Central City 2035 plan moves toward adoption – in spite of apparent conflicts of interest

But at least global capital will have a place to invest!

Portland’s Central City 2035 plan includes increased building heights designed to encourage a wave of new tall buildings. Critics say they will fuel demolitions of historic assets, further drive up prices, negatively impact livability, and cause other problems.

On Thursday, September 7, the Portland City Council will hear testimony from citizens on the adoption of the Central City 2035 plan, which was approved previously by the Planning Commission.

That happened in spite of a finding by the City Auditor’s office that the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the West Quadrant Plan – a key part of the CC2035 plan — did not properly disclose potential conflicts of interest. The finding by the Auditor’s Office, and specifically by Ombudsman Margie Sollinger, also included a requirement that the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability secure disclosures after the fact by members of the SAC.

The Ombudsman found that the SAC members are “public officials” under Oregon law, and therefore must not enrich themselves in the course of their conduct. In five cases, SAC members refused to comply with the disclosure requirement, and at least two of those members had major real estate holdings in the West Quadrant Plan that likely increased significantly in value as the result of their votes.

Many of us (including the two bloggers for Livable Portland) believe it is urgent that we restore the integrity of the planning process, in perception and in reality. We believe this will require, at a minimum, a re-convening of a new stakeholder committee charged with re-assessing the heights and FARs of the West Quadrant, comprising a, quote, “broadly representative… cross-section of affected citizens.” This is the requirement of Oregon’s Statewide Planning Goal One – and a basic principle of public involvement, and transparent, accountable government.

Perhaps a new SAC will be convinced on the evidence that building heights of no more than 100 feet will be fully adequate to accommodate a more benign, diverse, diffuse form of urban growth, and to preserve Portland’s priceless livability and heritage.  In any case, we believe a proper review is essential to the integrity of the process.

If you would like to testify at Thursday’s hearing, you are advised to arrive by 1:30 to sign up at Council Chambers, 1221 SW 4th Avenue.

Forbes: U.S. Cities Have A Glut Of High-Rises And Still Lack Affordable Housing

Another blow for “voodoo urbanism” in Portland and elsewhere.

The Vancouver skyline, where massive construction of high-rises has failed to improve affordability — in fact, new evidence suggests the practice has fueled greater problems.

In a convincing rebuttal to the myth that high-rises can help address housing shortages and loss of affordability, Forbes Magazine has cited statistics of a growing glut of high-rises on the market – at the same time that the crisis of affordability (in Portland and other cities) continues to spiral out of control.

The author is Joel Kotkin, a demographer and urbanist with whom the authors of this blog have had big disagreements in the past, and still do. Mr. Kotkin seems to be fond of car-dominated  sprawl, and not particularly appreciative of urbanism, i.e. livable neighborhoods with walkable streets, ample parks and squares, transportation choices and a mix of amenities. (Say it ain’t so, Joel!)

Well, urbanism is not the same thing as a city core, and while Mr. Kotkin perhaps doesn’t get urbanism, the boosters of hypertrophic growth in the core – what we previously referred to in this blog as “voodoo urbanism” – don’t seem to get the possibility of a more geographically diverse urbanism either.

The population of the Portland metro region is 2.3 million, but the population of Portland itself is only 670,000 – meaning that over 70% live outside of Portland. Even fewer live in the truly urban core of Portland, where high-rises are economically viable.

Kotkin rightly points out that focusing on this small area with high-rises creates a great many negative outcomes – of just the sort the authors of this blog have been warning about:

“…a high-density strategy tends to raise the price of surrounding real estate…”

“Critics also note that high-rises in urban neighborhoods often replace older buildings, which are generally more affordable.”

“High-density housing is far more expensive to build. Gerard Mildner, the academic director of the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University, notes that development of a building of more than five stories requires rents approximately two and a half times those from the development of garden apartments.”

“…in many cases, these units are not people’s actual homes; in New York, as many as 60% of new luxury units are not primary residences, leaving many unoccupied at any given time.”

“The notion that simply building more of an expensive product helps keep prices down elsewhere misses the distinction between markets…”

“These expensive units are far out of reach for the younger people who tend to inhabit the neighborhood, instead serving as what one executive called ‘vertical safe deposit boxes’ for people trying to get their money out of China.”

