s easy to make a dead space look lively by Photoshopping in happy people and bikes everywhere, like this example from Copenhagen.  But as the photo shows, these projects often deliver rather more dismal results:

We think of Copenhagen as a very human-scaled, bike-friendly place — but in its car-dominated modernist outskirts, not so much.

Lastly, the oldest trick in the book, “shrubbing it up.” Just throw in a bunch of trees and landscaping elements, whether or not they accurately depict what is built — as this example from Piteå, Sweden illustrates:

We are reminded of Frank Lloyd Wright’s quip at a cocktail party, “you doctors are lucky that you can bury your mistakes.  We architects have to plant vines.”

To see more “fake views” from Arkitekturupproret — or to learn more about this remarkable group, 30,000 strong and growing — visit the links below.  Thanks to our friend Yulia Kryazheva in Amsterdam for passing on this item!

Fake views – Kontrasten mellan visionsbilder och verklighet

About us (English)

ONO!… Office of Neighborhood Involvement changes its name to “Office of Community and Civic Life”

Neighborhood-based geographic representation gets a further apparent major demotion

The new “brand”.

This just in from the former Office of Neighborhood Involvement:  the direct, simple idea of neighborhood-based participation in city government has now been officially euthanized, replaced by a feel-good title, “Office of Community and Civic Life.”  City activists who are already troubled by poor geographic representation under Portland’s at-large system have another major reason to be alarmed.

So do the many other groups that are currently under-represented in city affairs.  While the new move represents an attempt to give them a bigger voice, there is no democratic means for doing so, and only those who are acknowledged by the City will be… acknowledged by the City.

We noted some months ago that such a move was afoot  (see  We warned that the current situation is an inversion of the fundamental  democratic principle of geographic representation, and that the way to deal with an inadequate neighborhood involvement system is to make it more representative and more accountable, and not to marginalize it.

Can you spot the neighborhoods?

But this week’s news makes it clear that neighborhoods — along with the venerable neighborhood involvement system itself — are going under the bus.

The chart that came with the announcement has a dizzying number of elements, only one of which is “Neighborhood Program.” That element is a bit hard to spot, well below “Crime Prevention,” “Information and Referral,” and “Cannabis.”  In total, “Neighborhood Program” is one of twenty elements in the chart.

This week’s email from Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Director Suk Rhee:

Dear friends and colleagues:

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement has been the gateway to civic engagement in Portland for 44 years. While the bureau was originally created in 1974 to connect Neighborhood Associations to the city, the bureau’s responsibilities have evolved over time. Just as the services that ONI provides have evolved, so must the way we represent our bureau to you: our constituents and partners.

Effective July 1, 2018, the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is becoming the Office of Community and Civic Life. This change is the result of a recognition by many, through focus groups, research, and dialogue, that our name should better represent the wide range of ways our office supports and engages with all Portlanders.

While the public roll out is scheduled for July 1st, we are sharing the news with community partners and city colleagues this afternoon. We want you to be the first to know.

The Office of Community and Civic Life strives to connect the people of Portland with their city government to promote the common good. We chose the word Community to include all Portlanders, and the word Civic to highlight our role in engaging the public in local government.

Our mission remains the same:  Promoting a culture of civic engagement by connecting and supporting all Portlanders working together and with government to build inclusive, safe and livable neighborhoods and communities. It will take all of us to realize our shared goals. As the Office of Community and Civic Life, we will maintain our strong, longstanding community partnerships and expand our efforts to bring new voices to the table. 

The website, bureau, and program materials will be updated on July 1, 2018.  We will be re-introducing ourselves to our city and community partners through longstanding events like National Night Out and Spirit of Portland Awards, a social media campaign, and printed materials.

For further information about our name change and the rebranding process, please visit our website. We welcome your ideas and invite you to collaborate with us as we begin our next chapter as the Office of Community and Civic Life.

Thank you,

Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner                                                                                   Suk Rhee, Director, Office of Community & Civic Life


A remarkable letter to the Oregonian

Portland developer John Russell challenges the city’s current “build, baby build” approach to the housing crisis — and the local media’s acquiescence  — claiming the “rush to judgment” short-circuits proper public process, and leaves the city with mistakes that may endure for a century.

