Portland Is Growing Like Never Before. What Should We Do Next?

Meet six imperatives of Portland’s urban future.

By Randy Gragg September 21, 2016 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

Right now, almost 60 buildings at least 100 feet tall are in the pipeline for Portland’s central city—including at least 15 destined to rise more than 200 feet. And those are the projects we know about. Among Portland’s architects and builders, there’s talk of more—many more. Then there are the 14,000-plus apartments that have sprouted since 2012, across every neighborhood. And the 1,700 new hotel rooms expected by the end of 2017. And the 11 new buildings the Goodman family aspires to grow on its downtown parking lots, five proposed at more than 400 feet tall. (For comparison, Big Pink stands just over 530 feet.)

Some call it a boom; others, another bubble soon to pop. But imagine, for a moment, that all the cranes swinging above the streets, all the new, bigger buildings rising where little old ones once stood, the moving vans arriving from across the nation—imagine that this is Portland’s new normal.

Metro, the regional government, reports that about 20,000 more people than predicted moved to Portland and its suburbs last year. That’s in line with the zeitgeist: just about every Portlander will tell you the city has gotten noticeably bigger (and busier) in recent years. But the visible growth obscures the deeper story of our rampant economy: Portland’s per capita gross domestic product grew 48 percent between 2001 and 2014, compared to San Francisco’s 16 and Seattle’s 18 percent.

Both kinds of growth are likely to continue. Sure, we’re popular, talented, cool, and weird. But really, three factors—among many—stand out as more important forces shaping a Portland unlike the big-little town of yore:

The next tech revolution. Gil Kelley used to be Portland’s chief planner. He just finished two years overseeing long-range planning for San Francisco, and is now off to do the same for Vancouver, British Columbia. Kelley argues that SF and Portland are experiencing a shift unlike the tech booms and busts of old: what some economists are calling the “fourth industrial era” of cloud technologies and connected devices. Global think tank McKinsey predicts the so-called “Internet of Things” could produce $4–11 trillion in annual economic growth by 2025 as the number of web-connected devices nearly triples.

The Bay Area will be this new world’s hub, meaning even higher prices for offices and housing there. And that means more Silicon Valley satellite offices in Portland—and, hopefully, more headquarters of our own. Get ready for even more  Fitbit-attached achievers, eager to enjoy our comparatively cheaper rents, food, and tuition, and a far easier lifestyle.

Land. We have lots of it. Nope, we’re not talking about blowing through the urban growth boundary (though in an era of sustained growth and its stresses, it’s easy to imagine the politics of fear and opportunism resulting in just such a move). We’re talking about land that’s already part of the city. Portland has three times the land area of San Francisco, twice as much as Seattle, and is half or less as dense as either city. In fact, because land within Seattle is so scarce, the city-limits population of Portland is predicted to overtake that of the Emerald City—both are expected to hit 700,000 in 2025. (The Seattle metro-area population, though, will still beat the Rose City’s.)

Drive out Sandy or Foster. Look at how much surface parking still exists, to say nothing of all the little buildings, wrecking-ball-ready for something much larger. We already have room to grow.

Climate change. The Southwest faces the most prolonged drought in history—not human history, but paleontological. The rest of the lowest of the Lower 48 face sea-level rise, heat waves, increasingly violent tropical storms, and more virulent pests. Get ready for climate refugees—or rather, more of them. Oregon used to lose people to Texas, but in the ’teens—during the Lone Star State’s worst drought in 500 years—we’ve been gaining them. And don’t imagine all these rain seekers are Steinbeck’s Joads, piled in a beat-up truck fleeing the dust storms. The first arrivals are educated, affluent, and making a “lifestyle choice.”

So are we just destined to become San Francisco, where a median home price of $1 million is now in the rearview mirror? Is there anything we can do? Yes. Meet six imperatives of Portland’s urban future.