“In the end, the real need is not for more luxury towers. What is needed, particularly in America’s cities, from the urban core to the urban fringe, is the kind of housing middle- and working-class families can afford.

This is very true – although Kotkin seems a little too focused on the fringe. It still seems true that he conflates “suburban” with “sprawl,” and “center city” with “urban”.

But the “sub-urbs” can be urban too – that is, they can offer livable, walkable neighborhoods with a diversity of amenities and transportation choices – and here is the real challenge for most people in most cities, including Portland.

So the question is NOT how many people we can jam into high-rises in the core – again, “voodoo urbanism,” imagining that tokenistic over-building there will somehow solve broader problems, when in fact it exacerbates them – but rather, how well we create a truly continuous, diverse, polycentric urbanism.

Read the full article:


UN Undersecretary-General: “Supply and demand are not sufficient to guarantee housing affordability”

UN Undersecretary-General Joan Clos (left) meets with the author (right) at the COP21 climate conference in Paris. To his right are Louise Belfrage of Ax:son Johnson Foundation, and Raf Tuts of UN-Habitat.

The former chair of the UN’s Habitat III conference says, “If you leave the market alone, it’s going to be a spiral of prices.” 

Joan Clos, former Mayor of Barcelona and now head of UN-Habitat, has weighed in on the growing housing affordability crisis, now a global problem.  In an interview in Metropolis magazine he pointed to the need to address economic factors, and to target the financial mechanisms necessary — especially above the local level.  (For Oregon, this would presumably include the State.)

Clos chaired the recently concluded UN Habitat III conference, which produced an outcome document known as the “New Urban Agenda.”  The document was adopted by consensus by all 193 member states of the United Nations, including the US.

In the interview, Clos was asked what was required to meet the affordable housing crisis.  He replied:

“Successful affordable housing policies are always an outcome of a good coordination between a national housing policy and then local implementation. You need a strong national housing policy, which can help to develop financial mechanisms for addressing affordability, because affordability cannot be guaranteed only by the market. Supply and demand are not sufficient to guarantee affordability, especially in successful cities. If you leave the market alone, it’s going to be a spiral of prices.

“Strong affordability policies have two components. One is income redistribution, usually paid for by the redistribution funds of the budget, which are usually national funds. Then you need another component, which is the local design of the solution. How do you make sure that there are no gated communities, that they are not segregated, that there are no massive poor housing schemes, these kinds of things?

“These are mostly in the hands of local authorities. In order to be successful, you need a good relationship between both. This is the difficulty, because in many places you can have a very committed local authority that puts affordable housing at the center. But if you don’t have the financial mechanisms to support that, it’s not going to work.”

Read the full article here.

Simon Jenkins: Broader lessons from the Grenfell Tower Fire

Simon Jenkins, a dean of London’s urban critics and journalists (and former Editor for The Times) writes in The Guardian that the Grenfell disaster reveals more than issues of fire protection.  He argues that the very idea of residential towers is fundamentally flawed and anti-urban.

“Towers are again raising their heads across the urban landscape, creatures of egotistical architects, greedy developers and priapic mayors.. They do not converse with their context, they thumb their noses at it.

“They are antisocial, high-maintenance, disempowering, unnecessary, mostly ugly, and they can never be truly safe. No tower is fireproof. No fire engine can reach up 20 storeys, period…

“The housing expert Anne Power spoke of the craving of architects and planners at the time for “something distinctive and prestigious”. Architects even invented a vocabulary to justify what was in effect a sales pitch. They would build “vertical streets … villages in the sky … new cities for a new age”. Social consequences were damned….  

“The most “crowded” parts of London are not around towers but in eight-storey Victorian terraces. The boulevards of central Paris have treble London’s residential density without towers. Westminster council’s aborted Paddington Pole, at some 60 storeys, had fewer housing units than the high-density street housing suggested by its opponents. The tall blocks wanted by Boris Johnson for Clerkenwell’s Mount Pleasant estate are at a lower density than the low-rise town houses proposed by the consultants Create Streets…”

“Today’s surge in tower building – some 400 are in the pipeline of London’s uncontrolled property market – is driven by a quite different demand. It is from high-income migratory couples and foreign buy-to-leave investors. These people do not want a neighbourhood. Their social life is dispersed. They want a locked gate, a concierge and a pied-à-terre with a view. They want a gated community in the sky. When I moved from a tower flat to a street flat, I encountered a completely different city, exchanging what amounted to a self-catering hotel for a community of neighbours.

