Why Portland Doesn't Look Like Austin

Rose (City)-Colored Glasses

It is unsurprisingly cold and

wet in the Northwest tonight, and the auditorium of the Portland Adventist Hospital feels a long way from anywhere, surely far from the center of the Rose City's public policy universe. But many eyes are directed here this November evening, toward the first city council hearing on the recommended Outer Southeast Community Plan. In its current form, three years in the making, the Outer Southeast plan is a 400-page document covering 28 square miles of the City of Portland, a territory that's home to about one-fifth of Portland's 540,000 residents.

The plan includes 143 pages of quarter-section maps, at a scale of about 200 feet to the inch, with recommended land use for every parcel on every block of every street in every one of the 11 city-recognized neighborhoods that compose Outer Southeast. Ten of these neighborhoods, along with one business owners' group, have created their own plans for themselves, all of which are incorporated by reference into the document being discussed tonight. The "recommended" plan on the table tonight was approved by the Portland Planning Commission after 18 months of hearings, workshops, and testimony on the "proposed" plan, which had been drafted by the city's Planning Bureau with help from a citizen's advisory committee, a technical advisory committee, and seemingly more chances for public input than the trees have leaves, including a questionnaire sent to each of the more than 70,000 households and businesses in Outer Southeast. After another year of hearings before the city council, this plan will be adopted as an amendment to Portland's city-wide comprehensive plan, in place since 1980 and revised "periodically" -- as required by Oregon's don't-take-no-mess land-use laws -- through community planning efforts.

Outer Southeast is the third such effort. Such plans have already been adopted for the Central City -- Portland's thriving downtown and its environs -- and for the Albina district, which is not unlike East Austin. The city expects these plans to remain current for about 20 years -- the Outer Southeast document discusses "a perfect vision... for the year 2020" -- but would like to repeat the process more often if money is available. Meanwhile, there are five more community plans in the offing, each involving a four-year commitment and a public expenditure of about $1 million.

Under the weight of all this policy-making and democracy-in-action, the city council looks very small indeed, perched at a cafeteria table under bright TV lights on a sunken stage under the gaze of about 200 citizens who, while not overtly hostile, are in no mood to be deferent. In groups of three, Portlandians line up before the council, extend their warm greetings, and immediately direct the lawmakers' attention to Parcel X on Map Y. Their place on the map. The Outer Southeasterners are here to negotiate. As each citizen tells the story of their Parcel X, and how they'd like it upzoned one tick or downzoned two notches, or how they'd like Item 6 in Chapter 3 of Appendix 8 transposed with Item 7, they do so with confidence, with the full expectation that their request will, naturally and inevitably, be honored. The council does nothing to disabuse these notions. No one leaves the dais, enters into side conversation with friends and neighbors, or launches into numbing and condescending speechifying. They have done their homework, listen intently, study the maps extensively, are unfailingly polite, and -- even though they drag ass from one meeting to another, all day and night, night after night -- seem grateful to be here.

The council's noblesse might be unsurprising if this plan, this process, this modus operandi were their idea. But it isn't. This is the Portland way, the product of about 50 years of urban history that's as singular as Austin's, but which couldn't be more different in its results. And in the Portland way, no one, not even the mayor -- especially not the mayor -- is that much more important than anyone else.

Going out in foul weather

on a weeknight to fine tune the zoning code might not be your notion of a good time, but for many Austinites the Portland way is a fairly good facsimile of nirvana. In recent months, the Rose City and the River City have become conceptually linked, implicitly by their contest for the favors of Samsung, explicitly by such events as the "Whose Grass is Greener?" teleconference. As long-range city planning comes back into local vogue, with the efforts of the Citizens Planning Committee here in Austin, the notion of a "Portland model" for us to follow is oft-discussed. In Portland as in Austin, populism is orthodoxy and policy-making a favorite local pastime, which might make you think that Bat City and Stumptown are somehow alike. Finding cities-like-Austin is also a favorite local pastime, especially when said cities "boast" the fin-de-siecle urban amenities -- a pro sports team, a light rail line, a convention center, you know the rest -- that we just gotta have. Portland has all of those things, but does not share Austin's inferiority complex, our Big Time Syndrome, our need to prove our urban manhood. Ultimately, Portlandians are little troubled with doubt about their vision for their city, which is no small matter when we try to understand the Portland way.

