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Gearing up for growth: what are Portland’s next big moves?

In a recent Portland Monthly article, Randy Gragg offered “six imperatives of Portland’s future,” a series of factors and strategies for dealing with the city’s massive population influx as it is projected to bring some 200,000 new residents over the next two decades.

The article draws from an interview with former San Francisco and Portland head planner Gil Kelly (he’s about to take on the same role in Vancouver, BC), who spoke with Gragg this summer as part of the ongoing Bright Lights discussion series produced in conjunction with the University of Oregon’s John Yeon Center.

I enjoyed the combination of article and discussion as an excuse to think in a long-range way about some of the architecture, infrastructure and open spaces the city will need.

Growth and manufacturing

Kelly’s talk and Gragg’s article cited an impressive and surprising stat: between 2001 and 2014, Portland’s per-capita GDP grew at a substantially higher rate (about 48 percent) than Seattle (16 percent) or San Francisco (18). For that first decade or so, the other two cities were growing their per-capita GDP at rates similar to or ahead of Portland’s. But then the Great Recession came, and they fell much further than ours. Granted those cities both have substantially higher overall per-capita GDP than Portland.

In trying to understand why we didn’t fall as far, I was reminded of another surprising fact: that Portland gets a higher percentage of its economic output from manufacturing than any other US city.

In a brief phone interview, Portland economist Joe Cortright qualified the manufacturing number by saying much of what the analysts call manufacturing is really the presence of research and innovation at local branches of companies like Intel and Freightliner. Yet that same means of evaluation and categorization was applied to other cities, and looking at a map of US cities on the Brookings Institution’s Global Metro Monitor, I actually found only two metropolises that, like Portland, had manufacturing listed as their top industry: Greensboro and Grand Rapids.

Having a surprisingly large manufacturing base and getting less from high-tech and finance would perhaps explain why Portland’s overall per-capita GDP is lower than San Francisco and Seattle. It might also provide context for recent local controversies like the pollution being measured in areas like Southeast Portland and the northern portion of Slabtown.

Housing, preservation and plazas

Gragg’s prescription begins with the city’s most obvious need: housing. And we’re not talking about knocking down old cottages for new mansions so much as apartment buildings on thoroughfares and a lot more duplexes and triplexes among those houses. He also points to a more mass-transit-oriented city, not just connected by trains and buses but by car sharing and electric bikes. He suggests Portland should raise development fees, which developers unconvincingly argue stifles growth but which could provide much-needed funds for affordable housing and public civic space. Gragg also thankfully puts in a nod to historic preservation: not in the sense of stopping legal demolitions or creating historic districts that can stifle missing-middle housing, but in creating incentives, in the form of height transfers, subsidies, and bonuses.

The meat of Randy’s sextet of recommendations may be the call to “bring back urban design,” in which he adds, “bike lanes and bioswales do not a great city make’ lively streets and plazas do.”

Gragg suggests that an area of the central city that is seeing the most growth—the portion of Northeast that includes Lloyd Center, the Oregon Convention Center and Northeast Broadway—should get a real walkable, people-watching kind of street lined with storefronts.

“Is anyone talking about the central spaces connecting them, along Northeast Multnomah and Holladay streets? Portland has seldom seen a better chance for a grand promenade: dynamically landscaped with adventuresome public art, designed for strolling, resting, shopping, and simply being in the city,” Gragg writes.

I like the idea of a promenade along Multnomah Street. Given my ongoing involvement with trying to save Veterans Memorial Coliseum and see it restored, I’ve long thought about how the Rose Quarter and the Steel Bridge sit at the western edge of a Multnomah Street that travels along the southern edge of the Lloyd Center mall and what is bound to become a much more high-density area with a lot of residents.

Multnomah Street seems to want to be lined with high-density buildings and ground-floor storefront retail, but for too many years the ambiance has been killed by the over-presence of parking garages (at the mall) and parking lots (particularly the huge one for Lloyd Cinemas). But the mall’s redesign and the construction of housing on the Lloyd Cinemas site, as well as the huge residential development to the south at Hassalo on Eighth and Oregon Square, will change the feel of Multnomah and bring lots more street traffic.

Plaza

Rendering of the proposed Green Loop (City of Portland)

Green Loop and bike lanes

As it relates to future streets being designed for people and bicyclists, there is also the Green Loop, the city’s new effort to create a north-south arterial on the east side parallel to the Martin Luther King Boulevard and Grand Avenue thoroughfares that is devoted to pedestrians, cyclists and greenery. This green street might be made out of SE Sixth or Ninth Avenue, and it’s encouraging to think of traveling north and south in this direction (I live near these streets in Ladd’s Addition) without feeling dominated or (if I’m on a bike) intimidated by automobiles and tiny bike lanes.

My conversation with Cortright, the economist, also touched upon the value of the bioswales and bike lanes that Randy referred to. Bikes and bike lanes aren’t civic space in the same way a park or plaza is, but the presence of bicyclists speaks to the kind of place where talented workers who grow the economy want to live, where there is a human scale. “It’s not the bike lanes. It’s the fact that they’re full of bikes,” Cortright told me. “The fact that there’s a steady stream of bikes up Williams every afternoon, to me it’s a tangible indicator [of desirable urban vitality]. A lot of cities’ that’s not the case.” Same goes for bioswales: they’re not just catching rainwater but expressing environmental values that matter (says the research) to young, educated, urban-inclined residents, be they recently arrived or native Portlanders.