“Lessons will need to be “learned” from the Grenfell disaster. But I hope they extend beyond just more sprinklers and safer cladding. They should plead for the sensitive planning of a modern, sociable city. This has nothing to do with the nature of property tenure, with wealth or poverty, or with population density. Streets can be just as densely packed as towers. By whom they are occupied is a matter for housing policy. What matters in the long term is how flexible the buildings are, how they interact with each other and their surroundings. No one asked such questions of Grenfell.

“North Kensington used to be a tough area, and has long been under pressure from inward migration. That it has responded so well is, I believe, because of its topography, its intimate streets and squares and its relatively subtle rich/poor mix. Towers are here wholly out of place and character. Their plutocratic reincarnation, backed by developer-led mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, signals only a crumbling, atomised urban society.

“Such atomisation delivers ugly, inappropriate buildings under distant, careless custodians. That is the true message of the Grenfell tragedy.”

Full article:


Update on Con-way/Slabtown Square


The design for the neighborhood square at NW Pettygrove/21st is gradually getting back on the rails since our last report, but the process still needs input from the community to transform the current proposal for a courtyard into a real neighborhood square that fulfills the requirements of the Master Plan.

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst-Lennard

PORTLAND – The Design Review Commission for the Conway Square proposal meets to review the proposal at 1.30pm on July 6, at 2020 SW 4th Ave (Lincoln Room). Public testimony is invited. Please join us to voice your opinion on this new design (see below). To check the agenda (since the schedule may change), click here:


Background since our last blog:

On May 4th the Portland Design Review Commission (DRC) met to review the earlier appalling proposed design of Slabtown Square, which would have been a 65 foot wide courtyard between the 7-story wings of a U-shaped apartment building, with half of the required 16,000 square foot of the square hidden beneath the buildings.

The architects, developer and DRC were seemingly unaware of the five centuries of literature on squares, from Alberti to Sitte  to Gehl, which defines “squares” as “gathering places under the open sky”, and the DRC was apparently ready to approve the project.

It took outraged public testimony to bring the developer and DRC to their senses. DRC suggested a working meeting on June 8 between the BDC, NWDA, and the developer to come up with a somewhat better solution. This is what is now proposed:

Slabtown Square updated design for review by DRC July 6, 2017.

Speaking for myself, this new version looks nothing like a European-style neighborhood square to me (and I have been studying and writing about them for 35 years). It looks more like a parking lot or private courtyard for the surrounding residents.

Photo: Neighborhood square, Plaça del Diamant, in Gracia District, Barcelona. (120 feet x 160 feet). Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

Current design project: The resulting proposal from the developer is still far from acceptable. The developer is requesting numerous Modifications and Amendments to the Master Plan to allow them to build a larger building than should be on that site. As NWDA states in their testimony:

“The NWDA adamantly opposes the proposal for Block 290 that was reviewed at the June 8, 2017 Design Commission work session. It fails to meet the goals and standards for the public spaces required in the Con‐way Master Plan.

“By our findings, the applicant will need to seek twelve Modifications and one Amendment to the Master Plan that would, individually and collectively, diminish the size, quality and purpose of the required open spaces. The requested Modifications and Amendment would have the following negative impacts on the public open spaces:

  • Expand the development site to allow market‐rate apartments in the public park;
  • Reduce the required size of the neighborhood public square; • Increase the allowable heights of buildings on the square;
  • Increase the allowable floor area of the buildings on the square by 40,000 sf, or 27%;
  • Eliminate required top‐floor setbacks for buildings on the square;
  • Reduce the size of the required connection between the square and park;
  • Diminish the goals for the Quimby Festival Street;
  • Eliminate required connection between the square and festival street;
  • Reduce ground floor active use requirements on the square.

