Without new light rail funds, plans for new housing, commercial development may take longer

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - A stretch of Barbur Boulevard near Southwest Taylors Ferry Road is part of the West Portland Town Center plans that could see a boost in commercial and multi-family residential development.Even without a measure to immediately help fund a new light rail line through Southwest Portland, bold plans for a West Portland Town Center will carry on.

The city of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability hosted a series of open house workshops in November to bring residents up to speed on development plans that will see more multi-family housing, business offices and infrastructure improvements through a stretch of the area known as The Crossroads, which runs along Barbur Boulevard, Capitol Highway and Interstate 5. The area encompasses the existing Barbur Transit Center.

As envisioned, the West Portland Town Center Plan could see 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 aims to add affordable housing to Southwest Portland, as well as access to amenities, services and employment.

Project overview 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.

Plan is contingent on new MAX line

"Town centers are supposed to have lots of jobs, housing and access to (services)," Ryan Curren, project manager with the planning bureau, said in late October. That vision requires access to transit, namely, the Southwest Corridor Light Rail project. On Nov. 3, voters shot down Measure 26-218, the major Metro transportation funding package that included the new TriMet MAX line from Southwest Portland to Tigard and Tualatin.

Post-election, Curren 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.

"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," Curren stated via email on Nov. 10. "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."

At the final meeting of the Southwest Corridor Community Advisory committee on Nov. 12, Metro transportation policy development manager Tyler Frisbee said Metro has no funds to move forward with the MAX project and no backup plan.

Uncertainty over rail infrastructure may put the town center project on ice for now, but some residents are already critical of the plans.

"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 Multnomah Neighborhood 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 upzoning is a setup for developers to build mostly unaffordable housing stock," a letter to the city from the Neighborhood Association, states. Furthermore, the group argued, "the WPTC plan for increased density will eliminate most of the single-family zoning along major transit routes. The result is displacement of the current residents. Current zoning is more affordable than what it will be replaced with. The end result is gentrification," the letter posits. "For example, the rent in the two new mixed-use buildings in Multnomah Village are neither gentrified or affordable (430 square feet costs $1500 per month.)"

The neighborhood group also points to "inadequate funding" for pedestrian and bike safety improvements in the absence of Measure 26-218 funds.

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." He said Southwest Portland has less multifamily zoning than other quadrants of the city. The town center project would provide housing for those who can't currently afford to buy a home there.

"We want this area to grow, and become more diverse, but we don't want the displacement that we've seen with other projects," Curren told a community group in late October.

Curren later called the plan "much more than a zoning proposal," and noted the city will avoid forcing people out of their existing homes, saying homeowners will either be offered a fair market price for any houses where a new housing development is planned, or current homeowners could stay put and be neighbors with the new development.

The plan aims to diversify both the population and housing mix in Southwest Portland, incentivizing affordable housing, while also allowing for market housing and affordable commercial and community space. Some say that language allows the city to tear out existing homes, only to replace them with more expensive ones, which is antithetical to the plan's goals.

Curren noted the plan's zoning code is designed to "encourage the retention of the existing medium to large affordable apartment buildings in the area."

While the comprehensive comment period for the plan ends Dec. 3, residents still have time to weigh in before the end of the month.

The city expects to have an updated draft of the town center plan ready for public comment in February.

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