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Vancouver or bust

Portland planners take field trip to Canadian city
by: Nick Budnick, Pat Wotherspoon (right), assistant director of the City Plans office in Vancouver, British Columbia,  welcomes the Portland group to Collingwood Village, a high-density development on a transit line.

Last Thursday, as a sleek gray tour bus headed north on Interstate 5, Robert Liberty, an elected councilor with the regional planning agency Metro, stood in the aisle, grasped the microphone and uttered these words in a commanding tone worthy of Winston Churchill:

'If you took the vegetarian sandwich and are not a vegetarian - repeat, NOT a vegetarian - please return the sandwich.'

As the bus carried a cargo of Portland-area elected officials and city and regional planners, as well as private consultants and architects, toward Vancouver, British Columbia, the sandwich thief, architect and Portland Planning Commissioner Tim Smith, fessed up.

The sandwich then was conveyed to a hungry reporter who had requested it before departure.

The sandwich provided not only a tasty meal but a tortured metaphor for the trip. The reporter, fearing embarrassment, had asked Liberty to - please! - not search out the sandwich. Liberty, an orderly sort, forced it on him anyway.

Similarly, Portland's suburban residents are wary of taller buildings and denser development - but Metro is pushing it on them, whether they like it or not.

The Metro-sponsored tour to Canada's third-largest city was intended to help the 30 participants learn ways to build more densely and creatively in Portland and its environs. In other words, don't fear the sandwich.

Many expected just a boring, routine trip - after all, isn't Portland the urban planning mecca of the United States? What the participants found, however, left many feeling surprised and looking at the world in a different way.

'You look at a place like this and you say … why not aim high?' said Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder, as he took in a view of a midrise condo development surrounded by gardens and tastefully set-back porches. He meant both figuratively and literally. But he added that the trip was not intended to put Vancouver on a pedestal, but rather to see 'the good, the bad, and the ugly.'

Density rules

On the bus trip north, Liberty and Burkholder took turns reviewing the basics. Like Portland, Vancouver is bounded by a big river and mountains. Populationwise, Greater Vancouver is a mirror image of Portland, with just over 2 million inhabitants. But the Vancouver region houses its people in less than half the area, or 'footprint.'

How do they do this? Density.

Liberty and Burkholder especially wanted the trip to focus on Vancouver's suburbs. With 1 million new residents expected in the Portland region in the next 20 years, Metro wants suburbs like Gresham and Hillsboro to develop their downtowns into 'town centers' that accommodate midlevel buildings, three to eight or even 12 stories high, depending on the community.

Over the course of the three-day trip, the participants constantly saw the wood scaffoldings and cranes signifying a booming construction industry.

On Thursday afternoon, the bus pulled into the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster, where Mayna Vancaillie, a dark-eyed and athletic-looking city planner, guided the Portland group on a walking tour under a gray, drizzling sky.

Downtown New Westminster is composed of many low-lying, historic brick buildings that caused Liberty to liken it to Oregon City. Vancaillie said the city has 11 midsize condo towers in the works, planned to be narrow and obstruct as few views as possible.

Despite the development, the city is clearly depressed. Some storefronts are vacant while others, like one check-cashing store, cater to a low-income crowd. Vancaillie stopped outside a closed, vacant art cinema, one that she said she is trying to find a new tenant for. She even had a great idea for the space:

'I was very impressed in Portland,' she said, 'with the cinemas that serve pizza and beer.'

The group broke into cheers and applause.

Later, we head to Collingwood Village, on the outskirts of Vancouver, where Pat Wotherspoon, the assistant director of the City Plans office, showed off the area's large condo towers, all built on a piece of former industrial land.

In exchange for the rights to build 2,800 condos and apartments, the developer built an elementary school, a sports field complex, a day-care facility and community center.

'Everything that you see here, including every blade of grass, was paid for by the developer,' he said, with obvious pride.

When tour participants said they were accustomed to neighbors fearing density, Wotherspoon said planners and the developer were able to work together with residents - and looking at the many attractions of Collingwood, it's easy to see why. In Vancouver, officials extract more public amenities and parks from developers than they do in Portland.

Planning is about carrots and sticks, Wotherspoon said. 'If you want to build out in the suburbs, you've got to have better amenities.'

The greenery and neighborhood style of places like Collingwood work, Wotherspoon said. Condo towers 'sell out in a single weekend. … That's how hot the market is. We can't keep up with the demand. … We've got families living in 900, 1,000 square feet.'

One reason the demand for housing is greater in Vancouver is that the city has no freeways running into or through the city, making people want to live closer to their jobs - and in places that, like Collingwood, are near stops of Vancouver's high-speed transit system, called SkyTrain. 'It's sheer bloody hell for somebody to commute into the city,' Wotherspoon said.

Indeed, that evening, at a reception at a posh Vancouver hotel, Vancouver senior planner Michael Gordon explained that the lack of freeways was key to its development pattern, as it was forced to develop around self-contained neighborhoods and communities, so people could live near where they work.

Turning drivers into walkers

The next morning reinforces that Vancouver does not altogether welcome the automobile.

At the Portico development near downtown, the city built a 500-unit complex of condos on 1.75 acres, centered on a beautifully sculpted garden and courtyard - making room in part by tearing out a cloverleaf on-ramp to a nearby bridge, thus helping to slow down traffic. The tour group mills around, oohing and ahhing at the walkways, porches and other design details.

Later, back on the bus, Gordon notes that drive-through restaurants are not allowed within city limits. 'We really do want people to get out of their cars and exercise,' he said.

People drew different lessons from the journey.

Halfway through the trip, Metro planner Marc Guichard stood on the rooftop patio of an eight-story condo tower, complete with putting green and birdhouses, and looked down on an exquisitely landscaped courtyard. Ten years in his field had worn him down, but 'I feel revitalized,' he said.

Later, as the bus rolled through suburban Vancouver, Portland developer Bradley Malsin said the Canadian city, with its difficulty keeping jobs downtown, shows that Portland should place more emphasis on supporting jobs-oriented development, especially given the softening of the condo market in Portland.

'I think the residential market is a dangerous one,' he said.

'I saw lots of very cool ways to re-create a downtown that still feels like a community … and gets people out of their cars walking around,' Milwaukie city councilor Carlotta Collette said following the trip. She then turned downright giddy: 'I'm charged!'

Will it play in Portland?

As conversations with the trip's hosts revealed, however, there are many reasons the Vancouver model may be unrealistic for Portland. Relative to the United States, Canadian law assigns more power to planners and less to individual landowners.

Vancouver planners use that power to ensure a large stock of not just parks, but affordable housing to offset rising prices. Moreover, the real estate market in downtown Vancouver is far hotter, with condo prices running roughly double that of Portland.

Metro's Liberty, however, argued that Vancouver does offer lessons, mainly in that local officials need to be sure they are requiring the appropriate amount of parks and other public improvements from developers.

In downtown Vancouver, he said, 'It was like a resort in places. … The stuff that we saw in the outer suburban communities was a notch less fancy, but it was nicer than anything we see around here, in general.'

Given the differences between the regions, including their real estate markets, is it realistic to think Portland could ask more from its developers?

'It's only partly a matter of the market, it's partly a matter of will, the will of public officials to determine what it is they can and want to require for the benefit of the citizens and the public amenities - and still have the developers making money.'

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