“The NWDA objects to the use of designated public spaces for private development. The proposed Modifications and Amendment would co‐opt required public open spaces for private for‐profit development. The proposal seeks a reduction of required open space by roughly 6,000 square feet and seeks to increase private developable floor area by more than 40,000 square feet in excess of what is defined by the Standards in the Master Plan.”

Simply put, the proportions of the square are unacceptable: the square is too small in relation to the proposed height of the. surrounding building. It is overwhelmed by the excess building that the developer is trying to cram onto the site. The Master Plan intended that on this site, Floor Area Ratio (FAR) should be transferred OFF the site, not onto it as the developer is doing.

Cross section of design for review July 6

If you would like to testify against this unacceptable design, please consider referencing some of the following specific objections:

Building height: The developer seeks a modification to the Master Plan Standards to increase the height of the west wing from 47 feet to 57 feet. As NWDA states: “The Master Plans designates the square as a “major open space.” Increasing heights of buildings on the square increases the sense of enclosure and reduces solar access. Increasing the height limit for buildings on the square does not BETTER meet the design guidelines.”

Ground floor retail facing the square: The developer seeks a modification to the Master Plan standards to reduce the amount of retail facilities fronting the square on the northern building from 75% to 38%. This is not acceptable. As NWDA states:

“The purpose of this Standard is to ensure an appropriate level of social interaction at the perimeter of the square for the square to be successful by requiring that 3/4 of the frontage of the square be devoted to publicly accessible commercial uses that can animate the zone directly outside of their lease areas… Retail activity, neighborhood facilities, and active uses are critically important to a lively and successful square.”

Dimensions of the square: The Master Plan states that no horizontal dimension of the square should be less than 100 feet. This is to ensure that the space of the square does not feel constricted by surrounding buildings. To achieve the required 16,000 square feet the square should therefore be at least 100 feet x 160 feet, or 127 feet x 127 feet, or somewhere in between.

The developer now claims to be providing a square open to the sky of 16,007 square feet. However, this claim is deceptive, because it measures areas beneath the overhanging building on 3 sides. The actual area open to the sky is 14,674 square feet.

Moreover, the 14,674 square feet has only been achieved by pushing the east building out 15 feet into the public space facing the park. The developer should be making the building thinner, not stealing the required area of public space on the park side of the building to try to meet the requirements on the square. I adamantly oppose reducing the overall required amount of public space by 3,000 square feet and handing it over for private development.

Moreover, the developer is proposing to divide the square into 2 sections, the main part between the 7-story buildings (approx. 100 feet x 131.7 feet), and an “apron” at the SW corner of approx. 47 feet x 32 feet, most of which consists of steps. While the SW corner could be sunny, the resulting restricted dimensions of the main part of the square deprives it of sunlight – and it is the main body of the square that should be designed to accommodate the greatest amount of social life.

This “apron” has no dimension of at least 100 feet (required Standard), and has a building only on the north side (3 sides are required) so as NWDA states: “…it does not meet the requirement for the square and the square footage cannot be included in the calculation of the square size.”

Connections to surrounding neighborhood, and between square and park: The Master Plan specifies there must be a link between the square and the park, preferably open to the sky between buildings, or at least 25 foot high to make the transition beneath the building comfortable. The developer asks for Modification of the Standard to allow them to reduce the height of this connection to an average of 15 feet. This would result in a tunnel 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 15 feet high.

NWDA strongly rejects this. As they testify:

“The Master Plan calls for a high degree of connectivity between the park, square, Quimby, and the pedestrian walkways. The required proportion of the connection between the open spaces is necessary for the desired visual and spatial connection. Reducing the size of the connection between the square and park does not BETTER meet the application design guidelines for connecting two public spaces. It is purely a desire by the applicant to reduce the cost of development by eliminating the need for an extra set of elevators or other architectural changes.”

With regard to connecting the square to the surrounding neighborhood, this design is woefully inadequate. If you are approaching from the south, you can enter via two flights of steps or two ramps. If you are approaching from the park, you can enter through the tunnel. But if you are approaching from the north or west, there is no entrance into the square. The block-long buildings are barriers.

This means that those living to the north and west will feel excluded from the square; it will not feel like a place that belongs to them; and they will not be able to take a short cut through the square on their way south, or to the park – they will have to go around the buildings, not through the square. The lack of entrances on the north and west will therefore cut down on the number of serendipitous meetings on the square that happen when people’s paths cross as they pass through in different directions.