Portland has broad-based support for, and has achieved success with, an exhaustive, expensive, citizen-driven but government-directed program of long-range micromanagement of growth, land use, and the urban character. Conversely, Austin, which claims to want the same badges of livability -- a vital downtown, an impressive mass-transit system, respect for the environment, status as an urban cultural center, and prosperity and growth -- seems powerless to keep the streets from falling apart, the housing stock from falling down, the creeks from growing fetid, and both sprawl and public debt from swelling larger than Councilmember Eric Mitchell's head.

So we are in a mood to experiment and are mighty susceptible to the appeal of prospective models like Portland, that are both progressive and effective. We must remember, though, that the Portland way is really comprised of two parts, intrinsically related and perhaps inseparable, which for Austin means bad news. One component is the set of premises that undergird Portland planning, most of which ultimately fall under the rubric of "compact city." That means no sprawl within the city limits or outside thereof. That means residential and commercial densities far beyond what most Austinites are willing to accept -- instead of, say, eight homes on the four recently disputed Swede Hill lots, how about 25? That means directing the sum total of money and energy available for transportation initiatives toward mass transit and away from road construction, and seeking even greater densities in the corridors served by those transit lines. That means wholesale redevelopment of entire neighborhoods into urban commercial centers (not really that different from what Eric Mitchell seems to envision for East 11th and 12th Streets). Regardless of how progressive and forward-thinking Austinites fancy themselves, the body of Portland planning includes many hallmarks that many Austin citizens will find frankly ridiculous.

Yet Portland manages to make it happen. It would be wonderful to report that Rose City leaders derive this power from shamans, druids, and nymphs of the forest, and that the proper incantations are on their way to the Austin Municipal Building via express mail. But such is not the case. If there is a secret to Portland's success at long-range planning, it is the other part of the Portland way -- a program of citizen involvement and neighborhood empowerment that smokes anything Austin has ever seen, arguably anything Austin has ever wanted. Portland is a city that knows how to listen, and its citizens take full advantage of the opportunity to have their say. Imagine if, for example, in order for Eric Mitchell to wreak his will on the Eastside, he needed direct participation -- not just seat-warming at a council meeting, but written testimony, committee service, attendance at a planning workshop, and other kinds of real work -- from about 5,400 citizens who live east of the interstate, or 1,100 within the 78702 ZIP code alone. This benchmark for citizen involvement in the planning process -- 5% of the population in the affected area -- is what the Portland Planning Bureau routinely targets and generally achieves.

We can say that Austin bureaucrats could learn from Portland's example, but professional city-manager types like Austin's are quite familiar with the celebrated Portland way. They have, in most cases and for most of Austin's history, been under little pressure to extend to Austinites the same largesse, and clearly we need to ask ourselves whether we'd be willing to work this hard even if we demanded the chance to do so.

"I really like Austin, and the first time I was there I thought, `God, I'd love to get my hands on this town'," says John Fregonese, lead planner at the Metropolitan Service District (Metro), the Portland metro area's elected regional government. "When you're an Oregon planner, you're full of ideas of what you can do, and Austin has a vast potential. But Austin needs to base its planning on its own ideas and its own urban behavior, or else you'll never get anything done."

Austin could do a lot worse

than to let John Fregonese get his hands on us; among the Portland planning community, he has status normally accorded to the most venerable of sages. But Oregon planners have a lot more toys to play with than we do. Much of the essence of Portland's vision of urban livability derives not from the Rose City or its regional partners, but from the State of Oregon itself, which in 1970 adopted the revolutionary Growth Management Act (GMA) -- requiring all cities to set urban growth boundaries, or UGBs, beyond which they simply would not sprawl. This left the Portland metropolitan area -- made up of 24 cities -- with about 300 square miles in which to live and grow. The state also mandates preserving a designated, privately owned, rural area around the city which must be as large as the urban area within (see map, p.22).

It's interesting to note that Portland was the target, rather than the progenitor, of the GMA. At the time, it was no better than any other postwar American boomtown, Austin included, at managing its growth. "I hear people talk about the good old days, but I wouldn't trade today's Portland for the 1970 version for all the tea in China," says Fregonese. "It was a disgusting place." It was grungy and industrial, with a near-derelict downtown flanking the filthy Willamette River; citizens fled to burgeoning suburbs with the willing support of regional leaders addicted to Jetsons-era visions of progress through freeway building.