A Pearl District project whose approval was recently overturned by the City Council. Image: TVA Architects and City of Portland

John Russell doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the absurd logic of the current strategy to address the housing and affordability crisis in Portland — or the clueless local media coverage of the issue.  He says, “I have the temerity to suggest that the Oregonian/Oregon-Live, Willamette Week and The Portland Tribune have it all wrong.” He cites a cynical insider joke at City Hall, “If the cure for low income housing is more luxury condos, then the cure for hunger is more Michelin-starred restaurants.”

Russell is well known to Portland insiders, and his opinions carry clout.  His company’s website states “John chose to live in Portland before he had a job because he had a sense that Portlanders could control their own destiny.”  The website also cites his service on “the Portland Development Commission, the Mayor’s Business Roundtable, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Committee for Economic Development, the Oregon Investment Council, as well as the Oregon Transportation Commission, the Portland Planning Commission and the Portland Historic Landmark Commission.”

The full letter is at the Oregonian’s website here.  Excerpts are below. It’s well worth a read!


Need for housing doesn’t justify media’s rush to judgment
John W. Russell
Oregonian April 11, 2018

With reference to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s March 25 editorial, “City Council needs to reset its compass,” I have the temerity to suggest that The Oregonian/Oregon-Live, Willamette Week and The Portland Tribune have it all wrong.

In a series of articles and editorials, the mantra of these publications seems to be that the Portland City Council should never stand in the way of any project that includes housing. Two projects were cited, one in the Pearl and another on the waterfront near River-Place. The justification is that since we desperately need more low-income housing, projects should be expedited because any housing is progress toward that goal. It’s given rise to an inside joke among staffers at City Hall: “If the cure for low income housing is more luxury condos, then the cure for hunger is more Michelin-starred restaurants.”

The Pearl project faced objections from folks whose views would be adversely affected by its planned height. That fact was sufficient for Willamette Week to dismiss their objections, ignoring the fact that self-interest doesn’t make testimony automatically wrong. The City Council pointed out a significant flaw, namely that the proposed building would dramatically narrow greenway access. The council’s demand for changes will likely end up delaying the project only by a couple of months. Given that the building will exist for 100 years or more, that doesn’t seem like a big price to pay.

The council was also criticized for its initial refusal to adopt a zoning change for another project, adjacent to RiverPlace. The change, which has never had an effective public hearing, calls for doubling the permissible height for building at that site — which had already been doubled through the Comprehensive Plan update, an extensive public process that took six years.

I don’t have a dog in the fight. The views from my nearby building aren’t adversely affected, regardless of the height. But I do have a dog in the fight based on eight years of serving on the Planning Commission and two years on the Comprehensive Plan committee that held public hearings for this part of the central city. I’m a fervent believer in proper public hearings, and this zoning change never got them. Unfortunately, the City Council ended up reversing itself and adopted the higher height limit after all. As a result, an unintended consequence is that any project, regardless of whether it includes housing, could use that height. The result could be a net loss of 300 units of housing.

City Council’s hearings are mid-week, mid-day, in downtown Portland. That’s a far cry from the public hearings that we conducted when I was on the Planning Commission. We’d hold hearings at any time, in any venue, in order to make it more likely that they would be convenient for affected citizens to attend. We’d hold evening hearings in neighborhood schools, for example.

The rush to judgment advocated by the above-mentioned publications short-circuits the proper public processes that have served Portland well. Let’s take the time to get these buildings right.

John Russell is managing partner of Russell Fellows Properties and is founder of Russell Development Co. He has previously chaired the Portland Development Commission and served as a member of the city’s Landmark and Planning Commissions.

Toward a “QUIMBY” Charter

Isn’t it past time for civic-minded people to come together and talk rationally about how to meet the challenges we face, AND protect and improve the assets that make Portland a great city?  Is it time for “Quality In My Back Yard”?

Are we likely to see things get worse, not better?

