Monday, July 16, 2007

Portland backlash against utopian visioning, transportation problems

I really don't mean to be a Portland-basher. It's actually a very nice town. But because it's held up as a model so often for its aggressive visioning, planning, and 'smart growth', I feel it's important to point out the downsides to move the discussion beyond, "Portland's nice - let's be like them." I've accumulated a few links on those downsides over the last couple months, and thought I'd go ahead and compile them into a post to pass along now.
  • Their lack of investment in transportation infrastructure - specifically roads - is starting to seriously catch up with them. Heading towards $1.7 billion a year in lost productivity and 16,000 fewer jobs by 2025.
  • Citizens are starting to backlash against some of the Utopian and heavy-handed visioning and planning by local government:

In Portland, Oregon, results of a survey about the mayor's long-term planning vision reveal that many in the city feel development is pricing out the poor, and that policies cater more to encouraging economic development than to resident's interests.

"The vision statements currently being drafted by the project — officially known as VisionPDX — are filled with such language, including numerous calls for a clean, green, diverse city where everyone is valued."

"But the project also has unearthed information that suggests many Portlanders are deeply worried the city is moving backward. Among other things, a significant number of the approximately 13,000 questionnaires collected last summer and fall reveal fears that Portland is becoming unaffordable."

"This is in part because of large-scale urban renewal projects approved by the City Council and carried out by the Portland Development Commission over the past decade."

But many are skeptical of the plan's utopian goals, and its lack of specific implementation strategies. ...

'People are very distrustful of government right now...'

The Portland Myths
  1. Investments in transit and land-use changes promoted by planning rules have significantly reduced auto use;
  2. Transit-oriented developments have proven commercially successful and have moved many people out of their cars;
  3. Rail transit has, in turn, stimulated billions of dollars of land-use developments;
  4. The urban-growth boundary and other planning rules have significantly reduced sprawl; and
  5. Portlanders love their plans.
Problems with Portland's Plans
  1. Increasingly unaffordable housing prices.
  2. Increased traffic congestion.
  3. Higher taxes or reduced urban services as tax revenues are diverted to rail transit and transit-oriented development.
  4. A reputation for having an unfriendly business environment, leading to higher unemployment.
Recommendations for Portland
  1. Portland-area voters should dissolve Metro, the regional planning agency, and return planning functions to local governments.
  2. The state legislature should repeal the land-use planning laws that are driving up housing prices and immobilizing the region’s transportation systems.
  3. As an intermediate step, the state should pass legislation requiring Metro or local governments to make enough land available for development at marketable densities to maintain a 20-year supply of land. Similar legislation is currently being considered
    by the California legislature.
  4. As suggested by University of Maryland public policy professor Robert Nelson, the state could also pass legislation giving groups of homeowners and landowners the ability to opt out of local land-use planning and zoning by creating a homeowners’ or landowners’ association that writes its own plans and protective covenants.
  5. The state should also create a regional tollroads authority that can sell bonds backed to tolls to build highways to meet the demand as measured by motorists’ willingness to pay tolls that are priced to minimize congestion.
  6. The region should halt construction of rail transit lines and other transportation projects that are not cost effective in relieving congestion.
  7. The legislature should eliminate or strictly limit the ability of local governments use tax-increment financing. At the very least, such financial support should be provided to developers only if an area is so blighted that no development would take place without initial financial support.
Hmmm... Do most of those recommendations sound like our local status quo? Maybe the grass isn't so much greener on the other side?

Finally, Randal O' Toole, the author of the Cato report, had the good humor to mock himself on his own blog: "Right-Wing Think Tank Releases Report on Portland" Very amusing.

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At 1:08 PM, July 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My brother lives there and he's never mentioned any of this? He loves it there. I'm suprised.

At 2:54 PM, July 17, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Yep, my own anecdotal evidence tends to agree: Portlanders love Portland. No statistical sample to be sure, but it makes you stop to wonder. . .

At 5:31 PM, July 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you guys relating to suburban portlanders or urban ones. I know several people move to Houston because they couldn't afford to live in Portland they way they want to.

In Houston they found a larger house with a bigger lot and a commute time that was acceptable. I also have some friends that work in Portland, but choose to live in Vancouver, Washington because it's much cheaper. They feel people started to move across the state line to escape Portland's restrictions.

At 1:42 PM, July 18, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Actually, I don't know. I guess it's possible they live in suburban Portland. I never thought to ask :)

Nevertheless, my hypothesis is that there is some nonnegligable percentage of Portlanders, like New Yorkers, who would be willing to give up a big lot and large house to live the "urban" lifestyle in an "economical," "environmentally-friendly" setting. ESPECIALLY in Environment-City, USA -- Portland.

At 9:26 AM, July 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: the comment above from anonymous about Vancouver, WA being cheaper... I used to live in Washington state, and the reason why people move to Vancouver, WA from Portland is because there are no state income taxes in Washington state. It would be like if residents of Montgomery County didn't have to pay state income taxes - so people move there not out of a dislike of Portland, but to take advantage of differing state tax policies.

But wait, there's more. An added benefit is that they go back across the border into Oregon for major purchases, because there's no sales tax in Oregon. Nice!

At 8:13 PM, July 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comparison is fraught with problems. Portland housing prices are going to go up, because of all the mountains, rivers, and other undevelopable scenery close by. Look at a physical map of Oregon sometime and this will become clear.

I've driven in Portland twice this summer. Traffic congestion is pretty bad. But the high speed light rail is oh so nice! And I don't remember anyone on those railcars fretting about the traffic!

If you want to really see how better planning and mass transit would affect Houston, why not compare us to Dallas? Dallas is much more similar geographically than Portland, and zoning and aggressive transit investments don't seem to have had adverse effects on traffic or housing prices.

At 12:11 PM, August 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike wrote:
"why not compare us to Dallas?"

Because we're comparing to Houston, where this blog is.

I must say though, to the chagrin of Houston, the Dallas highways are clean and uncluttered, there's no mobil homes and trash everywhere you drive, and the rail system is great. But I can't work there. I'm in the refinery biz.

At 12:52 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger mulling it over said...

I lived in Portland for three years. I moved there with a car, but I lived within walking (and biking) distance of downtown. I eventually got rid of the car and commuted to work with light rail. Caught up with my reading and skipped the traffic all at once.

Portland's problem isn't city planning, it's the lack of jobs. I had to move to LA to get out of my chronic underemployment. I'd go back in a heartbeat if I could find a good job there, because Portland is gorgeous and I miss Hood.

At 2:18 PM, July 29, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Maybe something about Portland's governance/planning is unpopular with employers? (taxes? cost of offices and housing?)


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