Last Friday’s field trip to Portland

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Seattle and Portland pundits engage in regular sparring over which city is “better.” This always seems weird to me because it’s like comparing fir trees to oaks. Our cities have different histories, do different things. One’s not better than the other. 

Now I’m going to contradict what I just said. Portland plans better than we do. They have the money to plan (thanks to tax increment financing) and they pretty much walk the talk (plan the talk?) when it comes to planning and achieving urban living goals. Last Friday I trekked by train with 55 friends – planners, architects, an elected or two, small business advocates, and real, live neighborhood residents of Yesler Terrace (complete with interpreters – thanks, Seattle Housing Authority) and South Lake Union — on a one-day field trip to Portland to learn how the Rose City plans for the Pearl District and the South Waterfront sections of the city. The goal wasn’t to say one of these neighborhoods got it all right or all wrong. Rather, the goal was to give Seattleites connected to the big plans cooking for Yesler and SLU the chance to walk around a couple of areas in Portland where plans have yielded different sizes and shapes of buildings, new and varied open spaces, mixed results when it comes to affordability and unit size, and a glowingly successful use of fixed rail transit to spur investment. We provided the itinerary, everyone paid their own way and for their own lunch – and still 55 people came along! 

Staff from the Portland Development Commission were gracious with their time and knowledge. They’ve been sketching plans, projects and plan updates for the central city for 30 years. In the Pearl you get to see a more “mature” result of planning as opposed to the South Waterfront which is in an awkward adolescent phase. In the Pearl, you see varied building heights (but nothing over 20 stories), well-used parks, good distinction between street types leading to what look to be successful (and expensive) street level housing, and transit that looks like it belongs. The Portland Development Commission enters into development agreements to dictate building heights and overall scale. Portland’s smaller block lengths (200 feet) help keep buildings relatively more “people-scaled” than Seattle’s longer blocks. In the South Waterfront area you have a handful of projects completed or underway, many in taller tower form, but with views of Mount Hood and the Willamette protected again by development agreements dictating tower width and height. Also, in Oregon you can do scissor stairs allowing a smaller floor plate and skinnier tower. In a couple of the completed tower projects, the tower rises from a podium of maybe three stories containing ground-floor townhouses facing pedestrian-priority streets. Interestingly, the planners noted that the towers may have been a product of the last housing boom and not replicable in the near future. I’m curious what the next wave of development in the South Waterfront will look like.  Closer to the scale of the Pearl? 

They’re the first to admit that they haven’t done everything right. They struggle like we do with gaining affordable, family-size housing units in the Pearl and South Waterfront.  Like Seattle, they struggle with the lack of affordability for retail spaces in these neighborhoods. 

One big take-away for me was the Portland planners’ emphasis on “the first 30 feet.” We talk in Seattle about wanting alive, dynamic people-centric streets, but I’m not sure we’ve captured that as well in our philosophy as the Portland planners we met Friday. The first 30 feet of the building (roughly the first three stories) dictate how you and I feel walking by. It’s where many of the Portland planners focus their review of new projects and, if the Pearl and South Waterfront are any indication, the focus on the first 30 feet yields great results. 

If nothing else, field trip participants got to see and feel the scale of each neighborhood, hear how Portland zones and regulates each area, how development agreements secure benefit to the neighborhoods, and saw Mount Hood on a beautiful, cloudless day. I hope the experience proves helpful as we take up the same questions at Yesler Terrace and in South Lake Union next year.