We’ve all heard about “NIMBYs” – those often-disparaged people whose response to a new project is likely to be, “Not In My Back Yard.”  Although they’re usually caricatured as selfish and insensitive to the larger community’s needs, sometimes NIMBYs have a point.  (As I myself often observe when working with stakeholders as a public involvement consultant to governments, NGOs and private developers.) The impact of what’s being proposed amounts to trading away something good, or at least tolerable, for something worse. A meadow will get bulldozed and replaced with a cookie-cutter housing tract. Or a beautiful old building will get torn down and replaced by an egotist’s eyesore.  That is not sustainable urban development, by any definition.

The results don’t have to be worse, of course. There ARE developments that improve the quality of existing neighborhoods, and that offer new amenities for existing residents. This is the spirit behind the “YIMBY” movement – “Yes In My Back Yard.”

Perhaps the trouble with the YIMBY movement, though, is that it doesn’t seem to focus much on the important differences between good projects and bad ones. Bring them all on, YIMBYs seem to say — yes, and yes again! But this approach might or might not even solve our problems – see for example the failures of places like Vancouver B.C. that tried to build their way out of problems. There is a very real risk that we will only be left with an uglier, less livable, and still more expensive city.

Enter the “QUIMBY” movement – “Quality In My Back Yard.”  We want to work together in a win-win way, to meet needs equitably, to address impacts, and to improve the quality fo the city.

QUIMBYs seek:

1. An evidence-based approach, please. No magical thinking, no mindless “build baby build,” no “McMansion Relief Acts.” If you are a proponent of a project, it is incumbent on you to show how it will actually meet our regional needs, and not bring more negatives than positives. Will it cost less than the area’s average housing stock? Will affordable units maintain their affordability over time, or quickly jump to “market rate” — leaving us back where we started, or worse?  Does the project provide more affordable units as part of a broader regional strategy, sufficient to be effective?  Is it also protecting our irreplaceable heritage, and the livable qualities that made our city attractive in the first place?

2. “All new things built with the idea of preserving the beauty of the city and adding to it.” This was famed Portland architect A.E. Doyle’s simple criterion for new additions made in 1906, and it’s still a perfectly good one.  Why can’t new construction be beautiful, livable, and desirable, from the neighbors’ point of view? (Not just from an architect-specialist’s point of view?)  It can — and it must.

3. A special focus on the public realm, our “urban commons.” The most important – and most democratic – part of Portland is its public realm. Our beautiful, walkable, safe streets and sidewalks make the city hospitable for all of us, whether rich or poor. All new developments should contribute to this “common wealth”, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods, and not diminish its value in any neighborhood.  We don’t address our regional challenges by damaging the already-successful places.  We do so by improving the less successful places that deserve better quality, and often better urban equity.

4. A collaborative, win-win approach – not an “attack them and throw them under the bus” approach.   The national level has seen an ugly new mood of bullying, Twitter-trolling and divisiveness.  Not only is this atmosphere toxic to our national culture — it doesn’t solve problems, and more often puts solutions farther away than ever.  This suits some people just fine — especially the powerful and the influential, who benefit from the status quo.  How ironic if Portland were to adopt this same bullying culture, only with a distinctive “blue flavor.”  There is sad evidence that this is happening.

5.  A pro-active approach, building collaboration, trust and multilateral solutions at the outset.  Imagine if neighborhood associations were to partner with the City and developers to adopt pre-entitled projects that are supported by the neighborhood — and then everyone got behind cost-lowering and regulatory streamlining strategies?  That just might provide affordable housing, that everyone could support.

6. The best benchmark of sustainability is what has already sustained.  New isn’t necessarily better.  For those projects that are being marketed as more sustainable, QUIMBYs have every reason to question the premises.  First, new projects create a large negative impact from the embodied energy and materials of construction.  Second, new green technologies often have a poor track record of performance in relation to claims.  Third, what is fashionably new today is by definition unfashionably dated tomorrow — often with a dingy aesthetic to match.  Projects that don’t wear well over time aren’t likely to be conserved over long life spans — an essential trait of sustainable buildings and cities.

