Dystopian urban planning in Portland

Next time you hear the word “Portland” wistfully pass an urbanist’s lips, send them this link:

Planners under the watch of then-Commissioner Charlie Hales made wholesale zoning changes to push in higher density. East Portland went on to add more than its fair share of new homes while city leaders let affluent Southwest Portland, which staged a political firestorm against growth, shrug off its burden….

In the mid 90s, Portland decided to upzone large parts of the city to accommodate residential growth. In poorer East Portland, the changes went through smoothly. But when they tried to take it to wealthier parts of town, you can guess what happened.

In September 1996, just eight months after the City Council approved the Outer Southeast plan, officials breezed into the West Hills looking to equitably spread their vision of housing growth to all corners of the city….

Residents were furious….

The pushback was too much. Within a month, Hales, who at the time lived in Southwest’s Hayhurst neighborhood, announced changes “to ensure that we don’t sacrifice the very thing community plans are designed to protect – neighborhood livability.”

Even so, the stripped-down plan continued to evoke anger.

Amanda Fritz, then a planning commissioner who today serves on the City Council, fired off an indignant email to the manager of the Southwest plan in 2001. Fritz, a resident of West Portland Park neighborhood, was upset about an area that planners wanted to zone for townhomes. She thought larger lots would better serve families with children.

Oh, would they, Amanda Fritz? Thanks for the input. And for the people who can’t afford single-family homes on large lots? Where should they raise their children? When they move to a far-flung, car-dependent suburb, will you harangue them for not living in a chic inner-city neighborhood with bike lanes?

At least, of course, those low-income people got denser, more amenity- and service-rich neighborhoods, right?

While city leaders eliminated growth targets for Southwest Portland, new zoning in east Portland ushered a massive influx of homes and people. New services to support the growth never materialized. That made conditions particularly difficult for the residents of Southeast Schiller Street…. Schiller Street is still gravel….

On 122nd Avenue, the tract’s western boundary, city planners justified zoning for as many as 65 units an acre because TriMet’s No. 71 bus line was nearby. But frequent bus service hasn’t arrived. To the contrary, the 71 rumbles north and south 109 times each weekday, down from 121 in 1996.

The tract’s eastern border is 136th Avenue, a two-lane road where city officials increased zoning to as many as 32 units an acre but never installed a sidewalk. One will be built next year following the death of 5-year-old Morgan Maynard-Cook, hit by a vehicle while crossing the street in February.

So the planning process has been entirely co-opted by the privileged. The moral, I think, is that there is a problem with the process. How do you design a democratic planning process that’s harder to co-opt? I’m not sure. More thoughts later.

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2 thoughts on “Dystopian urban planning in Portland

    1. Yeah, me too. Although it appears that none of this construction was publicly financed, so whatever was built, the market felt there was demand for. And I feel like this article would have mentioned if a lot of the new construction was empty, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

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