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 NextCity.org. “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: