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Portland really isn’t planning to become Los Angeles

Letter by Bob Engel

Planning – June 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Portland really isn’t planning to become Los Angeles

Dear Editor:

In the article titled “Portland Plans to Becomes Los Angeles?” (Colorado Central, January 1998), the author, Randal O’Toole, manipulates the data to support his jaundiced view of Oregon’s approach to planning.

His article contained enough obvious twisting to prompt further research. I also telephoned Mr. O’Toole for his comments.

He leads off with five items. In item (1) he states that planners “demand that people reduce their driving by 20%.” In fact they don’t demand any reduction, but rather it is a 30-year goal set at the state level. Surely many cities and states facing congestion and huge expenditures on highway expansion set goals to reduce driving by promoting HOV lanes, buses, car pools, telecommuting, etc.

In item (2) he states they “prohibit construction of new ‘big-box’ stores such as Costcos or Wal-Marts” (italics added). In fact, Portland only requires they locate in areas zoned commercial rather than industrial.

Mr. O’Toole, in our phone conversation, said that well, there aren’t enough areas zoned commercial and so it’s too expensive for them there. A Portland area planner said there were probably a dozen “big boxes” going up within a ten-mile radius of her.

In item (4) Mr. O’Toole says they “zone any remaining areas of single-family homes for tiny lots as small as 2,500 square feet.” What he means by “any remaining areas” is unclear, but the City of Portland Planning Department told me they have some areas that are zoned for row houses where the average lot size is 2,500 feet. They have many other areas in the city that are zoned for larger lots of single and multifamily housing.

One might note that some of the most highly valued areas of eastern cities, such as Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill, are row houses.

In item (5) he says they are “forc[ing] 24 Portland-area cities to develop city parks, golf courses, and prime farmland to promote high-density housing.” A veteran City of Portland planner I spoke with said the only parkland he knows that was developed was a 10-acre undeveloped section of a subdivision.

The land was acquired by the city some years before for failure to pay taxes, then placed with the city parks department but never developed as a park. It was subsequently given to a nonprofit group to develop housing.

I didn’t contact neighboring cities, but I presume that the City of Portland, in the center of Mr. O’Toole’s disaster area, represents the areas’ planning ills. In our telephone conversation he said there were two other areas that were forced to develop, but there is a limit to how many of his “facts” I want to check. I mentioned to him that Portland has over two and a half times the park acreage per 1,000 population as Denver. As for the forced development of prime farmland, his criticism of Portland is ironic considering that Oregon has probably done more than most other states to protect farmland. Oregon began their approach to land management 25 years ago in 1973. Does he think sprawl offers better protection?

Next he writes that “rather than design a city that people want to live in, planners are designing a city they think people should live in.”

However, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, Portland grew by 21% between 1980 and 1992, making it the 25th fastest growing city with population over 200,000. During that same period, 36% of cities in this group had negative growth rates.

Portland grew by 14.6% between 1990 to 1996 (see the Oregon State web site), showing population growth accelerated during this later period.

Second, the City of Portland planner said they could always expand the urban growth boundary, but recent polls showed over 60% of residents didn’t want that.

Finally, according to ERE Yarmouth, the “most diversified real estate investment manager in the world,” the Portland model is attractive. Their 1998 Emerging Trends in Real Estate says “developers reflexively loathe the regional growth boundaries set by Portland, Oregon, but admit the laws have led to a thriving downtown center as well as a healthy metropolitan area.” (see their web site)

Apparently, many people “want to live” in Portland.

FROM HERE Mr. O’Toole babbles about Portlanders not wanting to become like Los Angeles but that stupid planners are intent on imitating L.A. He says the planners did a survey (unbeknownst to both planners I talked to) to find the city with the highest population density, the fewest number of miles of freeway per capita, and the greatest investment in a new urban rail system, and lo and behold that turned out to be L.A.

But according to Census Bureau data, L.A. was ranked 14th in density out of the 77 largest cities in 1992, the latest year for which I could find comparative data. I couldn’t find information on miles of freeway per capita. Lastly, it should surprise no one that L.A. is on top of the list for “new investment” in urban rail since older eastern cities have well-developed systems, and L.A. is starting from scratch.