The GMA was crafted by an odd coalition -- or at least odd in Texas terms -- of farmin'-and-loggin' types in the country, who saw the reckless Rose City sprawl as a threat to the Real Oregon, and early enviros such as then-Portland City Commissioner Neil Goldschmidt, later to be both Portland's mayor and Oregon's governor. At the apex of the effort was Governor Tom McCall, a former journalist and proud Republican, often described as "crusty" and a forefather of today's environmental movement. (When one Portland neighborhood activist was asked how to import the Portland way to Austin, she said "Well, first, you need to bring Tom McCall back from the dead. Then you have to convince him to move to Texas.")

In its current form, the GMA has begat a list of 19 statewide land-use goals, of which citizen involvement in planning is No. 1. Environmental and resource-protection issues dominate the rest of the list, with urban issues distinctly subordinate. Despite its seeming hostility to urban needs, though, the GMA has become a useful tool for Portland planners, who have, over time, made full peace with its requirements. "The urban growth boundary was designed to protect the edge," says Fregonese, "but since the act was passed, it's had the unanticipated benefit of spurring redevelopment and focusing growth and public investment inward. All the infrastructure money and attention is now being directed back toward the city."

For most Oregon towns, the impact of the GMA is felt directly by the city; in Portland's case, though, since substantial sprawl had already happened, Metro has become custodian of the UGB and gets to call the shots in regional planning. Metro, the nation's only elected regional government, has a seven-member council elected by district from a tri-county area: Multnomah County, dominated by Portland; Washington County, locale of burgeoned suburbs like Hillsboro and Beaverton, home to Nike, as well as to jillions of intensely cultivated fields, orchards and forests; and Clackamas County, the historic half-wild, half-city from which Tonya Harding hails and which is locally synonymous with "redneck."

Although Metro represents these counties in their entirety, the UGB falls far short of the county lines, especially in Clackamas. In Washington County, it might as well be marked along the ground. The small town of North Plains, outside the boundary and about the size of Lockhart, is about as bucolic a place as one could imagine, without even a Wal-Mart, even though it lies on a four-lane freeway only 20 minutes from downtown Portland. Heading out of North Plains the back way, though, you enter Hillsboro and cross the UGB, and nearly instantly transit from forest to framing timber. "In Clackamas you see more of a fade to green, but in Washington County it's real definitive," says Fregonese. "That's where we take visitors."

Metro has two major roles: managing a motley array of public services -- from solid waste collection to the Portland Zoo, which no one else wants (and from which it derives its income) -- and planning. In 1992, voters adopted the current Metro charter, which calls for the authority to adopt a "Future Vision" document representing, in Metro's words, "the broadest geographic, social, economic, and environmental view of the region." The Vision -- which, with tenets like "We value a life close to nature incorporated in the urban landscape," reads like a term paper in a cultural-geography class -- forms the foundation of the "Region 2040 Growth Concept," adopted a year ago by the Metro council after a typically Portland marathon of public hearings ("listening posts") and written testimony totaling more than 1,000 pages.

The Growth Concept seeks to knit, out of metro Portland's collection of old towns, new towns, suburbs, exurbs, and edge cities, an organized and interdependent "multiple city" with a hierarchy of planned, high-density urban centers. These range from downtown Portland, through "regional centers" in major suburbs like Gresham, Hillsboro, and Vancouver (across the Columbia River in Washington state, which is outside the Metro boundary, and subject to the Evergreen State's own GMA, but still part of the plan), to "town centers" and beneath that "main streets" serving individual neighborhoods, along with additional commercial hubs around light-rail stations. The premise, of course, is to encourage infill and redevelopment in existing settled areas -- revitalizing the old central districts of the suburbs, creating new commercial centers in areas (including the Outer Southeast) that don't have them, and generally keeping people away from the borderlands around the UGB. The idea is to accommodate 650,000 more people in basically the same amount of space. (On the table right now is the prospect of adding less than 10,000 acres within the UGB, which is not a popular notion among those who live upon that acreage.)