As we experience an urban growth boom and new pressures on rents and sales prices, clearly the Portland region needs new housing units. But as this blog has long urged, it matters a great deal what those units are, and where they are. Expensive new high rises with Mount Hood views aren’t going to do anything for regional affordability, if they actually raise the average cost per unit. In fact, there’s some evidence that they will help to draw even more wealthy new residents and global investors to the region. (That happened in Vancouver, for example.)

No less importantly, demolishing relatively affordable older units and replacing them with expensive, often out of context new units is a double blow to the city. We lose those affordable units — and the heritage they embody — and too often we gain ugly, disruptive units that damage the beauty and livability of the neighborhood.  If we believe in the public process — if we believe in democracy — then we have an obligation to respect the rights of neighbors to defend the quality of the public realm, their urban commons.

There is a better way to “get to yes.” We can meet our housing goals, and preserve the heritage and livability of the city –with “quality in my back yard”!

In future posts we will articulate some of the tools that QUIMBYs can use to “get to yes” on better-quality, more affordable projects, that build on — and don’t damage or destroy — our livable heritage.




Vancouver implements “empty homes tax” to dampen speculative appreciation of home prices

Portland’s often-envied big sister tried building its way out of its affordability crisis, with dismal results; now it decides to “follow the money”

Downtown Vancouver skyline.

Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson admits that city’s version of “build, baby build” hasn’t worked.

“We had ramped up our rental housing supply, [and] focused on supportive housing for our most vulnerable population,” Robertson told “But the pressure in the real estate market continued to escalate dramatically.”

In fact, a recent analysis showed that over 12,000 of Vancouver’s units were sitting empty — the result of a wave of real estate speculation and commodification.

The result, he says, was “untethered speculation, jacked-up prices and flipping in the local real estate market.”  A warning to Portland?

So the administration went after the economic root of the problem, by passing a 1% tax on vacant homes.  The administration believes the new tax will dampen the impact of housing speculation, and also provide funding to help build more affordable housing.  Properties that are not being held for speculative purposes (such as historic homes seeking rehab) have a number of ways of claiming exemption from the tax.

Our Vancouver colleague Patrick Condon, professor at UBC, has called for a similar methodology in the past, as we noted previously on this blog.

Full article:


Five key takeaways from the World Urban Forum

What can Portland learn from the “New Urban Agenda” and its implementation?  How do our successes and “lessons learned” fit into the larger process?

The author signing an MOU at the World Urban Forum with representatives of UN-Habitat to finalize a partnership for pilot projects, helping to implement the New Urban Agenda. L-R, the author, Shipra Narang Suri, Coordinator of the Urban Design Branch of UN-Habitat, and Saidou N’Dow, Head of Legal Office, UN-Habitat.

I recently reported on conclusions from the 2018 World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February, for the national planners’ website Planetizen.  I thought readers of this blog might like to see excerpts, and their relationship to some of the issues we discuss here.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, I think Portland can play an important role in this process — in showing how sprawling American cities can become more compact, walkable, diverse, mixed-use, offering transportation choice, and — crucially — appealingly livable for many different people and stages of life.  We can share our successes, though limited, and our lessons learned — which, if we are honest, are considerable.

For example, are we still too preoccupied with the “low-hanging fruit of the core, and an approach that might be called “voodoo urbanism”? Are we ignoring the opportunities for getting large numbers of units in reconfigured walkable mixed neighborhoods outside the core, where so many peopel live and are moving?

Are we still too stuck in old 20th Century “command and control” methods of planning and design (and their reactionary architectural models)  that are a little too much like Robert Moses, and not enough like Jane Jacobs?   Methods and models that only exacerbate our more intractable problems — like gentrification, loss of affordability, loss of livability, displacement, urban inequity, growing ugliness, growing unsustainability, and other ills? I think so… (Which is one reason I continue to think it’s important to participate in the discourse in my own back yard, in spite of its apparently increasing ugliness of tone…)

Link to the article:


It’s been over a year now since all 193 countries of the United Nations adopted by acclamation the “New Urban Agenda,” the outcome document of the Habitat III conference held in October 2016. The historic nature of that achievement is hard to over-state: for the first time, we have a world-wide agreement embracing walkable mixed use, mixed transportation modes, polycentric regions, diversity and affordability, and other elements of a “new urbanism” (by any other name).

