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Focused development could transform areas by creating walkable neighborhood districts

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland planning bureau spokeswoman Eden Dabbs and city planner Bill Cunningham compare an artist's rendering of what the corner of Southeast Division Street and 82nd Avenue might look like in the future with what it looks like now. Eighty-Second Avenue — known more for used-car lots and prostitutes than bicyclists and brewpubs — is not exactly a poster child for Portland’s vaunted land-use planning and quality of life.

But Portland is now plotting where to house a quarter-million additional residents in the next 20 years, and city planners say 82nd Avenue must do its part.

As planners redo the city’s comprehensive land-use plan for the first time in 35 years, they’re trying to channel the bulk of the growth into the central city and established business districts, neighborhood centers and commercial strips, including nearly 5,000 more apartments on 82nd Avenue. By doing that, planners hope to preserve the city’s residential neighborhoods much as they are, without jolting changes.

“We don’t need to plow under Buckman and Eliot with a sea of rowhouses,” says Eric Engstrom, principal planner for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. “What’s happening on Division is going to continue to happen on streets like that.”

In the new “comp plan,” planners are trying to accommodate roughly 30 percent of the new housing projected over the next 20 years in the central city, which includes downtown, the Lloyd, Pearl and South Waterfront districts. Another 50 percent of the residential growth is pegged for outlying neighborhood commercial centers, business districts and corridors like Sandy Boulevard and 82nd Avenue.

Robert McCullough, president of the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, is skeptical Portland faces that much population growth, but he likes the city’s approach.

“The idea of actually focusing development along transportation corridors makes a lot more sense,” McCullough says,

and it’s in sync with economic reality. “It doesn’t destroy the character of the city that people find so attractive.”

But guiding growth to existing corridors and neighborhood centers means increased density, and many residents “are going to freak out about that growth,” Engstrom says. So he and other city planners are trying to fashion ways to make neighborhood commercial districts — like Lents, Hollywood and Hillsdale — into bustling, inviting centers where residents can find most everything they need within a 20-minute walk or short bike ride — without marring surrounding residential areas.

“It’s really our strategy for growth and management of change in the future,” says Barry Manning, senior planner. “We also get a double benefit of creating better places there for the community.”

Back to the future

In some ways, Portland planners’ emphasis on walkable “complete neighborhoods” is turning back the clock to the early 20th century, when some of the city’s most charming business districts took shape along streetcar lines. Bustling retail centers that took their current form before the automobile era, such as Southeast Stark Street in the Montavilla neighborhood, now are viewed as models.

As part of the comp plan rewrite, planners created a mockup of what the intersection of Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division might look like in the future. Eighty-second Avenue is depicted with a new streetcar line, street trees and lots of pedestrians.

This isn’t all wishful thinking or what conservatives deride as social engineering. Around the nation, people are flocking back to central cities and paying premium housing prices to avoid long commutes to work. “The growth is not in the suburbs now,” Engstrom says, referring to trends in Portland and peer cities like Seattle and Minneapolis.

Portland neighborhoods with lively commercial strips — Alberta Street, Mississippi Avenue, Hawthorne Boulevard, Division and Belmont streets — are seeing a surge in new apartment construction.

Portland planners project that 78 percent of the new housing in the city over the next two decades will be apartments, condos and other multifamily units, and only 22 percent will be single-family homes. Some of that shift is due to demographic and lifestyle trends, and some is due to housing affordability issues.

Planners see the recent spate of four-story apartments on Division, Burnside, Hawthorne and other corridors as the wave of the future, eventually expanding to once-neglected corridors like 82nd Avenue.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Portland city planner Bill Cunningham says Shaver Green, a LEED-certified low-income apartment building on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, could be a model for future housing on 82nd Avenue.

Tinkering with regulations

A key goal of the city’s new comp plan is increasing equity among the neighborhoods.

Of late, though, closer-in centers and corridors are where most of the action has been, Engstrom says. “The market’s not necessarily going to Raleigh Hills or Midway, or even Lents.”

