River City remodel
Leaders want to map new plan for urban core
More than 700 downtown managers, planners and experts converged in Portland several days ago for a conference titled 'Portland - We Planned It That Way.'
The 52nd annual conference of the International Downtown Association heard from downtown experts and decision-makers, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who praised Portland as a laboratory for innovative urban planning, including mixed-use developments built along mass-transit lines.
'Everyone I talked with was just totally blown away by Portland,' said Sandra McDonough, executive director and chief executive officer of the Portland Business Alliance, which co-sponsored the gathering of the urban leadership organization.
But when it came time for the IDA to hand out 2006 Downtown Achievement Awards, Portland was conspicuous by its absence. Fargo, N.D.; Phoenix; St. Louis; and Sacramento, Calif., won awards, but not Portland - reinforcing the growing concern that the city is resting on its laurels.
Portland Planning Director Gil Kelley believes the Bureau of Planning will begin addressing that issue early next year when it asks the City Council to approve the first master planning process for downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods in 18 years - the first plan since before Commissioner Erik Sten, the longest-serving council member, was elected.
According to Kelley, the goal is to develop a new blueprint to guide downtown-area development through 2035. Although the process is so new it does not yet have a formal name, Kelley hopes to hold public forums on it by January or February, and win council approval for it shortly after that.
'We need to decide what we want the city to look like in 30 years,' he said.
Kelley said a new master plan is the best vehicle for addressing many pressing issues facing the city, including:
• The lack of middle-class and family-oriented housing in downtown-area neighborhoods.
• How and where to create open spaces and public plazas in the rapidly growing urban core.
• Confusion over the allowable height and bulk of new buildings, including questions over whether so-called 'air rights' can be transferred from projects across town.
• Whether to tear down the portion of Interstate 5 that runs along the east side of the Willamette River and, if so, where to put the traffic.
Kelley said a new master plan is especially needed because the most recent population projections show the region is growing much faster than expected. According to Metro, the regional body responsible for managing growth, approximately 1 million more people will move to the Portland metropolitan area over the next 25 years - roughly twice the previous growth estimates.
'We have to decide how many people we want to live downtown, where and how they should live, and how we're going to make that happen,' Kelley said.
McDonough, who has discussed the need for a new plan with Kelley, agrees. McDonough dismissed the significance of Portland's not winning any awards at the IDA conference, arguing that the organization was too busy planning for it to pursue any. But McDonough believes a new plan is needed to keep downtown a model for other cities.
'No one really understood how much the Internet would change the way we do business 10 years ago,' she said. 'What will downtown look like in 30 years?'
Portland led the way
As participants at the IDA conference were repeatedly told, Portland owes much of its national reputation to two plans, the 1972 Downtown Plan and the 1988 Central City Plan. Both of them led to major policy and planning decisions that helped shape the urban core.
The 1972 Downtown Plan, created under the leadership of former Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, led to the creation of such downtown landmarks as Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Pioneer Courthouse Square and the retail center that includes the downtown Meier and Frank store, Nordstrom and the Pioneer Place malls.
The 1988 Central City Plan took a broader view of the urban core, expanding it to include such inner city neighborhoods as those areas now known as the Pearl District, South Waterfront and the Central Eastside Industrial District. It also laid the groundwork for the Portland streetcar, including its proposed east-side loop.
'Portland's leaders in the '70s and '80s had tremendous foresight,' McDonough said.
Kelley and McDonough believe that the 1988 effort now is out of date, however. For example, although the plan said the Pearl District should be considered part of the central city, it did not envision the dense housing that has been built there. Instead, it calls for the area - then known as the Northwest Triangle - to remain a warehouse and light-industrial district.
Nor did the plan understand how many people would want to live downtown. Although it called for housing in the South Waterfront area, the plan recommended that only low-rise buildings be constructed along the Willamette River. Instead, high-rise condominium towers now are being built throughout the area, including the lots closest to the river.
'The city's growth has already outstripped what's called for in the plan,' he said.
But Kelley also believes that changes that have taken place throughout the region since 1988 are creating new challenges for the city, too. Since the Central City Plan was adopted, Metro has developed a growth plan for most of the tricounty region called the 2040 Growth Concept. Adopted in 1995, it calls for new growth to be concentrated in centers along major transportation routes.
Although Portland is the largest center in the plan, other cities and even local neighborhoods are creating their own housing, employment and retail cores. Over the past decade, new mixed-use developments have been built in outlying cities such as Gresham, Hillsboro and Lake Oswego - and along North Mississippi Avenue and Northeast Alberta Street.
'One question is, how can downtown remain the predominant center in a region with other centers? What can downtown do to remain a place where people still come for work, shopping and entertainment?' Kelley said.
Hopes for a speedier process
Although Kelley said the public will have many opportunities to comment on the new plan, he promises the process will move at a faster clip than the 1988 effort. The Central City Plan took more than four years to complete, trying the patience of many of those who participated in it.
'I know some people might be reluctant to take part in another plan, given how long the last one went,' said Kelley, who was not at the bureau in 1988.
Kelley promised the upcoming planning effort will be better managed. The Central City Plan was written by a 15-member steering committee that appointed eight advisory committees, each with 10 or more members. They held thousands of hours of public hearings, generating hundreds of detailed recommendations.
Although many of the recommendations have been adopted, even more have stalled out - including calls for hiring attendants for all public restrooms and placing information kiosks along major pedestrian thoroughfares.
'We need to do our homework before asking people to join in. We don't want anyone to feel this isn't going to be worth their time,' Kelley said.
Preliminary planning efforts have so far been funded at Kelley's bureau with $250,000 coming from the Portland Development Commission, the city's urban renewal agency.
The bureau will submit a formal funding request for the planning process during the upcoming budget cycle, but could launch it before July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, with the council's approval.
Kelley predicted the plan could be completed within two and a half years after the council approves and funds the planning process. The cost has not yet been determined.