But now comes the hard part of implementation. That challenge was the focus of the Ninth World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in early February of 2018—the first since the adoption of the New Urban Agenda, and the first to take up the specifics of implementation.

The obstacles are daunting. “Business as usual”—especially sprawl—still dominates in too many places. Yet there is considerable good news about the human benefits of urbanization: improvements in health and well-being, more opportunities for women, moderated population growth, better access to services, better resources for human development and cultural growth, and much more.

Those benefits don’t come equally to all, of course, and that is one of the biggest challenges: creating a form of urbanization that is more equitable, and more effective in delivering on the great promises of cities for all. Of course that is the core reason that so many of us are drawn to cities and towns in the first place. That was, in fact, the theme of the conference: “Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda.”

So for one week in early February, 25,000 participants from all 193 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur and took up those challenges, forging partnerships and developing pilot projects. I noted five key takeaways from the conference:

1. The world is urbanizing at a blistering pace. At present rates—and there’s currently no sign this will change—the world’s urban population will more than double in the next 40 years. That’s a staggering rate and quantity of urbanization. Essentially we will create more urban fabric than has ever been created in all of human history up to now.

2. Much of this urbanization is sprawling and resource-inefficient. While the number of people is set to double, the amount of land that will be consumed at present rates is significantly more than double. In other words, urban density is going down—and the cause of that trend is easy to spot. In a word, it’s sprawl: fragmented, unwalkable, resource-intensive, car-dependent (which places an unconscionable burden on the poor, the aged, children, the infirm etc)—and simply unsustainable. At a time of accelerating resource depletion, climate change and other natural and human challenges, the implications are increasingly undeniable, and “business as usual” is increasingly unacceptable.

3. Growing numbers of people recognize that we must change business as usual. This is a hopeful trend, evidenced by the New Urban Agenda itself. It’s not just that we need to avoid disaster, but we need to seize the positive human opportunities too. In fact, the common understanding of cities is changing—from a simple-minded notion that “that’s where the jobs are” to a deeper understanding of cities as creative engines of human development, with a remarkable inherent capacity for resource efficiency. But in turn, that new understanding implies a new appreciation of what cities must do to achieve their potential—especially, how cities need public spaces, and public space systems, including walkable streets and paths. (More on that point below.)

4. But there are many who haven’t “gotten the memo.” Many people are still addicted to the short-term profits from sprawling, resource-intensive urbanization, and too many places look like they could have been designed for 1940 (with updated avant-garde art packaging) instead of 2020. GM’s “Tomorrowland,” with its vast superblocks, segregated freeways, gigantic art-buildings, and degraded public spaces, might have been a profitable model for the last century, but we need a new model today: one that is more attuned to human needs and natural complexities, and the urgent need for a more sustainable form of urbanization. That is what the New Urban Agenda provides.

5. The New Urban Agenda represents a hopeful way forward for all. We now have a landmark agreement by 193 countries to move in a new direction—a “new paradigm” in the words of Dr. Joan Clos, who just retired as head of UN-Habitat. Behind this agreement lies a new understanding of cities and their inherent capacities as engines of human development, and powerful tools in meeting our larger challenges of resource depletion, climate change, inequality, geopolitical instability, and other ills. But along with that comes a sober recognition of the great dangers ahead, if we fail to make the needed changes.

Conclusion: there is much work ahead to change the “operating system for growth.” The current system of “business as usual” is the interactive result of all the laws, codes, rules, standards, conventions, models, incentives, and disincentives, that collectively shape what can be built and where—and whether it will be profitable (which almost always means whether it can be built at all). There is a lot more to it than whether someone thinks a particular project is a good idea—or a bad one.