Reducing the size of the park to increase private development: The developer is requesting an Amendment to the General Plan to allow them to increase by 15 feet the width of their building facing the park. This reduces the public open space by 3,000 square feet – and it does not increase the size of the square, which is still too small.

As the NWDA testimony states:

“NWDA adamantly opposes allowing private development in areas designated as public open space by the Master Plan. More than 90% of respondents to a recent survey of residents oppose reducing the size of the park to accommodate private development… A smaller park simply is not BETTER than a larger park, and the proposed exchange of public open space for private benefit is unacceptable.”

The biggest problem – Too much building: Perhaps the biggest problem with this project is that the developer is trying to cram 12 pounds of sand into a 6 pound sack. The primary purpose of 290W is to provide a hospitable neighborhood square with a minimum square footage of 16,000 square feet.

As NWDA states:

“The remaining portion of the development site is 23,400 sf. This buildable area, when extended to maximum allowable heights of 47’ and 77’, results in a maximum allowable floor area of ~144,600 sf. The proposed development calls for 184,589 sf. Proposing to build 27% more building than the Master Plan allows, and in doing so building taller buildings surrounding the public square, and being allowed to build this additional building area in a public park does not meet nor BETTER the goals or Standards of the Master Plan.”

It is clear that neither the developer not planning staff have yet accepted that the primary purpose of 290W is to create a neighborhood square (with associated development). They continue to reverse these priorities to a definition that is more familiar to them: “Type III Design Review for a new multi-story residential building (with … a publicly-accessible plaza)”. It is time that they acknowledged that the primary challenge here is to design a neighborhood square!

Conclusion: There is a long way to go before Portland can claim to have created a successful neighborhood square. Judging from previous reviews of this project, the Design Review Commission seems poised to accept the new design. Please join us on July 6th to strongly oppose this project, and to call for a neighborhood square that is truly hospitable for all.

To download the latest building plans, click here:


To view the latest planning staff report, click here.:


Photo: Neighborhood square Plaça de John Lennon, in Gracia District, Barcelona. (115 feet x 140 feet, i.e. 16,100 square feet). Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

NTHP: If you want affordability, sustainability and economic vitality, teardowns are no answer

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, points to evidence that historic preservation and adaptive reuse are not the enemies of affordability, but one of its best assets

A few of the many affordable housing projects around the country done with adaptive reuse of under-utilized sites, including former industrial sites, schools, self-storage units, and even a closed Sears store – from Housing Finance magazine (see http://www.housingfinance.com/tag/adaptive-reuse)

In a reminder that the affordability crisis is hardly an Oregon-specific issue, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has pointed out that “tearing down old buildings won’t make our cities more affordable or inviting.”  Instead, president Stephanie Meeks says, “it’s time to make better use of the buildings and spaces we already have.”

She continues:

As anyone who’s tried to find an apartment lately can tell you firsthand, many of America’s biggest cities are in the midst of a full-blown affordability crisis. All over the country, as young job-seekers and empty nesters both look to enjoy a more urban daily experience than offered by the previous suburban ideal, neighborhoods are struggling with skyrocketing housing and rental costs and surging development pressure.

We face some tough challenges in trying to navigate these pressures, but creating a false dichotomy between affordable housing and historic preservation should not be one of them. Creating affordable housing and retaining urban character are not at all competing goals. In fact, contrary to the conventional wisdom, they can most successfully be achieved in tandem.

Meeks mentions Oregon’s embarrassingly ill-conceived HB 2007, and other examples of the “false dichotomy” between affordability and livable heritage.  In fact, NTHP research has documented that heritage can be a powerful asset for affordability.  “In city after city, we have found that neighborhoods with older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks tend to provide more units of affordable rental housing, defined as housing whose monthly rent is a third or less of that city’s median income.”  She went on:

These areas also performed better along a host of other important social, economic, and environmental metrics. Across all 50 cities surveyed in our new Atlas of ReUrbanism, a comprehensive, block-by-block study of the American urban landscape, areas of older, smaller buildings and mixed-age blocks boast 33 percent more new business jobs, 46 percent more small business jobs, and 60 percent more women- and minority-owned businesses.

