BY BRIAN LIBBY
Two articles from the Daily Journal of Commerce illustrate the variety of ways - but not the only ones - that development can move forward amidst the persistent Great Recession.
As Angela Webber reports in one story, six Portland State University real estate students presented proposals last Wednesday for a 14-acre site between Northeast Sandy Boulevard, Interstate 84, and 20th Avenue called the Benson Blocks.
Though broken down into two potential proposals, "modest" and "robust" (depending on the economic conditions), each is a mix of high-density housing and retail. The larger plan includes condos and hotels, for example, while the smaller one sticks to rental apartments (both would include senior housing). Other properties proposed in various plans include an urban Costco store, a YMCA, and a new Portland Community College campus with potential for student apartments.
The presentations (available via PDF here) were made to local members the Building Owners and Managers Association, who in turned offered the students feedback. The proposals were also made in cooperation with the owner of this 14-acre site, Joe Weston, who also owns a variety of properties throughout Portland.
Kyle Brown, one of the students working on the Benson Blocks plan, told Webbber his biggest lesson was “how much parking can influence a development’s financial pro forma.” Both proposals called for underground parking and stand-alone parking structures. “It’s the biggest influence, which is kind of a bummer,” Brown said. “That’s the way things have to be built.”
That said, the "robust" proposal also included a Sandy Boulevard streetcar, which could be a reality one day given the Portland transportation bureau's plans to move lines outward from the MLK/Grand loop currently being constructed.
Having constructive dialogue between students and members of the development community is certainly something to applaud. What's more, focusing these efforts on one large swatch of property makes things easier in terms of imagining broad multi-block place making.
Yet given how a streetcar line is currently coming to woefully under-utilized Grand and MLK area, one can't help but wonder if such a brainstorming session might have been applied here. After all, local developers would be the first to concede that following the streetcar is a recipe for business success, not simply hoping it comes in 15 years. The central eastside has blossomed over the past decade yet without the boom-and-bust cycle of the Pearl District. How could that district be enhanced, possibly with housing and office space, without overrunning its existing character? MLK and Grand are major thoroughfares, yet planners ultimately hope to create a more pedestrian friendly environment here. What's the right mix of traffic calming, transit and mixed-use buildings?
What's more, I can't help but feel that looking at one 14-acre parcel of land is somewhat of a copout. True urban infill development is difficult precisely because there are countless parcels owned by different people. If we're truly trying to teach real estate students to approach development intelligently, why not have them tackle the real problem and not simply dream within an easier exception?
Living in Southeast, I pass down MLK and Grand on a regular basis, and it's always a disappointment to encounter multistory mixed-use buildings with the upper floor windows boarded up. It would have been perhaps more educational for both the students and for us to have them look at a messier problem but one with help (via the new streetcar line) seemingly on the way.
Come to think of it, Portland already has another large, multi-block development that's been struggling to come up with a compelling vision and the right economic critical mass for half a decade: the Burnside Bridgehead. After initially selecting one developer, the Portland Development Commission ultimately moved to parcel out the parcels in a multi-developer format. Certainly there are economies of scale to be reaped from coordinating multiple buildings in one huge development, yet there is also an added challenge in keeping this house of cards together. Successful developments of this size such as Gerding-Edlen Development's Brewery Blocks may be the exception to the rule. And should the exception be the focus of student dreams?
Meanwhile, the DJC's Nick Bjork reports that the group o 28 local policy makers responsible for presenting recommendations to the Metro Council unanimously support "a modest urban growth boundary expansion" for the Portland-metro area. "But about two-thirds of the group’s members went further," Bjork writes, "and asked that the council also require residential zoning in those expanded areas to be as dense as most Portland neighborhoods."
This may be a case of one step forward and at least one step backward. Kudos for those trying to make the margins of the metro area's boundaries more walkable, sustainable, desnse and transit-oriented. Yet it also has to be said: why are we expanding the boundaries at a time when both the home building and office markets are at historically low levels? Yes, there are thousands moving to Portland each month. But given the world-renowned fertile farmland being plowed to expand the growth boundary, and the countless swatches of land available throughout the area, why in the world would we loosen the belt?
If we are going to expand the boundary, however, Allison Arieff's opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times, called "Shifting the Suburban Paradigm," might be a timely read. Arieff argues that the single-family homebuilding industry isn't doing nearly enough to respond to the changing needs and conditions involving single family homes. Too often, Arieff writes, home builders have responded to the Great Recession by creating new marketing plans instead of new products.
"We’re beyond the point of a fresh coat of paint and a new sales pitch. If we’re going to continue to hold on to the single-family home, we need to transform it," Arieff writes. "There is a demand for smaller, more energy-efficient homes in less car-dependent neighborhoods; all aspects of the industry, from designers to lenders to planners to consumers, should meet it. In this era of anti-government fervor, subsidizing the American Dream isn’t an option; transforming it is the only one we’ve got."
"I don’t care if we’re talking Le Corbusier, Cape Cods or Corinthian columns," Arieff (who previously was editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine) continues. "We can’t make any progress in housing until we stop thinking about the home as decorative object and begin considering it as part of a larger whole. How does it work on the street? In the neighborhood? How is it served by transit? Is it adaptable, allowing for the housing of extended families or the hosting of an entrepreneurial endeavor? Can the owner build an accessory dwelling (a.k.a. granny flat) to do so? (Most zoning, homeowners’ associations and CCRs don’t allow for it currently.) What needs to happen to zoning, to financing, to our very notions of resale value to change the suburban condition — and by extension, the American Dream as we know it?"
When I posted this article to Facebook, however, local architect Joseph Readdy added a perceptive critique. "Allison Arieff makes some excellent points about the buildings, but doesn't address the issue of urban form that makes suburbia so unsustainable," he wrote. "Bright green cities won't be made by addressing building efficiencies alone. The public realm counts, too."
Indeed, if we look at existing suburbs for infill growth, there is an opportunity - a necessity, actually - to examine how the traffic and the isolation can be improved. Suburbs, be they in Oregon or anywhere else, were designed for the automobile. Can they be retrofitted to make options for getting around other than driving? It's not enough to have a MAX station two miles away, or for the surface parking lots to trade a few of their stalls for extra landscaping and a bioswale. Readdy is right that we have to think not just of how to retrofit a house, but an entire suburb, and to do it with a carrot more than a stick: a way that makes people want to live there, and able to.