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Metros New Look aims to head off growing pains

by: L.E. Baskow, Population growth expected over the next few decades helps fuel new developments like Washington County’s Bannister Heights, just inside the Portland area’s urban growth boundary.

Where are we going to put the million more people expected to move here over the next 25 years?

Metro, the regional government charged with managing growth, projects the population of the Portland-Vancouver area to grow from approximately 2 million to around 3 million people by 2030.

That prediction has galvanized Metro's elected council to begin discussing controversial ideas for ensuring that future growth be concentrated in centers along major transportation corridors and that important environmentally sensitive areas in the region be preserved.

Although Metro has no jurisdiction over Clark County across the river in Washington state, it must decide where growth will occur in most of Multnomah, Clackamas and Wasington counties.

'This is not planning as usual; it's about making hard choices,' Metro President David Bragdon said of the discussions, which are occurring as part of a yearlong land-use planning review called the New Look.

Washington County Commission Chairman Tom Brian agrees that drastic action is needed to prevent the new people from hurting the region's livability. Testifying before the Oregon House Interim Committee on Business, Labor and Consumer Affairs on March 8 of this year, Brian noted that his county is expected to receive a disproportionately large percentage of the new residents - up to 400,000 more people over the next 25 years, causing Washington County's population to increase by around 80 percent to more than 900,000 residents by 2030.

'How do we create a framework for this to happen in a way that we create and sustain quality communities, a sense of place in a sea of people, safe neighborhoods, a healthy economy, and places our children want to return to? What is that framework, and how do we achieve it?' Brian asked the committee.

Some of the ideas are radical and require the approval of the Oregon Legislature. Among other things, the Metro council and officials such as Brian are discussing:

• Giving local governments the power to act like expanded versions of the Portland Development Commission and finance property-tax supported mixed-use projects on underdeveloped land.

• Taxing vacant land at a higher rate than undeveloped land to encourage property owners to spur new construction projects that would provide jobs and housing for people moving to the region.

• Allowing some farm and timber lands in the region to be developed, based on a cost-benefit analysis that shows the cost of providing public services to them is less than other, less environmentally sensitive property.

• Creating rural preserves to protect waterways, wetlands, hilltops and other natural areas from future development.

• Encouraging cities outside Portland to absorb a higher percentage of the new residents than in the past. Medium-size cities such as Gresham, Lake Oswego and Hillsboro will be asked to increase their maximum building heights. Smaller, farther-out cities like McMinnville, Newberg and Estacada will be urged to grow into more urbanized, self-contained communities.

Such talk appalls John Charles, president of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute. As Charles sees it, the region needs less land-use planning, not more. He blames current Metro policies for driving up home prices, making it difficult for families to afford homes with enough property for their young children.

'If the planners would just let the market work, there would be plenty of land for everyone. If you fly over Oregon in a helicopter, there is plenty of undeveloped land,' said Charles, who describes his group as a free-market think tank.

But even some property-rights advocates support the basic idea of giving local governments more authority over land-use decisions. David Hunnicutt, office manager for Oregonians in Action, said he is not familiar with the specific ideas being discussed by the Metro councilors and local leaders like Brian. But, Hunnicutt said, regional and local governments are more in touch with the people.

'I would rather see decisions made by Metro than Salem,' said Hunnicutt, whose organization sponsored ballot Measure 37, a state constitutional amendment that requires governments to compensate property owners when planning decisions reduce the value of their land.

At the same time, Hunnicutt believes that the public is not as enamored with high-density housing as Metro planners are.

'I don't think there is a lot of love for high-density, urban-style housing. I just don't think it's there,' he said.

What does a million look like?

Metro Councilor Brian Newman believes it is hard for local residents to understand the impact an additional million residents will have on the Portland area.

As Newman sees it, accommodating such growth will require far more than the siting and construction of all the new homes for them. It also will require the siting and construction of new schools for their children, new businesses where they will work and new transportation systems to move them around.

To help people visualize the changes that will occur over the next 25 years, Newman has written a presentation called 'What does a million mean?' that he has been delivering to anyone who will listen, including civic and planning groups. In it, Newman identifies the last time the Portland area grew by 1 million people - between 1968 and 2006, when the population increased from around 1 million to 2 million people.

'I believe that the best way to conceptualize the magnitude of the challenge in front of us is to observe how this region changed as we absorbed the most recent million residents,' Newman said.

Back in the day

The city looked a lot different 38 years ago. The tallest downtown building was the 25-story Harrison Condominium project in the South Auditorium area near Portland State University. Today it is the 20th-tallest building in Portland - soon to be the 21st tallest when the John Ross condominium tower in the South Waterfront urban renewal area tops out this summer.

Portland was the uncontested retail center at that time. The state's first shopping center, Lloyd Center, had just been completed. Washington Square, Clackamas Town Center, Eastport Plaza and Mall 205 did not exist. Nor did any of the big box stores, including the Fred Meyer superstores, now found throughout the region.