We can liken this vast set of rules and standards to a kind of “operating system for growth”—its structure governs what can “run” on it (or what can be built and operated). It includes the rules of local and national governments, but also the international rules of global finance and real estate capital, among others. It is a kind of “massive multi-player game” in which we are all players, but some of us get to shape the rules of the game itself. Increasingly that is what we must all work to do—changing zoning to allow better projects, reducing regulatory burdens for desirable projects, and assessing and re-aligning many of the obsolete and conflicting codes from older ways of doing things. It is tedious work, but it could not be more important.

Government policy is one important dimension of the problem—especially in democratic countries. One of the issues we will surely have to confront is the question of how resources are taxed relative to the products of human creativity. By shifting the burden away from creative outputs and toward the consumption of resources (including land) we can reward efficiency, compactness, and the improvement of long-term “externalities” (like greenhouse gas emissions). This “Georgist” approach to economics is one of the kinds of issues we will have to confront globally in changing the “rules of the game” for better-quality urban development in the future.

One of the other issues taken up by our research center in Stockholm—the Centre for the Future of Places—is the fundamental role of public space in sustainable urbanization. We’ve come to recognize it as a kind of essential “connective matrix” of healthy cities. It’s public spaces—including streets—that give us the access to all the benefits of cities, and that connect private spaces to each other. It’s public spaces that ultimately connect us to each other, as the research shows, and underlie efficient creativity and exchange within cities and towns.

Yet ironically, public space is most under threat in the current wave of urbanization. For “informal settlements”—slums—public spaces are shrinking, mostly because the illegal “developers” who lay them out have little incentive to create public spaces. For “market-rate development”—essentially everything else—there is also an economic pressure to get rid of public space, replacing it with more profitable private domains—shopping malls, gated communities, high rises, and the like. But that degrades the very connective tissue that makes cities such powerful engines of creativity, and efficiency too. It also has important impacts on equitability and “cities for all.”

In all these challenges, we will have to learn how to value public space and other “positive externalities”—how to assure that the very real human value they generate gets translated back as economic value in the development process, to reward those who make more public spaces, and reflect the true cost to all of us on those who diminish them. Similarly, those who create other “externality costs” borne by us all—like greenhouse gas emissions—ought to pay a fair amount to offset that cost—with a basic exemption for those with lower incomes. Such pricing mechanisms are a fair way of paying true costs—instead of pushing those costs onto our grandchildren’s bill.

For related reasons, these kinds of economic tools may also be necessary for building “cities for all.” Research is showing that the more we exclude parts of a city from equitable development, the more those parts of the city place a drag on the economic performance of the city as a whole. We can readily understand this in the loss of productivity, the costs of policing and incarceration, and the other costs borne by all. But the new insights show how much it’s true that “cities for all” are not just a matter of justice, but are also good for everyone’s bottom line. That economic incentive is a very helpful resource when it comes to making the needed changes.

So how do we implement such an ambitious agenda? One model discussed at the World Urban Forum is what we might call “snowball projects”—initially small, implementable pilot projects that are structured to scale up as they become more successful, and gather up momentum—like a growing snowball rolling downhill. (In our case they may be public space development projects, but they could be other kinds of urban projects as well.) As the pilot projects are developed, the knowledge gained from them is combined with other knowledge, and exchanged through international wiki-like platforms for peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and development. These “toolkits” of open-source implementation tools can then be tailored to different local conditions, using local universities, NGOs, businesses, governments, and other existing local resources, and then the lessons an be distilled and exported out again for use by others.

I came away from the World Urban Forum well aware of the daunting challenges, but also hopeful and energized. In a sense, we might well conclude that cities (and towns) pose the biggest problems for the future—simply because that’s where most of us increasingly live, and consume. But in a deeper sense, cities and towns are the solution—because, when they function well, they have an inherent capacity to produce beneficial human development with increasing efficiency and diminishing resource consumption In fact, their performance rivals the “organized complexity” and the resulting stellar performance of many natural systems.

It is exactly that “stellar performance” that we must now put to work in our cities, more reliably and more equitably, and on a much larger scale.


