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

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