Congestion was not yet a serious problem. The Interstate 5 freeway had opened just two years earlier with the completion of the Marquam Bridge. Because there were hundreds of thousands of fewer drivers, it was hardly ever filled to capacity, even during rush hours. It would be another five years before the Fremont Bridge was installed to complete I-405 and more than a decade before the completion of I-205.

TriMet did not exist in 1968. The regional transit authority was created the next year, taking over the financially ailing, private Rose City Transit Co., whose ridership had fallen by two-thirds since 1950.

Portland State University, then called Portland State College, was confined to a few buildings at the end of the South Park Blocks.

The regional community college system was still in the planning stages. Although Clackamas Community College had been created two years earlier, it had yet to open a single building. The voters had just created Mount Hood and Portland community colleges that year.

Back then the local economy was dominated by forest products, transportation and utilities. Five of the top 10 employers had the word 'Pacific' in their names: Georgia Pacific, Louisiana Pacific, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Pacific Power and Light.

None of these firms are among the top 10 employers today. They have been replaced by the likes of Intel Corp. and Nike Inc., which had no presence in the Portland area in 1968.

The suburbs also have changed dramatically. Thirty-eight years ago, only around 9,000 people lived in Gresham, while less than 14,000 people lived in Lake Oswego and Beaverton had a population of around 16,000.

There were farms and open spaces between most communities in the region, including along the Sunset Highway to Hillsboro and the Pacific Highway through Tigard toward the coast.

Today, many people who live in these communities think of themselves as residents of Portland, even though they live outside the city limits.

As Newman sees it, the Portland area will change as much by 2030 as it has since 1968.

'Simply put, one million new residents will have a transformative impact on our region,' he said.

'Blobs on map' not enough

Bragdon, Newman and the rest of the Metro Council believe they have the right plan for accommodating a million more people without destroying our quality of life - the 2040 Concept, adopted by Metro in 1995. It lays out where new development should occur within the state-mandated urban growth boundary meant to protect rural lands.

According to the plan, future growth should be concentrated in designated areas - called Town Centers, Regional Centers and Main Streets - along major transportation corridors, including light-rail lines.

Public-opinion polls repeatedly show that most people in the region support the general outlines of the plan.

The most recent survey was conducted by the local Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall polling firm earlier this year at the beginning of the New Look review.

According to firm co-founder Adam Davis, the results showed that Metro does not need to reconsider the plan.

The problem is, with a few notable exceptions such as the Gresham Town Center, the 2040 Concept isn't working. Although it was adopted in 1995, little growth has occurred in most of the designated areas, including the Hillsdale and Hollywood town centers, where only a few new housing units have been built over the past 10 years.

As Bragdon said, 'We have learned that it is not enough just to put blobs on a map and expect something to happen.'

As a result, Bragdon said that the New Look is intended to produce a series of policy changes for regional governments to adopt and a package of bills for consideration by the 2007 Oregon Legislature. Although none has been formally recommended yet, some of the proposals under discussion would radically change the way governments approach land-use issues.

Instead of waiting for the marketplace to respond to changing conditions, a number of the ideas would push or encourage property owners to comply with the 2040 Concept. One idea, called Site Value Taxation, would encourage the owners of vacant property to develop it by increasing the property tax rate on vacant land while lowering it on developed land.

Another idea calls for expanding the concept behind urban renewal. State law now allows local governments to designate blighted areas as urban renewal districts.

Predicted increased property-tax revenues from the districts can be used to pay for bonds that fund infrastructure improvements, including streets and sewers.

New system discussed

Some Metro councilors are talking about allowing a similar financing mechanism to be used in areas that are merely underdeveloped, not actually blighted by abandoned buildings or badly deteriorated roads.

Bragdon and the others also are talking about asking the Legislature to fundamentally change how the urban growth boundary is set and expanded. At the present time, Metro must maintain a 20-year supply of building land within the boundary. When expanding the boundary, Metro must first bring in land on the edges that is not suitable for farming or timber harvesting.

But, although polls show strong support for preserving farm and timber lands, some Metro councilors think the current law is unrealistic. It allows all land in the northern Willamette Valley to eventually be developed, provided that farm and timber lands be saved until the end. And 20 years is not actually much time when it comes to planning new communities that must be built from scratch.

So Bragdon and the others are now talking about asking the Legislature to allow them to plan 50 years in advance by designating both urban and rural reserves outside the boundary.

The urban reserves eventually would be developed with new housing and employment centers while the rural reserves would never be built on. Some farm and timber land might be included in the urban reserves if it was between suitable development areas.

The land that would never be touched might include such sensitive environmental areas as the remaining undeveloped stretches along the Willamette River and hilltops that can be seen from miles around.

The Metro offices know some of these ideas are controversial. But, as Bragdon said: 'Population growth is going to happen. What we need is a strategy that will fulfill our vision, that will turn plans into reality.'

Brian agrees.

'In many ways, we are trying to operate and accommodate these challenges with 40- and 50-year-old rules and authorities,' he testified last March. 'It is in the best interest of the state of Oregon to make sure its local governments have the tools and authorities to handle their own challenges.'

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