Read the full article here:



How TO solve a housing crisis

As more people become aware of the problematic logic behind Oregon’s HB 2007 and similar pro-demolition and “anti-NIMBY” measures, attention rightly turns to better approaches

The author discussing “voodoo urbanism” and its more successful alternatives with other participants at the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative conference in Los Angeles, June 27, 2017. L-R Dr. Paul Bunje, Chief Scientist, Domain Impact Strategy, XPRIZE; Patrick Condon, Chair of the Urban Design Program, University of British Columbia; Deanna Weber, Principal, AECOM; the author; and Steve Kellenberg, Senior Vice President, The Irvine Company.

In this blog and elsewhere, I and other critics have taken the proponents of Oregon’s proposed “anti-NIMBY” bill HB 2007 to task for sloppy knee-jerk thinking, a failure to consider the actual evidence of what works, and symbolic gestures of identity politics that only further polarize and divide our community — at a time when we need more urban unity on our challenges, not less.

But the next question is only fair: what, then, is the alternative?

First, it should be recognized that the problem of housing affordability is hardly a Portland-specific or Oregon-specific problem.  I just returned from speaking at the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative conference in Los Angeles, sponsored by the Asia Society, USC and other partners.  The stories from different cities were all remarkably similar — and indeed, compared to many places, Portland’s and Oregon’s problems seem relatively modest.

Representatives from cities across the Pacific Rim, and indeed other parts of the world, all described similar problems – from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, Vancouver to Sydney.   A wave of global capital is rushing into real estate, fueling speculation and land price surges.  Cities that try to build their way out of the problem without dealing with the underlying economic forces are likely to exacerbate, not remedy, the problem.  And the result may be not only less affordable housing, but a steady, tragic loss of their most valuable sustainability asset – their livable heritage.

What, then, is the answer?  A number of participants spoke of effective tools and approaches that have been found to work in other cities.  Here are some of them that were discussed:

  1. Taxation, including land value tax. Patrick Condon, professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, described the “Vienna Model” — new projects are taxed heavily, which depresses land cost without raising costs for market-rate housing.  The taxes go to affordable projects, and to buying more land – which is then less expensive.  Other cities tax the land value directly, using so-called “Georgist” tax policies.  We need to look at similar tools to conserve resources (like land) and reward good development.  Such policies can help to “monetize externality costs” (like sprawl).
  2. Other tools to damp down speculative real estate bubbles. Housing is a human need, not an interchangeable investor commodity – yet current policy is rewarding a dangerous new wave of speculation.  The last time this happened, 2008, the world found itself in a global financial crisis.  We need better tools, including local regulations, that control excessive speculation.  We need less childlike faith in the magic of markets.
  3. Better tools to unlock under-utilized sites. There are enormous reserves of wasted land, empty lots, parking lots and other suitable sites, in Portland and elsewhere — but there is a shortage of imagination and tools to access them. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently cited a 2014 survey that found that in just a part of New York City, nearly 2,500 vacant lots and more than 3,500 empty buildings had enough capacity to house 200,000 people.
  4. Tools for “gentle densification”. Some of these tools are addressed under the misguided HB 2007 – but we need less heavy-handed, more incentive-based approaches to apply them. They include accessory dwellings, duplexes or rental conversions, pocket neighborhoods, “tiny houses,” and other innovative forms of compatible, human-scale housing, as alternatives to “jamming it in.”
  5. “Beauty In My Back Yard”. Portland is full of beautiful, neighborhood-compatible typologies, including a rich tradition of human-scale courtyard apartments.  Where sites are available, such positive alternatives should be developed through “win-win” consultations with residents.
  6. Targeted protections for existing renters and owners, and aggressive help for the homeless. There is no excuse for letting people suffer, particularly when proven alternatives have been demonstrated by other cities. Salt Lake City, for example, has demonstrated one positive approach to ending homelessness; there are others.  Some cities have developed policies that legally disincentivize increases in rents above inflation (like property tax re-assessments based on higher incomes).  Portland needs to be less insular and over-confident, and more willing to share global lessons, showing greater humility and willingness to learn from others’ lessons.

