Do you ever have that moment where you recall a conversation you’ve had in the past day or so, and then think about an idea or question never expressed? I’m having one of those with the inaugural ‘Designs On Portland’ conversation from last night with newly minted Portland Spaces editor Randy Gragg.
As it happens, Stephen Beaven’s cover story from the InPortland section of Thursday’s Oregonian connects with it. Or it least I think it does.
In the talk at Design Within Reach last night, we were discussing Metro’s 2040 plan of trying to create certain regional town centers, I believe they’re called—basically clusters of higher-density development (mixed used, multi-story, condos, etc.) centered around key MAX light rail stops and, eventually by extension, the Washington County commuter rail line.
What we seemed to agree on was that there seemed to be a mixed-bag of measurable success on that front, with struggling but in some ways very laudable developments like The Round in Beaverton emblematic of the growing pains happening in suburban areas trying to go high-density with both financial success for the developer and an urban success for the neighborhood.
In last night’s conversation and now, as I write this, I also remember (or remembered, as it were) a past interview with award-winning planner George Crandall of Crandall Arambula, whose plans have helped revitalized a number of medium-sized American cities and was also involved in Portland’s earlier downtown revival during the 1970s. Crandall believes (or at least he did when I interviewed him a couple years ago) that Metro has been much more successful at macro-level planning for the Portland Metro area than micro-level. Which, I guess you might say, means the idea of the high-density, MAX-oriented clusters is a good idea, but the seeds are sprouting only with middling success. Two totally different challenges, guess.
Stephen Beaven’s article talks about the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland, traditionally a sleepy blue-collar enclave, that’s the latest of many close-in neighborhoods to experience gentrification (rising housing prices, other social and demographic changes brought on with generational ownership turnover). It’s in some ways an apples/oranges comparison to look at Kenton versus locales in, say, Beaverton. But even so, they’re both fruit, ya know?
I thought Beaven, interviewing Portland State urban studies professor Ethan Seltzer, summed up the ingredients in an urban Portland’s neighborhood’s makeover.
- “High housing prices in the core and surrounding neighborhoods force young people to buy further out. This is why Kenton and St. Johns are getting trendy.
- These outlying neighborhoods usually have good bones: mature trees, parks, well-tended streets and commercial buildings that can be easily renovated.
- Public investment—whether it’s a light-rail line or the sale of city-owned land—sparks retail and residential development.
- New residents throw themselves into neighborhood, reinvigorating community organizations or starting new businesses."
What are the ingredients that exist in Kenton that could are missing in some of the Metro town center locations, but could realistically be grown over time? You can't rush the trees growing, but I wonder what needs to change to eventually, over the coming decade beyond any particular recession or boom, to see clusters in Beaverton, Hillsboro, Gresham or Gateway flourish as environments where you can walk for a lot of your basic services, where there's a built environment that doesn't feel synthetic, bland or Disneyland -like (or Edward Scissorhands) but is affordable as well.
Then again, when your neighborhood has a gigantic Paul Bunyan statue -- a not completely un-Disney-like presence (if I you'll forgive me for pretzel-like phrasing) -- you always have a built-in advantage.
But I think Kenton is also just entering a particularly fun moment: that sense of betweenness, where the old hasn't disappeared. There's a quintessentially Portland blue-collar grittiness like you might see in a Gus Van Sant film that hasn't disappeared. Some some senior citizens living across the street from the tattooed young folks. And a place on a reasonably nearby corner to get a decent cup of coffee.