Downtown and Old Town need housing
Recovery means not just reducing crime and vandalism but passing the Sunday morning test.
Portland's core is still struggling during this late stage of the pandemic, even as neighborhood and suburban main streets are largely thriving again.
While no single magic pill can cure a complex ailment, one characteristic is shared by portions of downtown and Old Town struggling the most — few people live there.
With nearly no one working in downtown offices over the past year because of COVID-19, no one going inside theaters or restaurants, and hotels at a fraction of capacity, the setting grew grim in 2020. Scores of storefront windows were covered with plywood as businesses temporarily shuttered, which in turn attracted graffiti. Then property damage increased exponentially after George Floyd's killing, amidst months of nightly social-justice protests and armed responses.
While property damage is indeed a crime, it's also a symptom of not enough local people calling downtown home. Residences activate neighborhoods in a way office workers and tourists never completely can.
As the Dow-Jones ascended in recent years, construction cranes dotted the urban core. But much of that development was hotels and offices. This may partly reflect demand, but it's also a sign that developers make more money per square foot on those project types.
We've already begun going back to restaurants and shops, and once COVID-19 has subsided, we'll go back to arenas and theaters too. But long-term, we're never going all the way back to pre-pandemic commercial real estate. Companies everywhere are rethinking bringing every employee to the office daily when they mostly prefer working from home. Therein also lies an opportunity and a challenge.
The healthiest urban places pass what you might call the Sunday morning test. If there aren't people on the street at 10 in the morning on that traditional day of rest, it's not vibrant.
The first few blocks west of the Willamette River — both downtown and in Old Town — fail that test. Searching online, map pins denoting available units in the urban core dot downtown west of Broadway and south near Portland State University, but become scarce near the Willamette. It's no coincidence that the most street crime, the most graffiti and vandalism, occur in these places.
It's also probably not a coincidence that the portions of downtown and Old Town that are most lacking housing also overlap with historic districts that enforce lower building heights. Should we allow taller new buildings next to old buildings? Maybe so, if we strictly protect the latter. But we don't, so it's hard to blame preservationists for fighting zoning changes. And besides, the very neighborhood main streets that are thriving right now (while the central city ails) have smaller buildings.
We can disagree on scale and strategy, and much more. But we ought to agree on the need and our shared sense of purpose. That's how Portland's downtown core was transformed for the better 50 years ago: by making it more inviting by prioritizing parks, mass transit, and ways to get to downtown and linger. We can do the same by making the center of the city even more of a home.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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