Above all… Stop demonizing NIMBYs.  As Jane Jacobs said, sometimes NIMBYs are right – things should be done differently.  In a democracy, people who live in a community should have the right to participate in land use that affects their public realm, with a voice in decision-making. (That principle is enshrined in Oregon’s land use system as “Goal One”.)

The political environment in this country is ugly enough without fomenting more needless divisions with communities that have been allies in the past, including the historic preservation community, and the community of neighborhood activists — the one that was key to creating the Portland we love today.  The new divisive tactics are not only ineffective and counter-productive, they are unconscionable (especially when they stoop to unfounded and offensive accusations of “self-segregation”).   Such polarizing foolishness won’t solve the housing crisis.  But it might help lead to a Portland that is increasingly polarized, unable to meet its challenges, and facing decline – a sad shell of the city it once was, and could be again.

Coming back from Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but think: Portland and Oregon have a narrow window of choice.  We can try harder to learn from other cities, and spend a little less time being so insular and self-satisfied with our own aspirational politics. I fear the result of the latter is that we will only become less and less distinguishable from the growing list of cities in crisis – just another fashionable victim of deluded “command and control” thinking and “voodoo urbanism”, with a progressive veneer.

But I would like to think we can once again be pioneers for other cities, in finding and combining effective new solutions.  May that needed conversation begin.


Beware of “Voodoo Urbanism”

Over-focusing on the wealthy cores of cities only fuels inequality, displacement, and other runaway urban problems — and degrades the cores too

Portland, Oregon — currently a textbook case of voodoo urbanism going wrong. Image: Wikimedia Commons (Truflip99)

The story is distressingly similar in many cities around the world. Newly popular city cores are drawing more people, pushing up prices, and driving out small businesses and lower-income residents. City leaders, alarmed at the trends, try to build their way out of the problems, on the theory that more supply will better match demand, and result in lower rents and home prices. But the efforts don’t seem to work – and even seem to exacerbate the problems.

That’s because cities aren’t simple machines, in which we can plug in one thing (say, a higher quantity of housing units) and automatically get out something else (say, lower housing costs). Instead, cities are “dynamical systems,” prone to unintended consequences and unexpected feedback effects. By building more units, we might create “induced demand,” meaning that more people are attracted to move to our city from other places – and housing prices don’t go down, they go up.

Unfortunately, we have been treating cities too much like machines, and for an obvious reason. In an industrial age, that has been a profitable approach for those at the top, and in past decades, it seemed to fuel the middle class too. More recently, we have begun to see very destructive results — creating cities of winners and losers, and large areas of urban (and rural) decline. Even government programs meant to address the problems have seemed at times like a game of “whack-a-mole” – build some social housing here, see more affordability problems pop up over there.

In the years after World War II, and especially in the United States, the largest areas of decline were often in the inner cities, leaving the “losers” of the economy behind, while the “winners” (often wealthier whites) fled to the suburbs. But more recently it has been the cores of large cities that have become newly prosperous, attracting the winners of the “knowledge economy”.

Meanwhile, the inner-tier suburban belts and the smaller industrial cities have suffered marked decline, with a predictable political backlash from the “white working class”. Lower-income and minority populations have been relegated to even more peripheral locations, with limited opportunities for economic (and human) development. This gap in opportunity means a gap in the lower-end “rungs of the ladder” that are so essential for immigrants and others to advance.  It is a gap in urban justice too — and it is not just bad for those in the peripheries, it’s bad for the city as a whole.

This more recent pattern of core gentrification and geographic inequality has also been an unintended result of conscious policies. This time we aimed to achieve not suburban expansion, but the urban benefits of knowledge-economy cities, and their capacities as creative engines of economic development.

In the USA, authors like Ed Glaeser and Richard Florida have come to prominence by promoting the undeniable economic power of city cores. Florida’s “creative class” ranks alongside concepts like “innovation districts” to promote a critical mass of talent and interaction. Glaeser’s “triumph of the city” points to the environmental efficiencies of compact living, as well as the economic benefits.