The ugly side of Portland’s housing debate (and getting uglier)

Portland blogger Iain Mackenzie gets some facts wrong – and cheerleads for a troubling new divisiveness in city politics

A recent Twitter feed, in which blogger Iain Mackenzie calls this author an “anti-housing activist” – ludicrously false, but also revealing a more disturbing trend of divisive city politics.

In my Twitter feed this morning, I had some nice reactions to our post yesterday on Ada Louise Huxtable’s famous criticism of Portland’s formulaic architecture, which echoes in our time with renewed relevance.  One response was from my friend Loretta Lees, an expert on gentrification and its remedies at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Her work reminds us that we certainly have a huge challenge in Portland with gentrification, equity and affordability — as so many cities do around the world.  In this challenge, we need vigorous debate, incisive critique (like Huxtable’s and others’) and sharing of lessons nationally and internationally.  (That is something we often evangelize for on this blog.)  We also need to be more joined-up with international initiatives, like the historic New Urban Agenda — a new framework international agreement that embraces “cities for all” and the ways we can achieve them.  (This author has been involved in developing and now implementing this framework agreement.)

One Tweet stood out from this narrative, however.  Iain Mackenzie, blogger at architecture fanzine Next Portland,  attacked me personally as an “anti-housing activist,” noting that my friend Sherry Salomon had given testimony at City Hall that echoed our blog post from yesterday.  (That part is true — I had a client meeting and couldn’t attend, so I asked Sherry to give my testimony for me.)

But what is ludicrously false is the charge that I am an “anti-housing activist,” since my “day job” is — to plan and build housing.  And to do so in a joined-up way, with commercial and civic uses, in walkable, mixed, complete communities, that are more sustainable and more equitable.  Among my clients are three of Portland’s best-known affordable housing non-profits, as well as other developers, NGOs and governments, in the US and internationally (including UN-Habitat, for the aforementioned New Urban Agenda.)

I have also been more active in Portland of late, trying to encourage my fellow citizens in my own back yard to think more deeply about the nature of our challenges, and the tools and strategies we will actually need to use to meet them.   (Hint: simple-minded approaches like “build baby build” will not cut it.)  That’s one of my goals in working on this blog, with my great friend Suzanne Lennard, director of International Making Cities Livable (as the name suggests, hers is very much an international effort, but looking at and sharing successes and lessons from Portland too).

For the same reason, not long ago I accepted an invitation to join the board of my neighborhood association — to practice what I preach in my own back yard.  What I have found in that role is rather shocking.  There is an ugly new mood in this city — and it is pushed by people like Mackenzie.  If you don’t see things the way he does — every new building is a good and necessary one, justified by all things correct and righteous — then you are a NIMBY, an opponent of diversity, perhaps even a racist.  At best you are an “anti-housing activist.”

Nowhere does there seem to be scope and nuance to discuss what is a good building or a bad building, what is damaging to the public realm or not, or what is an effective strategy and what is magical thinking, fueled by divisive and toxic “identity politics.”  (As we have noted, that kind of divisiveness serves some narrow financial interests well, and it has sadly come to dominate national politics — but can’t Portland chart a more enlightened way?)

Sadly, Mackenzie is not alone in fomenting this divisive new tone, and framing old-time neighborhood activists and historic preservation advocates as NIMBYs or worse.   It appears to this author that the City’s own Office of Neighborhood Involvement is also preparing to throw neighborhoods under the bus, responding to a misguided call to service “identity politics.”   As we have written, inclusiveness, equity and a “city for all” are absolutely essential goals — and good for everyone’s bottom line too, by the way —  and we must absolutely not make a hash of it by confusing geographic representation with inclusive policy.  We must not fuel the very dynamics that are causing our problems, with  a misguided approach to “voodoo urbanism.”

But sadly, that is exactly what is happening now in Portland — and the city will be damaged for generations.

Meanwhile, at the state level, some land use and housing activists (who should know better) also seem to have bought into this simplistic “build baby build” mentality, and its corollary, the penchant to attack existing neighborhoods who dare to oppose any new project, good or bad  — reflected in last year’s divisive anti-historic preservation bill HB 2007.   This was in spite of the blistering pace of residential demolitions, and the evidence that many of these houses were more affordable than the ones that replaced them.  In addition to our critiques of these misguided efforts, we also proposed alternatives.