In terms of sheer numbers, Portland's growth projections are formidable. the city counts just under half a million people as residents, with 1.2 million in the metropolitan area -- a number that's expected to increase by another half a million in 20 years. According to Paddy Tillet, an architect involved in city planning in Portland, during the past 15 years, the number of people working downtown has doubled to 100,000, while the number of parking spaces has inched up from 39,000 in the 1970s to 41,000 now.

Rather than using resources to build parking garages, Portland is pouring enormous amounts of planning and money into its transit system to prevent traffic and air pollution problems. The city has one lightrail line going east from downtown, and another under construction, slated to begin running in 1997 or 1998. According to former city planning director Bob Stacey, Portland also is in the process of applying for about $2 billion from the federal government for a combined north-south line. More immediate are plans for "10-minute corridors" -- bus lines that will run along major thoroughfares from the suburbs to the downtown at 10-minute intervals, Stacey says.

Downtown, the city closed off a north-south and an east-west corridor, turning the streets into pedestrian malls with regular bus service. "This isn't just a bus line -- it has involved a great deal of upgrading of downtown businesses," Tillet says. "What we found was that we've focused development and investment in new buildings and in the rehabilitation of buildings [on those streets]."

With additional discussions of open space, rural reserves, affordable housing, transit, and other components of the vision thang, the Growth Concept would probably sate the policy appetites of the wonkiest Austinites. But that's not enough for Portland, which intends over the next two years to finalize the 2040 Framework Plan, managed by Fregonese and comprising implementation strategies, including performance standards and model ordinances for the 26 cities and three counties (since counties in Oregon, unlike in Texas, have ordinance power and regulatory authority over land use) to use to implement the Concept. Each of these jurisdictions has to make its own comprehensive plan -- required by state law -- compatible with 2040 and "use it to help meet the performance standards in the Framework."

So, even before we enter

the Portland city limits, we have an impressive complement of land-use goals and visions, and the strategies and mechanisms to attain them, none of which have very good analogues in Texas. Which brings us back to Outer Southeast.

Taking the state's No. 1 goal at face value, Portland has endeavored to build, or actually to rebuild, its comprehensive plan from the bottom up, one district at a time. Community plans like Central City, Albina, and Outer Southeast -- and, more importantly, the planning processes themselves -- are instruments that align the high-performance hothouse visions grown under glass by state, regional, and city planning pros with the real issues and concerns of the folks at street level. While the Portland Planning Bureau supplies the heavy lifting of zoning and land-use regulation, the bulk of the items on the Outer Southeast to-do list were generated by the neighbors themselves, in plans they wrote themselves, and which they plan to do themselves.

Austin should pay heed to this fact. The charge of our Citizens Planning Committee, whose recommendation report is full of ideas similar to those that permeate Portland, is to rewrite our Land Development Code. That citywide document guides all the development in Austin, yet it is not linked to our charter-mandated comprehensive plan, Austin Tomorrow, and in fact works against it in more than one place. We have no community planning process, let alone one that builds on an even larger neighborhood involvement program; there is no such thing in Austin as a "neighborhood plan" adopted as law through council resolution, which is a cornerstone of the Portland model. And while both the CPC report and Austin Tomorrow pay homage to the idea of "neighborhood-based planning," neither explains how this is supposed to work in Austin, and even the suggestion that we should aim for such planning has unleashed open opposition from the Austin American-Statesman and others.

Ultimately, what may be most notable about Portland's community-planning process is the willingness of citizens and neighborhoods to commit for the long haul to essential city-building tasks, and the inevitability with which the city responds in kind with commitments of its own. "Part of our planning process is designed, admittedly, to build consensus for major planning goals like increased density and commercial redevelopment," says Portland's chief neighborhood planner Michael Harrison. "But even more importantly, it establishes an ongoing dialogue about growth, land use, and the urban character and the stresses facing the community."

And that dialogue takes place with both individuals and with the neighborhood associations. Since Outer Southeast is a much newer and larger area than Albina or the Central City -- in fact, about a third of the district was only recently annexed into Portland, a move that displeases more than a few residents -- its neighborhood infrastructure is less developed than elsewhere in the Rose City. While some of the Planning Bureau's energies are inevitably devoted to what is, in effect, neighborhood building, it approaches the task with some ambivalence. "Our mandate is to involve the citizens, not necessarily the neighborhoods," says Harrison, who devotes two-thirds of the $1 million spent on each community plan to citizen outreach. "We view the associations as participants rather than as representatives. ONA may take a different view, but we don't care."