These and other authors have cited as inspiration the urban economics of Jane Jacobs, who did indeed champion the remarkable capacities of cities, and their synergistic “agglomeration benefits,” as creative engines of human development. But Jacobs also warned against the kind of “silver bullet” thinking that imagines that the benefits of an innovation district or a downtown creative class is will automatically trickle down to the rest of the city and the countryside. On the contrary, she pointed to the dangers of any form of concentrated “monoculture” – including even the partial monoculture of an innovation district or of a creative class.  (More recently, Richard Florida has expressed the same sober re-assessment of his own earlier work.)

Instead, Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted.  In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.

This is a point that Ed Glaeser  and the fans of “innovation districts” might not yet comprehend. Glaeser for one has been harsh in criticizing Jacobs’ defense of old buildings – for example, in Greenwich Village – which he sees as a sentimental preservation instinct that only feeds gentrification. His formula has been to demolish and build new high rises.

But Glaeser and other critics seem to miss Jacobs’ point. For Jacobs, the answer to gentrification and affordability is not an over-concentration of new (often even more expensive) housing in the core. Rather, we need to diversify geographically as well as in other ways. If Greenwich Village is over-gentrifying, it’s probably time to re-focus on Brooklyn, and provide more jobs and opportunities for its more depressed neighborhoods. If those start to over-heat, it’s time to focus on the Bronx, or Queens. Or Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans…

There is almost no end of existing good urban fabric, in the US and in other countries, that is ready for some positive gentrification, the kind that increases diversity and opportunities for human development. (As we also offer targeted protections against displacement for existing residents.)

At the same time, it seems more important than ever to provide good urban fabric in the suburbs too, where increasing percentages of the population live (including increasing numbers of the displaced poor).  “Good urban fabric” means walkable, mixed, transit-served, with expanding opportunities in older as well as newer buildings.  It means the same kind of geographic as well as other kinds of diversity, achieved through conscious strategic actions to dampen, incentivize, catalyze, and use other kinds of tools.

It is not wise to over-concentrate on the existing cores, in the belief that this “voodoo urbanism” will magically benefit all of the city’s residents.  Like George H.W. Bush’s “voodoo economics,” this approach reveals a naïve faith in  the capacity of the top of the economic pyramid (or the core of the city) to generate wealth that trickles down to all the rest.  (In this light, it is ironic that so many supposedly progressive city administrations are lured by this approach.)

A second, related issue is the scale of urban plots or lots. Here too we need diversity at the smaller scales, just as we need geographic diversity at the largest scales of the city. Just as old buildings tend to be more affordable, accommodating smaller businesses and startups, so too, small plots and lots tend to be more affordable for those same users.  There are other strategies for providing a diversity of opportunity too.

But as the cores experience hypertrophic growth, often the pressure to build very large buildings on very large sites also becomes financially irresistible. A mix of small and large plots, established by zoning code, can help to tamp down this tendency. At the same time, other tools can manage overheating of the core, and steer growth into new locations. For example, we can use land value tax to dampen speculation in real estate — so-caled “Georgist” policies. As Jacobs recommended, we can also use new public projects in new locations to serve as catalytic “chess pieces” to redirect growth into more benign forms.

These and many others are examples of Jacobs’ “toolkit” approach – one that is badly needed today, to cope with the dynamic challenges of rapid city growth around the world.

The lesson is that we need to become wiser stewards of urban diversity, in both scale and location, so that we can counteract the effects of our current overheated urban growth. There are ample lessons in the past successes of cities that offer us effective tools and strategies.  By doing so, we can support a more even and equitable growth of smaller businesses, and viable employment for lower and middle classes. Out of that creative exchange, we will continue to get unimaginable marvels of innovation, and we might also get the next new world-famous startup. But we will also get many thousands of other healthy and creative businesses, forming the backbone of great cities.

HB 2007 challenged in national debate

Planetizen’s feature article on HB 2007

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.

Is this the Portland we want to become? Who gets to say? Will it be more affordable, more just? Where is the evidence? There is precious little – but lots of divisive identity politics and questionable thinking.

How not to solve a housing crisis (part 3)

The rhetoric of proponents of HB 2007 (like Rep. Tina Kotek of North Portland) is that forcing tear-downs promotes urban equity and diversity. Evidence shows the reality is the exact opposite. Source: Restore Oregon.

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.

Read the full interview: