Monday, February 16, 2009

Portland - Overview

Portland is an elegant city, the product of decades of smart planning and community involvement. You can't walk around this city without noticing the differences--big and small--that set it apart. The street murals that slow down traffic, the prevalence of co-ops, the enormous light rail system, the pleasant side walks, a serious commitment to cycling... the list goes on and on. The intense community involvement is what facilitates the thousands of little differences. The result is an increasingly good reputation for the city. The growth that followed may have stretched Portland to the limits.Portland is facing an identity crisis. The city is coping with rapid growth while trying to maintain its distinctive character. The pressure to develop seems postponed only by the current economic downturn. The walkable streets, bicycle culture and unique businesses were made possible by a level of community involvement that isn't always matched by the legions of "young professionals" that developers are luring into the condos that are sprouting downtown. On the other hand, Portland is a place designed for internal growth.

I strongly believe that growth is healthiest and most sustainable when it is done in small increments at any level. In a community, this means building one small building at a time, at a restaurant it means adding one more item to the menu. Many builders in Portland seem to understand this concept and many establishments in Portland are very much on the human scale because of it. The built environment of Portland is designed to allow small enterprises to start up, flourish and grow.

The lowest rung on the development ladder is often missing in cities due to excessive cost. It keeps some of the best ideas out of the marketplace. In most cities, the lowest rung on the ladder is the one story building. These buildings are seen as temporary, just put up to get some economic value out of the land. In cities where parking is in high demand, parking lots replace small buildings, eliminating that rung on the ladder.But Portland adds another rung even farther down the ladder than the one story buildings. Tiny restaurants that operate out of trailers in converted parking lots are scattered throughout the city. In other cities, this is generally disallowed by health departments and made economically impossible by the preference that highly profitable parking lots receive
. Not only does the health department in Portland allow this lowest form of development, but hosting a parking lot is less profitable than hosting several small businesses. This is no accident, Portland has a comprehensive strategy to devalue parking that works for small businesses. Their chief method? The bicycle.I haven't seen a city that takes biking more seriously than Portland and I don't expect to anywhere else in the US. The number of bike shops and co-ops are astounding. Everybody bikes in this town and many don't mind the weather. The city is at the forefront of bicycle promotion. They have amazing bike maps and signage all over the city marking low traffic streets that serve as bicycle highways. The city provides street parking for bikes in lieu of car parking. It is a further indication that Portland is keenly aware that bikes need promotion, cars don't.Without parking in the way young, innovative businesses should be able to get their foot in the door. But in a successful community, this is often not the case. Real estate speculators stampede in and buy up vacant lots. They sit on these properties until the maximum economic value can be squeezed from them. The development below is one such example. This project was in no way designed or funded by the people that live in the area. Their organic growth looks like the image above. Across the street from the formula development, a garbage strewn and fenced off vacant lot sits on the market for $100/sf.Local control over development is incredibly difficult while working within the confines of the capitalist system. Developers who are not forced to work towards the best interests a place will cut every corner they can. They are out to make a quick buck and will gladly do so by trading in the community's vitality. They have a penchant for overkill, if one developer is successful with a project, then a dozen identical projects will spring up around it.

Developers aren't interested in slow, careful and organic growth. It doesn't pay the bills. Check out this instant pedestrian development below.Looks nice. And just a couple feet away...Belmont Dairy is used as a positive example by organizations as disparate as the NAR and the EPA. The project has won a number of awards but as one former resident puts it
[the] layouts of the apartments are lame with cheap construction so if you're into a bland dorm room experience again then I suggest you live here.
This is the problem with big projects. There is no way that designers will spend enough time on particular rooms to make them look cared for, charming, or interesting. Instead, you get endless cookie cutter repetition. Plus, the city is in no position to insist on construction quality, since they are always afraid of a big developer pulling out. Around this development was one of the only places in Portland where parking was hard to find.I could go on and on about Portland, their near-sufficient public transportation, their tri-country metro government, their climate protection plan... But as in any place, it's the people that make this place whir. Not many places are as happening as Portland.

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