For 31 years, WL planner Peter Spir helped keep city on track
When Peter Spir was on his way to a job interview with the City of West Linn in 1987, he got lost.
The city looked much different back then; it was, as Spir put it, "pretty much a blank canvas" — a situation that first attracted him to a job posting for city planner.
But first he had to find City Hall.
"I ended up here in the Tanner Basin area, and it was all farm fields, cattle, sheep, tree farms," Spir said. "There was nothing up here between Parker (Road) and what is now the Salamo/Bland Circle area."
Spir eventually found his way to the interview, and would go on to spend 31 years working for the City before retiring as associate planner Sept. 6. Along the way, he played a significant administrative role in hundreds of land use applications while also taking the lead on significant City projects like the creation of the Willamette Commercial Overlay Zone, which set the tone for the look and feel of the popular Willamette Falls Drive area.
"Hopefully the final products have contributed positively to the fabric, the makeup of the city," Spir said. "The work in the Tanner Basin, the work in that commercial overlay zone — those are positive experiences that will endure for quite some time, I think."
Spir's vision of an ideal city was always rooted in his hometown of Vancouver, B.C.
"My father was a geographer," he said. "So I always had an interest in urban layout design, and a real passion for 'neo-traditionalism' — the concept of neighborhoods being essentially fully contained to the extent that you've got your school there, you can walk to school, you can walk to basic essential services and ideally (there's a) grid pattern facilitating easy transportation from one side of the neighborhood to the next by bike, car and pedestrian."
Spir came to the United States in 1974 by way of a track and field scholarship at the University of Oregon. There, he ran alongside the legendary Steve Prefontaine and qualified as a member of Canada's 1976 Olympic team.
"I made the Olympic team, then got into urban geography, which led to a master's degree in urban planning at Oregon," Spir said. "And then from there I found my way to West Linn."
When Spir was hired, West Linn's population was about 13,000 — half of what it is today. The planning department consisted of just two people: him and the planning director.
"So we were dealing with a huge amount of development review applications, and it was just the two of us," Spir said. "And he went off in the first month on a four-week sailboat cruise in the Caribbean, so I was just thrown in the deep end."
Spir's first major project was the aforementioned Willamette Commercial Overlay Zone.
"That was really a collaborative project with commercial business owners and historic preservationists," he said. "What really jump-started the whole thing was this local builder ... he rehabilitated four buildings using these standards and things steamrolled after that.
"That language (now) is pretty much as it was written back then, and it seemed to work well, so that was something to feel good about."
Spir was also involved in the Tanner Basin Master Plan process, which shaped how the area on the hill near City Hall looks today. The Cascade Summit commercial center came in, as did high-density housing and Rosemont Ridge Middle School. Spir remembered pushing the concept of "safe routes to school," in keeping with his neo-traditionalist planning beliefs.
"It really is affirming and positive to see kids walking and biking to school, because in the '90s, the whole concept of safe routes to school — walking — was a foreign concept," he said.
There have been some challenges over the years, particularly when a development application met City codes but not the desires of neighbors.
"Many citizens are looking at it not from the perspective of compliance with the CDC (Community Development Code) but whether they think it's going to result in a loss of privacy for them, whether it's going to increase traffic to unacceptable levels, whether it's going to be a threat to their neighborhood," Spir said. "They're looking at it from the human side of things, and I fully appreciate that. But we are bound to go with the zoning ordinance (and) development code, and as a result many people may often see us as not responsive or respectful of their concerns."
Spir points to his own neighborhood — First Edition in Lake Oswego. First Edition is a historic neighborhood near Lake Oswego's original downtown core.
"That's undergoing significant change in terms of new commercial development around Millennium Plaza and increased density townhouse projects right across the street from me," he said. "And so I have to look at those things that I might otherwise regard as, 'Oh it's more traffic in my neighborhood,' but I sort of back off and say, 'What's the zoning here?'"
Moving forward, Spir hopes to travel and continue the active lifestyle of a former track star.
"I definitely want to go back to Europe — for quite some time I was going back to be part of crowds in the Tour De France, so that would be something to revisit," he said. "And mountain biking in Moab — I did every year for 20 years, but missed the last few years."