Planners hope to lend some momentum to outer-ring centers and corridors, such as 82nd Avenue, by fine-tuning city regulations for mixed-use business districts, so they’re more inviting and compatible with multifamily residential projects.

“They need to become more livable places, and in some places that’s a challenge,” says Bill Cunningham, city planner.

Traditional commercial districts need to evolve to keep pace with rapid changes in the market, such as shopping via the Internet, Engstrom says. “If we don’t change dynamics, some of these districts will be in trouble.”

Several themes have emerged from city planners’ monthslong look at regulations for mixed-use zones, and are likely to be submitted to the Planning and Sustainability Commission and City Council in coming months, as planners wrap up work on the comp plan.

One likely goal is to make sidewalk life at neighborhood centers more vibrant by requiring that ground floors be designed for retail or other “active uses,” rather than be walled off from the street. Merchants like the idea, planners say, as it keeps people walking down the street if there’s more to do and see.

Mandating ground-floor retail or other active uses has been a successful strategy for decades in downtown Portland, and the city has experimented with it in select districts like St. Johns, Hollywood and on North Interstate Boulevard.

“Now we might want to apply a tool like that more broadly in those center areas,” Manning says.

Planners also are leaning toward recommending new incentives to developers, as a way to foster more affordable housing, public plazas and other open spaces, and preservation of historic buildings. The city’s current incentives were created 30 years ago and are now outdated, Engstrom says.

Portland and other Oregon cities are barred by state law from using “inclusionary zoning,” which requires developers to build a mix of housing for lower and other income levels. Oregon and Texas are the only states that don’t allow it. So city planners hope to entice developers to build more lower-income units by dangling new incentives in mixed-use zones, such as increased height limits.

Planners also may propose new setback rules that dictate how close buildings are to the street, as a way of making, for example, four-story apartments more inviting for tenants. Planners point to Shaver Green, a LEED-certified low-income apartment on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, as a model. It starts as a two-story building closest to the street, with four floors above that have a smaller footprint, farther from the street. That provides “less sense of enclosure right at the street,” Manning says. “It has a very different character and feel.”

Such a design could make apartments more inviting on 82nd, he says.

Planners also are enthused about new requirements for stepping down the heights of commercial buildings as they get farther from the main street and closer to adjacent single-family homes. For instance, a four-story building on Division might taper down to three stories in the rear, transitioning to be more compatible with adjacent single-family homes, Manning says.

In tandem with city planners’ work on mixed-use zones, the Portland Bureau of Transportation will propose new ideas for parking, a hot-button issue in the Division area and other retail nodes.

Planners also may propose shrinking the number of neighborhood commercial zones from eight to three or four, to simplify the process, Manning says.

82nd Avenue makeover?

The new comp plan will allow for more multifamily and other growth, but developers have long had the leeway to build apartments in commercially zoned parcels, Engstrom says.

Though some Portlanders might see 82nd Avenue as a dead zone, planners figure there are some promising “nodes” that could eventually expand, such as the pan-Asian Jade District between Powell and Division, the newly expanded Portland Community College campus on Division, Fubonn Shopping Center near Woodward Street, the artsy Milepost 5 community near Montavilla Park, and even the Cartlandia food cart pod near the Springwater Corridor.

The city is interested in taking over authority for 82nd from the state, though that may be a longshot. The city would prefer slowing traffic and putting in more opportunities for pedestrians to cross 82nd.

Planners also envision making the corridor more inviting for housing and other development by widening sidewalks, adding street trees, putting in bioswales, and improving transit. They might suggest banning drive-through retail, to improve the pedestrian environment, Cunningham says.

The next big transit line in the Portland area figures to be a rapid bus line along Powell and Division. One possible route could go on Powell from the river to 82nd, then head north on 82nd to Division and then east on Division to Gresham. Planners also have discussed trying to enhance commercial developments along Division and Powell, between 82nd and MAX stops to the east.

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard has improved, though it’s taken many years, Manning says.

“Could 82nd develop similarly over the next 20 years?”

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