Has PDC Given Up on Transit-Oriented Development?
Eleven years ago the massive Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area (ICURA) was established along Tri-Met’s planned Yellow light rail transit (LRT) line with the primary intent to revitalize the surrounding neighborhoods and foster transit-oriented development (TOD), which would, in turn, increase transit ridership along the low-density line. As an initial step, the Portland Development Commission (PDC) in cooperation with the State of Oregon’s Transportation and Growth Management Program, hired a consultant team led by Crandall Arambula to develop the Interstate Corridor Station Area Revitalization Strategy. The intent of the plan was to identify TOD opportunities without displacing existing residents, develop a land use and transportation framework and an implementation strategy that would form the basis of the ICURA project list. Following a year of intensive outreach and planning, the Portland City Council accepted the strategy. Key plan elements included over 1,700 residential housing units (650 units identified as priority projects) serving a variety of income levels. The strategy also called for the creation of more than 2,000 new jobs located within commercial ‘main streets’ and employment centers adjacent to the stations along with new pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streets and park improvements. Due to the plan’s creativity and innovation, Crandall Arambula received a prestigious National Honor Award for Urban Design by the American Institute Architects in 2001.
Falling Short of Expectations
Over the last ten years, to the credit of PDC and the Interstate Urban Renewal Advisory committee members, many of the station area projects identified in the plan have been implemented, including the Denver Avenue Streetscape and Patton Park enhancements and a corridor-wide zoning update. Unfortunately, the community’s expectations for residential development has not been met. While PDC has contributed to the construction of over 1,100 residential units within the entire urban renewal area (see PDC’s Housing Accomplishments Summary-September 2008), only 158 of these units are within walking distance of a light rail station. Most troubling is the fact that this anemic number of units was generated while the nation, and Portland in particular, was in the midst of a housing boom. This can partly be attributed to the natural lag in generating tax increment and the unique commitment to fund Tri-Met’s LRT construction. It can also be attributed to the very large size of the URA and the diverse interests of both the ICURA members and government agency representatives that lobbied for and directed funding for laudable, yet non-transit supportive projects, that were far removed from the stations, such as New Columbia.
Housing Need Exposed
Recently, local newspapers published articles that discussed the findings of the 2010 Census that shows the city’s center along with North and Northeast Portland are becoming richer and whiter as many low-income African Americans and many other people of color are pushed to the fringes of the metro region, exactly the opposite of the Interstate Corridor Station Area Revitalization Strategy’s intent. The demographic shift was partially attributed to both the rising cost of single-family housing and a lack of affordable rental units. The Revitalization Strategy anticipated the natural gentrification of station areas; national studies indicate that the mere presence of LRT raises station area property values approximately 5 to 10 percent. Because of this statistic, the plan identified the need for an infusion of rental housing near the stations.
URA Expansion Proposed
Recently, on June 8, the PDC Commission voted favorably to expand the URA to include 186 net additional acres. The new areas under the ICURA include much of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, St. Johns Town Center, the south side of Lombard Street and parts of Alberta and Killingsworth streets. The PDC will also remove 230 acres of “undevelopable” land along I-5 from the ICURA. At 11 years’ old, the ICURA has created considerable tax increment bonding capacity to fund potential projects. The existing ICURA has issued debt of $68 million and has a maximum indebtedness of $335 million. In other words, a lot of money is available. As reported in PDC’s Neighborhood Notes blog on June 24, PDC’s John Jackley, Director of Business and Social Equity, and executive sponsor of the expansion project, said that the surplus does not mean that the ICURA has more money than it knows what to do with, rather that all current and future planned projects have been accounted for financially. “If you take our five-year budget, or our forecasted budget, you take the community generated ‘gem list,’ which is a list of projects and priorities, you are left with over $100 million of capacity,” he says.
While the ICURA’s “gem” list may have been accounted for, clearly there are many projects that have not been constructed as a result of the downturn in the economy. On a recent survey, Crandall Arambula counted numerous projects that were identified as priority projects in the 2001 Revitalization Strategy that are lying fallow. While rationale of expanding the URA to stimulate development in North and Northeast Portland areas is commendable, we suggest that the expansion of the corridor occur only with the condition that the initial housing target of 1,700 units of mixed-income housing as prescribed by the Revitalization Strategy is met.
Expansion Yes, but with Conditions of Approval
With the economy lagging, the PDC has the unique ability and obligation to stimulate the greatest amount of private investment in the shortest amount of time. Focusing development along the corridor must be a priority. After all, the urban renewal area was created to develop transit- supportive uses. We suggest the following next steps:
1. Build ‘shovel ready’ station area projects. A number of projects were designed and approved prior to the economic downturn, yet have not been constructed. PDC should assist in the development of these projects.
2. Focus on creating and infusing funding on two demonstration project station areas. The Prescott and Kenton stations appear to be the most viable. Sites should be assembled, infrastructure constructed and sites should be offered to developers along with public gap financing for mixed-income projects that add significant amounts of both market-rate and affordable rental housing.
3. Cap the amount of funding on expansion areas. Develop a formula based upon a percentage of the area or other means.
Recently, Portland opened its first true cycle track on Cully Boulevard in a lower income area about seven miles from the center of the city. Last Saturday, while riding through the neighborhood, I had a chance to take a few photographs with my I-phone and note a few of my observations of how the facility is functioning. Generally, I would say it is successful and a welcome addition to this neighborhood.
As a beta test for future neighborhood cycle track projects, such as PBOT’s current North Williams Traffic Safety Project, there are some well done elements that can be replicated and some that can be improved upon. First the good. 1) The bikeway is well separated by landscaping and grade transitions from the sidewalk to avoid conflicts. 2) The concrete bikeway surface is easy to ride on and visually differentiates the bikeway from the parking lane. 3) The intersections are well designed to avoid right hooks.
On the down side. 1) Most significantly, the rolled curbs are problematic. They are easily mountable by vehicles and as a result, those not familiar with the facility park on the bikeway adjacent to the curb. 2) The door zone is poorly differentiated and too narrow.
A good start but a work in progress.