Mr. O’Toole counters that I’m not looking at the correct area for aggregation of the data, that L.A. is densest if a larger area is considered. But this is irrelevant. His whole comparison with L.A. is just a ploy to associate, in the reader’s mind, Portland with Big Bad L.A.

He goes on to say that “polls show that congestion is Portlanders’ number one concern. Yet planners are actually reducing road capacity in some areas and … are spending most of Portland’s transportation dollars on light-rail lines that will carry fewer than 2 percent of the area’s trips.”

First of all, congestion may be the number one concern for Denver area residents also. At least in Portland, they have more alternatives.

According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the largest university-based transportation research institution in the country, Portland’s congestion is only slightly worse than average. TTI produced numerous measures for 50 cities for 1994, the latest year for which data was available.

Portland’s peak period freeway speed equaled the national average of 49 miles per hour, while Denver’s was 45. TTI’s composite measure, the Roadway Congestion Index, ranged from the worst in L.A. (1.52) down to the best in Corpus Christi (0.76). By this measure, Portland, at 1.11, was a little above the national average at 1.05.

As for reducing road capacity, the City of Portland planner said they have tried to reduce traffic in some high traffic residential areas for the benefit of residents there (as Denver is now considering), but they have no intention of reducing road capacity to force people to take transit.

A planner for the larger metropolitan area said they have added bicycle lanes in some places reducing space available for cars, but again it was not with the intention of forcing people into rail. (They estimate 7,000 commute to work downtown by bicycle daily.)

THE CITY OF PORTLAND planner said they are mandated to spend all gas and auto tax revenues on roads, so none of these “transportation dollars” are used on light-rail. The cost of the first part of the light-rail system, soon to be completed, is under one billion with 25% paid for from the city budget and 75% from federal grants. The second part is estimated to cost $1.2 billion with 50% covered by federal money.

On the other hand, Seattle, the only major city on the West Coast without light rail, is facing “gridlock” according to a story in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 23, 1998, B7B). It reported that a comprehensive “solution would cost $58 billion to fix” the problem by 2020. (It didn’t say whether this figure included any light rail.)

Continuing, Mr. O’Toole says that “affordable housing has already gone out the window, with Portland going from one of the most affordable cities in the nation to one of the five or six least affordable in the past few years.”

The U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in the third quarter of 1996, the housing cost index for a `mid-management standard of living’ in Portland-Vancouver was 89.2. By this measure, housing in this area for this category is below the national average (100 is average).

Mr. O’Toole said his information came from the Oregon Association of Home Builders. Indeed, the National Association ranks Portland-Vancouver as the third least affordable area out of 196 cities for the second quarter of 1997. Interestingly, by this measure, which compares the median income to the median sale price, Pueblo is only eleven spots down from Portland, and Greeley is only 16 spots down.

So we have two different measures. The Census Bureau index incorporates the rental market, but is limited to a particular income range. On the other hand, the NAHB measure assumes all those college students in Greeley are in the market to buy a house. This lowers the median income and worsens the city’s affordability rating.

In conclusion, I have no idea what’s the best measure for affordability. As for what affects market price, as they say in the real estate industry, it’s location, location, location. In other words, people must “want to live” there.

In the next paragraph he writes that “you might think that putting money into light rail instead of highways and building at higher densities will get people out of their cars. But a nineteenth-century streetcar technology cannot compete with cars for speed, convenience, or comfort.”

Think not? If congestion is so bad according to Mr. O’Toole, how are cars so speedy, convenient or comfortable? According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 53.4% of workers in New York used public transit in 1990 along with 33.5% in San Francisco, 36.6% in Washington D.C. and 31.5% in Boston.

With Portland shown at 11% in that year, it appears they have room to increase. In fact they currently estimate the usage of public transit to be 50% for those coming into the downtown area to work.

Mr. O’Toole said his traffic reduction figures come from the larger metropolitan area and that it makes sense that the City of Portland has higher usage.

In conclusion, it’s difficult to present an accurate picture of a complex metropolitan area, and I don’t pretend to have presented one here. But is this the best writing you can find?

Mr. O’Toole ends his article by writing, “so the next time you hear about light rail, high-density housing, or urban-growth boundaries, watch out. These ideas are failing Portland and they will fail in your city too.”

I’ll end my letter by saying, “so the next time you see an article by Randal O’Toole, watch out. His analysis failed us before, and it will fail us again.”

Bob Engle Salida