ONA is the Portland Office of Neighborhood Associations, a separate city department that manages the citywide neighborhood involvement program, which extends beyond the realm of land-use planning into such issues as parks and recreation, public safety, and economic development. This range of influence is a reflection, in part, of the curious structure of the Portland City Council -- while each commissioner is elected at large, each is responsible for a particular portfolio of city departments. Functionally, Mayor Katz and her four commissioners are more akin to Jesus Garza and his four assistant city managers than to the elected Austin council. Both the Planning Bureau and ONA, along with the parks and fire bureaus, are overseen by Commissioner Charlie Hales, the newbie on the council; before scoring an upset over the incumbent in 1992, he was a lobbyist for the local homebuilder's association. While Hales ran on a clean-it-up, speed-it-up platform and promptly fired the Planning Bureau director upon taking office, his commitment to progressive planning has earned him respect from former foes and the enmity of former friends. He may not be so popular, however, among the vast network of neighborhood coalitions and associations that fall under ONA; at one neighborhood meeting in Northwest Portland, cracks could be heard in the cheap seats about "Good Prince Charlie" and his consort the "Princess Diane," Hales' ONA director, Diane Linn. Their crime has been to create a Task Force on Neighborhood Involvement whose discussion draft -- undergoing the inevitable public review as we speak -- proposes, among other things, the expansion of ONA at the expense of the neighborhood groups, the creation of new structures to supplement those associations held to be unrepresentative of their constituents, and a citywide re-examination of neighborhood boundaries.

In Portland, neighborhood associations and their boundaries are, once again, adopted by city council resolution, and seldom if ever change. The Austin way, where any old sods can go down to the Annex and create a new Neighborhood Association with themselves as its board, is completely unknown (indeed, seemingly appalling) to Portland policymakers. The neighborhoods are grouped into coalitions -- roughly corresponding to the community plan areas though created independently -- through which the city provides staff, technical, and financial support to the NAs. You heard right. If you lived in Portland, your NA would be provided with meeting space, clerical support, and professional services -- including, often, your own city planner -- with the city picking up the tab.

It appears from the surface that Portland's neighborhood political hijinx, while no worse than Austin's, are no better -- one of the major agenda items at the above-mentioned NA meeting was a report on mediation between the group and the West/Northwest coalition board. Such things happen often enough for ONA to have a mediator on its staff, who turned out to be too busy to actually address this issue. But again, even though the Portland way has not neutralized the day-care dynamics -- or, if you'd rather, vital signs of democracy -- inherent in neighborhood governance, it doesn't seem to have made them worse. Things do get done, albeit through an ass-numbing process of meeting and talking that Austinites don't generally appear eager to embrace. The Northwest NA, which serves about 3,000 residents, has 11 standing committees that meet at least once a month. And even Hales' and Linn's task force, while it challenges some elements of the entrenched structure, proceeds from the premise that Portland does not do enough to secure meaningful citizen participation in all issues affecting them.

Before we make any final

determination on the Portland way's suitability for Austin, we have to make sure that it's going to remain suitable for Portland. While Hales is no revolutionary, he does serve as a focal point for those who see the Portland planning process as needlessly bureaucratic and technocratic. "There are certainly cases where we have excess," says Hales aide Gillian Detwiler. "We used to have one paragraph in the code that defined parking. We just got a draft from the [Transportation] Bureau that takes almost 100 pages to define parking. We now have areas that are `overparked' and `underparked.' We have something called `preservation parking.' It can get pretty absurd."

It can also get pretty unclean, according to Fregonese. "Citizen involvement is so powerful that you can sometimes have a tyranny of the minority," he says. "We all know that there's blackmail going on -- that people can, and have, gotten favors from developers to not oppose a project. That's not how this is supposed to work. But we have been lucky in that most citizens take this stuff far more seriously, and more responsibly, than even we sometimes expect."

Nevertheless, no one seems to want to do it the way Austin does, for example. "We have the most successful planning process in North America, without a doubt," says Harrison with the pride of a believer. "We attract attention from all over the world. And you know why? Because it works." n

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle