Revamped land-use plan might create jobs in growth industries

Photo Credit: MAP COURTESY OF BUREAU OF PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY - Portland planners want to grant more flexibility and institutional zoning for hospitals, colleges and high schools to build on their campuses, which could limit input from surrounding neighbors. For years in Portland, neighbors have often objected when colleges and hospitals tried to expand.

Think about past tussles involving Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center, the University of Portland, Warner Pacific and Reed colleges.

Such friction is understandable, given that Portland’s hospitals and colleges are mostly in residential zones, yet they’re constantly growing. They’ve been the biggest source of new jobs in the city for the past decade, and in the next 20 years, hospitals and colleges are projected to supply more than 23,000 new jobs in Portland — one out of every four, says Tom Armstrong, supervising planner for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Now city planners are trying to make Portland more supportive of these job-creating engines, as they rewrite the city’s comprehensive land-use plan for the first time since 1980.

The land-use process has been “difficult and challenging at times, both for the institutions and the surrounding neighbors,” Armstrong says. Most Portland colleges and hospitals are functioning as “conditional uses” in residential areas, and must go through significant land-use hoops to chart their expansions.

Yet Portland’s vital centers of learning and medicine often predate surrounding homes. Good Sam was founded in Northwest Portland in 1875; Reed College was founded in Southeast Portland in 1908.

“As long as they’re on residential land, it seems as they are treated as guests of the neighborhood,” says Marty Stiven, a Lake Oswego planning consultant who has represented Providence Portland Medical Center in Northeast Portland.

City planners are still plotting how to balance the needs of institutions for orderly growth with the needs of neighborhoods to retain input on traffic and other impacts. But planners are honing in on three key changes.

Instead of calling colleges and hospitals a “conditional use” in residential areas, the city may grant them a new institutional land-use designation. That would give them a legal and psychological sense of “you belong,” Armstrong says, instead of “you’re special — we’re just letting you be here.”

The second main change would grant institutions flexibility to develop as they see fit within their campuses, with the city and neighbors having more input on the borders where campuses transition into surrounding areas. “We’re trying to make it easier for them to grow up, not out,” Armstrong says. City regulators and neighbors would still get a voice on potential impacts of growing institutions, such as traffic, parking, lighting and noise.

The third major change would extend some sort of new institutional designation to public high schools, allowing them freedom to add, for example, for-profit health clinics.

Right solution?

Karen Karlsson, a neighborhood activist in Northwest Portland, isn’t sure the current system is broken, and is wary of the city’s proposed “one size fits all” approach to institutions. Providence hospital, she says, should be allowed to have taller buildings next to the Banfield Freeway, in contrast to Legacy Good Sam, located in a neighborhood.

In the 1980s, she recalls, Northwest Portland residents fended off what they saw as Legacy Good Sam’s efforts to sprawl all the way from Northwest 23rd Avenue to the Interstate 405 freeway.

“There’s a concern that institutional zoning would restrict neighborhood input into the institution’s growth and relationship to the neighborhood,” Karlsson says.

Hospitals and colleges seem to like the way the city effort is headed.

Right now, most hospitals and colleges need to submit Conditional Use Master Plans at least every 10 years, which must spell out all their future growth plans. Colleges and hospitals complain their plans often change depending on the market and fundraising campaigns.

“So the best strategy is to put every conceivable development that you might be considering over the next 10 years into the plan even if you’ll only do a tenth of it,” says David Ellis, Lewis & Clark College vice president and general counsel.

If there is a change — even moving the footprint of a building by 10 feet — they must go through the process again, Armstrong says. “Any time you wanted some sort of minor change it would reopen the entire debate.”

And conditional-use applications mean neighborhood input must be solicited, and decisions are rendered by an independent hearing officer in a quasi-judicial process. Hearing officer decisions may be appealed to the Portland City Council.

Under Oregon land-use law, it only takes one neighborhood critic to tie up a college’s or hospital’s construction plans.

It cost Lewis & Clark $300,000 to $500,000 the last time it went through the conditional-use process, Ellis says.

When the hearings officer didn’t go along with some lesser aspects of the college’s proposal to build the new Gregg Pavilion, a small building near the chapel, back in 2008, Lewis & Clark couldn’t risk appealing the decision, because of a deadline from a project donor.

The conditional-use process isn’t the “right lever,” Ellis says, “to make sure institutions work with the neighborhood around them.”

Lewis & Clark tries to work closely with neighbors, and invites them to use its pool, library, tennis courts and other facilities, he notes. “We think we’re pretty good at planning and development here at Lewis & Clark.”

Another option

In response to longstanding complaints about the Conditional Use Master Plan process, the city launched an alternative system, called Impact Mitigation Plans.

Portland Community College went that route to build out its Cascadia campus on North Killingsworth Street, and found it was just as cumbersome. Because the campus is within the Piedmont Conservation District, “We had to have a design review for replacement of windows,” says Rebecca Ocken, PCC’s bond project manager. Another review was required when the college added a surface parking lot.

Despite the supposedly more flexible process, PCC had to undergo seven or eight formal processes through the hearings officer.

That was a sharp contrast to PCC’s work at the Southeast campus on Division Street and 82nd Avenue, because that was already zoned for commercial use, giving the college more flexibility.

The new institutional zoning also wouldn’t apply to Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University, because they also operate under different requirements.

The University of Portland, after encountering big fights with neighbors over its expansion plans in the 1990s and 2000s, came up with a different notion in 2012, when it got a hearings officer to sign off on a plan granting it more flexibility for work in the campus interior, with neighbors retaining more input on the edge of the campus where it affected the neighborhood.

“We saw that as a model,” Armstrong says, and it became the basis for the current proposal.

City planners are now trying to commit their ideas into new language for the comprehensive land-use plan that will go to the Planning and Sustainability Commission, and then the Portland City Council.

Ocken is hopeful, but says the “devil’s in the details” of new planning and zoning regulations.

“I think it’s a real promising first step,” she says.

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Planners see more uses for high schools

High schools may be next.

After Portland city planners sort out how to give hospitals and colleges more flexibility for development within their campuses, planners want to extend the idea to high schools in the city.

It’s unclear how giving high schools a new institutional zoning might evolve or what it might mean. But some interesting ideas have emerged as planners plot the first update of the city’s comprehensive land-use plan since 1980.

“There are some things that can’t be done at high schools that maybe should be done,” says Karen Karlsson, a land use and development consultant and neighborhood activist in Northwest Portland.

“How about a small market that brings in fresh produce in some of these neighborhoods that don’t have that opportunity?”

Or a for-profit health clinic, which one company proposed at one of the city’s high schools, says Tom Armstrong, supervising planner for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

Another possibility cited by planners is occupational training programs at Benson High School.

“Maybe they want to have a computer repair shop for the neighorborhood,” Armstrong says.

Under current zoning rules, though, public schools are barred from operating any commercial enterprises.

“We want to be able to provide that flexibility within reason,” Armstrong says.

City planners note that high schools are increasingly viewed as community centers, hosting a variety of functions that may or may not relate to education. That fits the city’s vision of providing essential services within a 20-minute walk of most residents, now called “complete neighborhoods.”

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