November 27, 2013

Greg Kesich: Fighting development in Portland remains a civic tradition

But livable, walkable neighborhoods are in demand.

Portland’s original sin was the destruction of Union Station in 1961 to build a nondescript shopping center and parking lot on St. John Street. It shocked the conscience of the city, and gave everyone an idea of what was at stake when developers are allowed to go wild. To atone, Portlanders have been suspicious of developments ever since.

Fast forward a half-century: The transformation of the Bayside neighborhood from a derelict industrial district into a densely developed but lively mix of stores, houses and offices a stone’s throw from downtown is under way.

At its center is the first phase of a $38 million development that could put 675 apartments and 100,000 square feet of retail space on a polluted former railyard. The project would change the character of the neighborhood, and could make the nearby scrap yard and warehouses look more attractive to other developers.

But don’t celebrate yet. Before a shovel hits the dirt, the developers will have to go through Peter Monro.

Monro, a landscape architect and West End resident and self-proclaimed “urbanite,” has promised to do everything in his power to stop the development – presumably short of lying down in front of bulldozers. Monro has done all the things people in Portland have learned to do when they want to fight a development: He’s organized a group (Keep Portland Livable), hired a lawyer and a PR representative and plans to file a lawsuit if the city doesn’t listen to him.

He says he’ll take his case all the way to the state Supreme Court, and if he can’t win there, he hopes at least to delay the deal so long that the developer will decide to pull out.

“We think the delay may be a deal breaker (for the developer),” Monro said Tuesday. “The power to delay is the power to destroy.”

And there’s a lot about the project he wants to destroy. At 15 floors each, the four apartment towers planned for what the Federated Cos. calls its “midtown” project are too high, he says, and will “create fierce winds” and cast shadows on the neighborhood. A six-story garage, he says, would create an obstacle for pedestrians and block views.

“It’s a terrible development any way you look at it,” Monro declared.

Bayside could be rebuilt as a walkable neighborhood with short blocks and low buildings keeping in character with the rest of the peninsula. City resources could be used to build streets through the lot, instead of building a garage.

This could be an interesting conversation, but it’s not the one you want to have when you consider what’s going on in the local real estate market. After generations of abandonment, people are moving back to urban centers. Neighborhoods where someone can live, work, shop and find entertainment without getting in a car are in demand. Portland has some of those neighborhoods, but housing is becoming scarce and expensive.

Delaying the development of the Bayside project for even a few more years would make the housing shortage worse. As more low- and middle-income people are priced out of apartments in once-undesirable neighborhoods (think Munjoy Hill and East Bayside), the city will become even less affordable.

A cautionary tale comes from San Francisco, where fighting to preserve the city’s character pumped the price of existing housing so high that lifelong residents had to move out.

Gabriel Metcalf, in an Oct. 14 article on The Atlantic Magazine website, writes that prominent citizens have fought for years to prevent high-density development. “Unfortunately it worked: the city was largely ‘protected’ from change,” he said.

Over the last two decades, when San Francisco should have been adding 5,000 units of housing each year to keep up with demand, it built 1,500. That didn’t decrease demand; it only made the supply more expensive.

One of the things Portland needs is high-end market-rate housing to meet the demand of well-off people who want to move here. That’s not the only thing Portland needs, but killing a housing development in the middle of a housing shortage makes no sense. Thinking that another developer would come to invest in a city where any handful of residents have the ability to delay and destroy their project is delusional.

There is still a lot to be done in Portland – there is still a lot to be done in Bayside – to make sure there is enough housing for people with a variety of incomes. Fighting development may have a long tradition in the city, but it’s out of place here.

We can’t treat every vacant lot like it’s Union Station.

 

This story was corrected at 9:40 a.m. Nov. 27, 2013 to state that Union Station was demolished in 1961, not 1962 as was previously stated. 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: gkesich@pressherald.com

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