Link to Owner Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr.



Is the Portland area destined for a dense future in the pattern of San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C.? Or should the region’s development follow a more traditional model, with a mixture of suburban subdivisions and urban dwellings?

A great deal of groundwork is being done right now to plan for metropolitan Portland’s mid- and long-term future, and most of that work points toward a boom in apartments, condos and transit corridors. We don’t object to the idea that the region should be cautious about expanding around its edges, but we fear the vast majority of residents are paying scant attention to long-term plans being made.

Yet, when that future arrives, many of those residents may not like what they see.

Today (Thursday, Dec. 4), the Metro Council will consider a document called the “Urban Growth Report,” which will help guide the council’s decision about whether the region has enough land already within its urban growth boundary to satisfy development needs for the next 20 years. It’s likely the council will accept the report and set the stage for a 2015 decision not to expand the UGB.

We agree there’s no immediate necessity for a large UGB expansion. Because the Great Recession slowed home building and other growth substantially, the region still has land capacity from previous UGB expansions. However, construction has resumed in some areas — including in Hillsboro, Happy Valley and Gresham — and the land supply could yet be pinched in the next two decades.

The larger issue, however, is the vision that underlies the Urban Growth Report. This document foresees a future of dense development that goes well beyond the infill construction already causing a backlash in Portland. The report says cities within the region can accommodate all predicted residential growth during the next 20 years by increasing density. More than 60 percent of the housing needed in the entire region would be absorbed by Portland — almost entirely through multi-family buildings.

Metro’s assumptions about Portland’s growth mirror the work being done by city staff on the next version of a comprehensive plan, which will be adopted next year. In both places — the city and Metro — the focus is on high-density development.

The emphasis on density isn’t surprising, given the desire to preserve farm and forest land outside the UGB, but it does raise an obvious question: Is this what residents of the region really want?

The answer is not at all clear-cut. A well-designed survey on people’s housing preferences recently revealed that most Portland-area residents — including young people — would prefer to live in single-family detached homes. This runs counter to the notion that younger people are clamoring solely for apartments next to a streetcar line.

At the same time, as reported in Tuesday’s Portland Tribune, academic research done by a real estate expert at Portland State University raises legitimate questions about the cost of a high-density housing strategy. Gerard C.S. Mildner, academic director of PSU’s Center for Real Estate, produced a study, “Density at Any Costs,” that examines the Metro Regional Growth Report. He concludes that reversing the housing mix in the Portland area — with most new housing becoming multi-family — would drive up home costs and force local governments to spend billions of dollars for infrastructure.

Metro officials dismiss the professor as an anti-planning activist, but we think his study raises serious concerns that ought to be addressed. His prediction that Portland would become the fourth most expensive city in the nation is troubling even if he is only half right, considering that salaries in the region still lag.

These issues of density and cost need greater public awareness and discussion. Suburban cities also must consider whether their futures should be determined by Portland’s apparent appetite for high-rise housing. Because the urban growth report looks at the region’s land needs as a whole, when Portland says it can provide 60 percent of the entire metro area’s housing units for the next 20 years, that means other cities should expect less.

The Metro council’s acceptance of the Urban Growth Report today should not be viewed as the final word on the region’s growth plans. Rather, it should be a starting point for a more well-rounded discussion over the next five years, when Metro will have to look again at the 20-year land supply.

More immediately, residents of Portland should take notice of the city’s draft comprehensive plan. Its vision is consistent with Metro’s — and if people hope to influence that outcome, the time to get involved is now.

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