1. Build more—lots more—especially family housing. Now-trendy ideas like demolition taxes, tiny houses, and even inclusionary zoning are just political hyperventilating when it comes to keeping Portland affordable. We need to take deeper breaths. We’ll need major subsidies (bonds, tax breaks, and waived fees). But most of all, we simply need to build more housing—so much that older buildings start to become affordable.

It does no good to knock down old 750- square-foot single-family houses to build 3,000-square-foot single-family houses. It does make sense to knock down some—maybe many—little houses to make way for new tri- or fourplexes. We also need more apartment buildings, located near existing water, sewer, and transit infrastructure. We already have models: look at areas like Northwest and King’s Hill, where single-family homes sit among multiplexes, row houses, and small apartment towers—most dating to the early 20th century—ironically, when we had more land and resources and fewer cars. Given the state of the planet, it’s time to loosen our zoning and cozy up again.

2. Quit complaining about how hard it is to drive. Fretting about parking in front of your house? You’re a GBB: grumpy baby boomer. Millennials increasingly don’t own cars. And as Portland’s street grid gets more packed, you won’t want to sit idle in one anyway. Portland was an early leader in biking and car-sharing and just started bike-sharing, finally. But for today’s transportation avant-garde—electric bikes and micro-cars, both shared—visit Madrid, Copenhagen, Mumbai, or San Francisco. Portland’s tiny blocks and streets are ready for matching transportation.

3. Make growth our friend. Local builders love to complain about Portland’s development fees. But the truth is, we’re a cheap date compared to many cities. During its ’90s and ’00s boom, Vancouver, British Columbia, introduced development levies to pay for underground parking, an entirely new waterfront, thousands of affordable housing units, and even arts and day-care facilities. Developers built like crazy anyway. Will higher fees drive them away? Some. Others will see the longer-term value of a beautiful, healthful, creative city. 

4. Make historic preservation important again. Sorry, that doesn’t mean stopping demolitions or creating more historic districts (especially the ones, like Irvington’s, that are really about stopping development). But consider that Portland’s historic resources inventory—its list of valued architecture—hasn’t been updated since 1984. Consider that Oregon’s tax rollbacks and caps render the usual incentives for historic preservation—property tax freezes—largely useless. Consider that no privately owned building in Oregon can be protected without the owner’s consent. We need to get beyond political feel-good demolition taxes and adopt more aggressive height transfers, subsidies, bonuses, and other incentives. We also need to recognize that “old” does not equal “valuable”—and concentrate our efforts on buildings that truly add texture, beauty, and meaning.

5. Bring back urban design. Bike lanes and bioswales do not a great city make; lively streets and plazas do. Between the Oregon Convention Center and what is currently Lloyd Cinemas, millions of square feet of new development are planned, under way or just finished. But is anyone talking about the central spaces connecting them, along Northeast Multnomah and Holladay streets? Portland has seldom seen a better chance for a grand promenade: dynamically landscaped with adventuresome public art, designed for strolling, resting, shopping, and simply being in the city. It all could be paid for with a tool we used to use well: a public-private partnership. We squander this and similar opportunities by growing our city one building at a time. 

6. Remember: East 82nd Avenue is the geographic center of Portland. We built a reputation as the earliest comeback kid of American cities largely by reviving old streetcar neighborhoods along former lines like NW 23rd, Hawthorne, Belmont, Alberta, etc. The vast cityscape east of 82nd represents a completely different kind of urbanism: farmland developed piecemeal into malls and subdivisions along county and state roads. It demands more flexible strategies and tools: pop-up parks and shops to spark development, shared-equity trusts to give current residents a stake in change, and live-learn-work-play developments to create community. East Portland could be our greatest opportunity since the legendary downtown revitalization of the ’70s.

Building the Portland we want isn’t about just about fixing the present. And it sure doesn’t lie in wishing for the city we once were. The choices are starkly clear. Portland could become a supersize resort town: a place for the rich to live and savor fine foods, served by folks who commute from Gresham. Or the city could drift into becoming something even meaner and uglier, a welter of unmanaged growth.

Or we can dream, and build a bigger Portland that reflects our best values.

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