Bigger moves

Even so, if we’re talking about moves Portland could make to make it even more attractive and useful to residents, this week I had it suggested to me by a local urban planner, Don Arambula, that the city should think bigger, by embracing some expensive but meaningful infrastructure moves. When I tweeted Randy’s article and applauded its exploration of next steps to improve the central city, Arambula wrote back that these moves were “small ball” compared to what Portland should really do: remove the east bank of the I-5 freeway and build a subway downtown.

Like many, I have long been enticed by the idea of getting the highway overpasses off the waterfront. Across the world, cities have been reclaiming for pedestrians and public space the waterfront land that has for much of the past century been devoted to industrial uses or highways.

We can find a textbook case on the west side of the Willamette River, where we shrunk the multi-lane highway known as Harbor Drive down to a skinnier Naito Parkway (originally Front Avenue) in order to build Tom McCall Waterfront Park. On the eastside, while we did complete the Vera Katz Eastbank Esplanade in 2001, giving us back a portion of the east side of the river for walking and biking, it’s really just a thin sliver of land beside the cacophony of I-5.

Overpass

East bank freeway overpass (Brian Libby)

It’s hard to imagine Portland taking on a project as big as burying the freeway with a tunnel and removing those huge overpasses, or possibly even the Marquam Bridge. Even though it would be a kind of ant-Robert Moses endeavor, the reconfiguration would be on a Robert Moses scale. Yet imagine what it would do for the Central Eastside. That neighborhood is already thriving thanks to a mix of light industrial, commercial and high tech spaces, but it is completely cut off from the river lying a few yards away. Bury that freeway and allow unfettered cityscape to come right up to the shore and you’d give the Portland of, say, 2050 an identity more like the Left Bank in Paris.

Building a subway downtown for MAX seems perhaps even less likely to happen, but there is good reason to consider it. Doing so would greatly reduce east-west travel times, protect trains from bridge lifts on the Steel Bridge and no longer subject to traffic lights downtown. Instead of all those stops at Pioneer Place Mall, then Pioneer Courthouse Square two blocks away, and at 10th in another two blocks and so on, you could have an already-underground subway at the Oregon Zoo make stops at Pioneer Courthouse Square and then in the Lloyd District.

That said, for the maybe $2.5 billion you could build that Barbur Boulevard line that TriMet is considering, or any other new line. Ultimately the subway suggestion may be symptomatic of something else. Mostly MAX already works pretty well, but I’m not sure the Portland Streetcar does, at least in terms of efficient transportation. If Portland is going to become a well-functioning, high-density city we have to use our rail transit not so much as a development tool, as the streetcar too often is, and more as an efficient means of getting from place to place. To make the Portland Streetcar really work we should probably give it its own dedicated lanes.

Not-so-far east

Gragg’s article also adroitly pointed to 82nd Avenue as an area of future focus. It is still largely an eyesore of strip-malls (if not strippers), but it has been enlivened as a kind of new home to many Asian cultures and ensuing restaurants and geographically speaking is more of a true center to the city than the downtown core. I’m not sure how high-density Portland’s long-range planning anticipates the area around 82nd becoming, but with the presence of a MAX line now, going from Gateway to Clackamas Town Center, it would make sense. But I’m not sure if the conservative Clackistanis will tolerate it.

Today while considering 82nd Avenue as central artery for greater Portland, I went looking at a map of the area, particularly near Gateway. When I look at open space potential, there may be any number of small plazas and parks that could emanate from vacant lots, but in a certain respect there is already a gigantic green space nearby—just not one that is meant for the public or as a park: the Glendoveer Golf Course, which extends from 131st to 148th between Holgate and Glisan. It’s practically a future Central Park for the east side of Portland if we could ever make it happen. Or, we could let a tiny handful of guys in really bad outfits hit tiny balls around an exclusive over-landscaped playground.

urban design redo

The Moda Center and Rose Quarter need an urban design redo (Brian Libby)

The central city puzzle

Kelly urges us to look at a constellation of large land parcels in the central city that should be considered holistically: the post office site downtown (recently purchased by the city for redevelopment), Centennial Mills (much of which has tragically been demolished but could still become a key riverfront open space), the Blanchard Portland Public Schools Site (long considered for redevelopment), the Rose Quarter (where parking garages have created a dead zone but high-density redevelopment around the two arenas could change that narrative), a series of ODOT parcels along the river between the Morrison and Hawthorne Bridges, and the area around OMSI slated for high-density development.

I argued for a similar approach to these parcels in a Portland Tribunecolumn earlier this year, but neither Kelly nor I are the first to urge city leaders to think more than parcel-by-parcel.

There is so much urban innovation that our city has been responsible for over the last generation or two: pioneering postwar light rail, sustainable buildings, and high rates of bicycle commuting. But we tend in recent years to engage in siloed thinking and could benefit from a grander vision: grander not in the sense of being showy, but in connecting these dots.

Right now we’re devoting a lot of attention to the affordable and homeless housing crisis, as we should. But if for no other reason than to be able to continually have resources to address that issue, we need a robust economy born more than ever from the fact that people want to live here. We have to double down on quality of life and sustainability as emblems of that effort, but in an egalitarian way that makes the city accessible and livable for someone making minimum wage as much as for someone who can afford a multimillion-dollar condo.