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The D.C. prescription: infill, density levels, and thoughtful expansions of our urban areas

WEA - Mimi Doukas of the Westside Economic Alliance

The Westside Economic Alliance (WEA) Intersections: Transportation and Housing conference held last week brought together national and regional leaders to talk about transportation and housing and how closely the two are interconnected.

The conference went from a national view down to street level. It featured two national speakers —MZ Strategies' Mariia Zimmerman and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group's Carl Guardino. It also featured regional leaders such as Kaiser Permanente's Director of Community Health Molly Haynes, Metro President Tom Hughes, ECONorthwest's Lorelei Juntunen, TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey, and Metro President-elect Lynn Peterson. There were also breakout sessions with several local panelists, including Bruce Warner, chair of the TriMet Board.

Guardino gave the WEA members and guests a national perspective on housing. The median price of a house in the Silicon Valley is $1.1 million, compared to $439,000 in Seattle and $272,000 in Austin, Texas. He also shared the average commute time in the Bay Area is 72 minutes, compared to New York's 74 minutes. Guardino is currently supporting two California ballot propositions that support affordable housing; provide housing opportunities for veterans; and support an increase in mental health services.

He compared securing funding support for affordable housing projects to a wedding cake — there are a number of layers that are needed to bring it all to fruition. His advice to the audience was to build coalitions that count with key stakeholders, and when working toward your goal, be humble and stay focused. Lastly, he said to practice impatient persistence because it's often difficult to be successful with your first attempt.

One topic raised at the conference was how to address the obstacle of those who complain "not in my backyard," or NIMBYism.

Peterson talked about changing the focus to YIMBY, "yes in my backyard." Zimmerman commented that we should be working with our population to address the real issue of WIMBY, "why in my backyard." She said we should be focusing on conversations with all community members about how we address housing and transportation issues through infill, density levels, and potential thoughtful expansions of our urban areas.

Zimmerman, a nationally recognized consultant with experience working in Washington, D.C. for Congressman Blumenauer, HUD, and USDOT, has worked with Westside communities on the redevelopment plan for Aloha and on the SW Corridor Equitable Development Strategy. She said during her career she often heard comments about the Portland region being a model for integrating transportation with development projects. She noted that other urban areas are now replicating action taken in Portland and adding their own special features to transportation and land use planning in their cities.

Zimmerman provided a picture of the landscapes in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Denver and noted that they are they are now taking leadership roles in planning their communities. These cities have built infrastructure along with their housing, while having a clear focus on public health, the environment, and jobs. She said the Portland region is at an "intersectional moment" and should take advantage of the opportunity to learn from successes in other cities.

The conference breakout sessions focused on transportation and housing from the perspective of community health, gentrification, urban growth boundary expansion areas, housing affordability, economic development, development in corridors, and density. The common themes or highlights from these sessions were collaboration, flexibility, and setting achievable goals. For community involvement, being at the table is obviously important, but it's also important to give a voice to those who are not able to be at the table. There is the perception that if you don't set goals, you won't achieve what you are envisioning.

As the chairs of both the WEA Land Use and Housing and Transportation committees, we are pleased to have brought this discussion to our members and guests who attended this conference. The interaction was positive, and it's clear we are a part of a large group of professionals from both the public and private sectors, willing to work hard to make sure we take advantage of this "intersectional moment."

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