Anna Griffin had an interesting column in Wednesday's Oregonian about the strip mall at Cascade Station along Airport Way and how it calls into question the ways we gauge how developments succeed or fail.
Cascade Station is a 120 acre parcel of property that is owned by the Port of Portland. When it was first pitched in about 1999, this was supposed to be a pedestrian oriented mixed-use development. Instead, it has become a hive of big-box chain stores. But in the middle of a terrible economy, Cascade Station has thrived, at least in terms of sales and revenue. For example, Griffin reports that the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant there is the 16th busiest of the chain's 600 franchises. 96 percent of the commercial side has been leased. And Ikea is, while certainly a big-box to end all big-boxes, very popular.
In other words, Portland failed at the goal of making Cascade Station an urban development, but it has succeeded - economically speaking - as a suburban one.
"This village thing was a great vision, but not there," shopping center developer Fred Bruning told Griffin. "If we hadn't built this, the entire place would probably still be vacant."
Indeed, there were quite a few years when, if you were riding the MAX to the airport, it would routinely stop at Cascade Station and nobody would get on or off. Now 6,000 people get on or off a MAX train at Cascade Station each week.
Cascade Station also probably succeeds in large part because of its ease of access and lack of sales tax for nearby Washington residents in Clark County, which already is mostly a suburban-feeling place anyway.
Here's an explanation from the Portland Development Commission of what happened with Cascade Station morphing from its original intended look and makeup:
"Unfortunately, following the execution of the agreement in 1999, development stalled due to the events of September 11, 2001 and because the site’s zoning precluded any retail larger than 60,000 square feet in size. This effectively precluded any anchor retail stores from locating there, and the small stores would not sign on."
"On February 17, 2005, the 1999 Plan District was amended with the intention of reviving development interest at Cascade Station. Development rights for the property were modified to allow, among other uses, up to three larger-format retailers. These anchor tenants are expected to provide the necessary customer draw that would spur the rest of the smaller retail to move forward, as well as the office and hotel uses."
PDC was perhaps between a rock and a hard place: seed the development with cheap plants that grow fast, or better fruit trees that might not bare any.
Griffin also ties her look at Cascade Station to Mayor Sam Adams' easing off of his refusal to support Walmart stores being established anywhere in Portland. Not long ago, Adams began talking with Walmart about an economic impact study for a store at Hayden Island, where he previously tried to keep the chain away. Some of this stems from the fact, as Griffin notes, that Walmart has spent many millions to buffet its image and appear more friendly to sustainability and smart city building. But a lot of it also has to do with the economy, and the fact that we can't be as picky about what kind of development we want when we really need development of any kind.
As for Cascade Station, I have to agree that it was probably never in the cards for this to be a pedestrian-oriented development, even with its MAX stops. But I suspect the people behind the development never had their hearts into the idea of urbanity.
When it was pitched as an idea in 1999, I attended a presentation on Cascade Station, and I specifically remember the would-be developers from Trammel Crow saying it would "look urban, work suburban". In other words, the office and stores might come all the way up to the sidewalk along Airport Way, but they would still have massive parking lots in back. And while MAX was a nice extra amenity, it was almost a non-factor, because the overwhelming majority of shoppers at Ikea and elsewhere would be coming and going in their cars.
In general, light rail and streetcars are seen as a development tool, particularly for creating mixed-use environments where people walk, bike and take mass transit as much as they drive - or more. However, this particular MAX line was really meant to connect people in downtown and other parts of Portland to the airport, not for creating this kind of compact, urban environment. Had Cascade Station's developers really wanted an urban place, they'd have needed to introduce a mix of housing with commercial and retail space, and created a grid or other street system with a scale of small blocks meant for pedestrians.
I think is the underlying truth in Griffin's column is that urban and suburban areas will always, to some extent, need each other. And we must remain flexible to both options.
To that end, Griffin's story ends with a quote from Bruning, the shopping mall developer. "When you travel to Europe, you leave the airport, and you immediately see industrial and commercial development," he says. "The first thing you see in some of the great cities of the world is Ikea."
I still consider it an open-ended question more than something I've completely figured out. Are big cities meant to have auto-oriented industrial and commercial developments on their outskirts, or could Cascade Station really have been something more than football field-sized parking lots and stores the size of the airplane hangars next door at the airport?
Meanwhile, the Portland Development Commission has moved toward shrinking the Airport Way urban renewal area. That's in part because law stipulates no more than 15 percent of the city's land can be an urban renewal area, and we're near the ceiling. But I wonder if somebody at PDC said to himself or herself, "I didn't get into the urban renewal profession so we could give breaks to Dress Barn and Staples."
I'll tell you this: Except for maybe the once-every-two-years sojourn to Ikea, I wouldn't take a single step towards the rest of the eyesore that is Cascade Station - not at Dress Barn, Marshall's, Ross Dress For Less, Red Robin, Jamba Juice, Kay Jewelers, Bath & Body Works, or even the International House of Pancakes. It says a lot that Cascade Station's website prominently features the phrase "tax free shopping" - all but an explicit admittance that the target market is more about big savings than a pleasant environment. But I wouldn't shop at these chains' outposts in Beaverton, Tigard or Gresham either. Yet lots of people do, and one can't pretend to know all their needs and motivations.