City plans for SW Portland growth despite MAX line failure
The defeat of Metro's $5.2 billion regional transportation funding measure is raising questions about a city proposal to add much more housing in parts of Southwest Portland.
Measure 26-218 was defeated by a margin of 58% against to 42% in favor at the Nov. 3 general election. The measure would have helped fund a new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor between Portland, Tigard and Tualatin. TriMet is putting the light rail project on hold while the regional transit agency explores its options.
TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey said the regional transit agency will conclude the project's federally required Final Environmental Impact Statement and then temporarily shut it down while exploring other financing options.
"I believe it will reemerge in the future, but we don't know when," Kelsey told the final meeting of the project's steering committee on Monday, Nov 16. Although Kelsey did not present the committee with a potential schedule, he left open the possibility the project could qualify for emergency federal funding if the incoming Biden administration persuades Congress to pass a large infrastructure funding package to help jumpstart the economy.
Despite the uncertainty, the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is still moving forward with a proposal to "up-zone" the West Portland Town Center, which would have been served by the high-capacity light rail line. Public comment is still due by Dec. 3 and the City Council is still scheduled to vote on the proposal next fall.
The center is located around the Barbur Crossroads, where Southwest Barbur Boulevard, Capitol Highway and Taylors Ferry Road meet. Some residents in the area believe the center project also should be paused for now.
"The West Portland Town Center plan should be put on hold until funding is found for the Southwest Corridor Project," said James Peterson, the acting Land Use Committee chair of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, which is partly within the center's boundaries.
Other area residents worry the city has not yet identified funds for other infrastructure improvements that are needed to support higher densities.
"Our biggest concern is that the city is proposing to up-zone a lot of area that doesn't have stormwater systems, sidewalks, bike lanes or decent bus service, especially in Crestwood and Multnomah neighborhoods," said Marianne Fitzgerald, vice president of the nearby Crestwood Neighborhood Association. We need better infrastructure before we add that many people to the area, and not just MAX."
Planning bureau officials believe the MAX that line eventually will be built.
"High capacity transit is still a central part of the plan — though it may come somewhat later when funding is secured. TriMet and Metro are exploring other funding options," project manager Ryan Curren said in a Nov. 10 email. "The significant infrastructure improvements to Barbur (Boulevard) that were to come with light rail are still critical to the plan, so we are looking at other options for funding those as well. Redevelopment in the short to medium term is very unlikely along Barbur without those improvements."
West Portland Town Center targeted for growth
As currently envisioned in the discussion draft, the West Portland Town Center Plan allows for the addition of new multi-story housing complexes and additional mixed-use business and retail hubs clustered along major thoroughfares. City staff say the plan also aims to add affordable housing to Southwest Portland, as well as access to amenities, services and employment.
Project documents call the plan an effort toward "equitable growth and development," to accompany the influx of new residents and businesses to the area. Unlike previous urban planning efforts from the city, this one claims to center the needs of Black, Indigenous and people of color, who have historically been excluded from Portland's planning and economic opportunities.
That means more apartment complexes and changes to current residential zoning that will increase density in neighborhoods typically dotted with single-family homes.
"Town centers are supposed to have lots of jobs, housing and access to (services)," said Curren, who noted that the West Portland Town Center is the only one in the city without a plan, so city staff will move forward with long-range planning.
Even before the Metro measure failed, some residents were critical of the proposed plan.
"Why is the West Portland Town Center Project displacing 100's of residents?" and "Why does the City want more gentrification?" a Multnomah Neighborhood Association email asks rhetorically, in an invitation to residents to chime in on the plan and ask questions of city planners.
The association, which represents some of the most heavily impacted areas in the plan, is skeptical of the city's claims of affordable housing.
"There are bonus provisions that will allow an additional 10 feet in height above the height for the zoned designation. This up-zoning is a setup for developers to build mostly unaffordable housing stock...the (West Portland Town Center) plan for increased density will eliminate most of the single-family zoning along major transit routes."
The result is displacement of the current residents, the letter states.
But city planners say the loss of single-family housing amounts to growing pains in a vital effort to increase livability for all Portlanders, not just those who can afford the current market conditions.
"All single-family housing is increasingly out of reach for large segments of the population, especially households of color," Curren said. "It is important that each sector of the city have multifamily options."
Curren also called the plan "much more than a zoning proposal," and noted the city will avoid forcing people out of their existing homes, saying homeowners either will be offered a fair market price for any houses where a new housing development is planned, or allow current homeowners to stay put and be neighbors with the new development.
According to Curren, the plan's zoning code is designed to "encourage the retention of the existing medium to large affordable apartment buildings in the area."
Expensive ballot measure fight
Before the meeting ended, practically every member of the committee said the measure failed because the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced transit ridership and hurt the economy. Under those conditions, voters were leery of the 0.75% payroll tax in Ballot Measure 26-218.
The measure was intended to raise and invest a total of $8 billion in 17 transportation corridors in the region. If approved by voters, it would have generated $4.2 billion from within the region for transportation projects and another $1 billion for transportation-related programs. The regional funds were expected to leverage an additional $2.8 billion in federal transportation funds.
Supporters formed two political action committees to support the measure.
The Get Moving PAC reported raising $1.17 million by Monday, Nov. 16. Large contributions included over $210,000 from Stacy and Witbeck, a California-based construction company that has worked on previous MAX projects in the region; $50,000 from the American Council of Engineering Companies of Oregon; $65,000 from the Texas-based AECOM Technology Group; and $10,000 each from a variety of construction companies and labor unions.
The Infrastructure Jobs are Good Jobs PAC reported raising $188,000 by then. Large contributions included $60,000 from the International Union of Operating Engineers, and $25,000 from the United Food and Commercial Works International Union.
Opponents formed the Stop the Metro Wage TAX PAC. It reported raising $2.7 million by Monday, Nov. 16. Most of the contributions came from businesses, including $915,000 from Nike, $250,000 from The Standard, and $150,000 from Intel.
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