As we have written frequently, the Portland region absolutely does need more housing units.  But we also need a more joined-up regional strategy, not a tunnel-visioned “jam them into the core” mentality.  Most people don’t live in the core, and most of the new residents are not moving to the core.  We need to think more regionally, and more polycentrically.  And to be blunt, less foolishly.

More fundamentally, we need to decide what kind of city Portland will become — that’s in our hands, as it was in 1970, and always has been.  Will we become a playground for architects and their self-serving fantasies?  (And other narrow financial interests?) Will we become a sad shell of our own past, mired in failed divisive approaches and magical thinking, rewarding only a few in the end?  Or will we actually work together to find common ground, and make Portland a truly livable “city for all?”

Stay tuned.


Ada Louise Huxtable to Portland: “Lose the ‘Anywhere USA’ towers and bunkers”

Tough words from 48 years ago – and sadly becoming all too relevant again.

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.” Taller building heights in the new Central City 2035 plan will block a number of iconic views, including this one from Vista Bridge — part of the Portlandia TV show opening sequence, and part of Portland’s urban commons. Who benefits from the privatization of our common urban assets?

In 1970, the famous New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable came to Portland, and she didn’t like what she saw. Writing in the Times, she heaped scorn on the Rose City for accepting a generation of bland corporate “towers and bunkers” that spoiled the unique natural and built heritage of the city.

Portland, she said, had “a better-than-average assortment of Anywhere U.S.A. products, with their interchangeable towers and plazas multiplying a slick, redundant formula… In style, scale and impact it will be alien corn, in every sense of the word.”

She also reminded us of what we do have, and need to protect, including “small scaled, comfortably pedestrian streets.” The trouble is, she warned, “this is a dreamworld urbanism; a city blessed by nature and by man. It is so lovely that Portlanders are lulled into a kind of false security about its urban health.”

Aren’t we ever.

About the big new buildings of that age she said, “No one has stopped looking at the tops of these buildings long enough to see what is happening on the ground. Each one is contributing to the devitalization of the city.”

Two years later, Portland adopted the landmark 1972 Plan, and the city committed to preserving and building on its walkable urban heritage. In that era of reforms, we got the preservation of the Skidmore Fountain area, the new Pioneer Square, Tom McCall Waterfront Park, and the revival of many other great old neighborhoods — often under the threat of demolition. Many of those successes came only after long fights by neighborhood activists.

How ironic that we now seem to be sliding back into the same bland, ugly formulas, driven by questionable logic and faulty reasoning – and attacks on the same neighborhood activism that helped trigger our urban renaissance.  Now they’re not grassroots champions, but “NIMBYs,” “racists,” “opponents of affordability,” and more.

Sheer nonsense.

What is also nonsense is the idea that expensive high rises are the ticket to affordability, that demolition of existing affordable housing stock is somehow the path to promoting diversity, and that we save farmland by building a few hundred more units atop tall buildings in the core.   No, we save farmland by building more walkable compact mixed use in the suburbs, where 80 percent of the region lives.  We keep the best of what we already have, including the best inner-city neighborhoods.  We become a better city by repairing and improving our worst places, not by destroying our best ones.

Perhaps the worst myth of all?  That Portland won’t be a “real city” until it joins all the other wannabe cities and builds a crop of shiny new towers.   That it’s time to put on our “big boy pants.”  (That statement — expressed by a senior member of the city planning hierarchy — is just as childish as it sounds.)

Thanks to that same hierarchy, just this month, Portland’s city council voted to approve building heights that will block many of Portland’s most iconic views, including the view of Mt. Hood from Vista Bridge (the image of innumerable post cards, and the opening shot of the Portlandia TV show).  In the wake of that decision, Ms. Huxtable’s words have special poignancy:

“Against the suave schlock of some of Portland’s current architectural imports, Mt. Hood doesn’t stand a chance.”

Read the article about Ada Louise Huxtable’s visit in Portland Architecture: