Thursday, March 01, 2012

Insufferable Portland: The downside of hipness

Oregon's capital of cool and "smart growth"
by Mark Hemingway

I keep expecting America’s trendsetters to get over Portland, Oregon, but the odes to the City of Roses just keep on coming. The Portland tourism board could compile an impressive anthology of the New York Times’s recent coverage of the city, most of which couldn’t be more fawning if it were bylined by Bambi...

One of the most commented-on sketches from the [Portlandia]show is a scene from the first episode in which Armisen and Brownstein are sitting in a restaurant. After asking their waitress a series of absurd questions about whether the chicken they are about to eat is local​—​“the chicken is a heritage breed, woodland raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts...His name was Colin, here are his papers”​—​the couple ends up leaving the restaurant and driving to the farm to see the environment where the chicken was raised in order to assuage their guilt about eating it...

As a comment on urban America’s foodie culture, the sketch is funny and incisive. But it doesn’t begin to show how insufferable Portland actually is in this regard. Portland’s restaurants are incredibly good, provided you don’t gag on their politics and pretension. It’s common for restaurants to brag about keeping “food miles” to a minimum​—​a rough calculation on the menu informing you how far all the ingredients have traveled to your plate, as if this were a rational measure of the restaurant’s environmental impact. One Portland ice cream parlor I visited recently was inviting patrons to swing by on Saturday afternoon for a meet and greet with the local producer of its “artisanal finishing salts.” 

And in 2010, the Oregonian actually ran a story with the headline “Portland pig cook-off followed by brawl over the provenance of pork.” During a local culinary competition a fistfight broke out because one of the chefs​—​the horror!​—​wasn’t using locally sourced pork. The mêlée ended with one of the chefs and the organizer in rough-looking mug shots and the latter in the hospital with a fractured tibia. When it comes to the city’s food obsession, the truth far outstrips Portlandia.

Given the lack of critical attention to the city, I guess it falls to me to state the obvious: Portland is quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses.

"It sometimes seems as if the whole country is looking to Portland as a role model for 21st-century urban development,” Governing wrote of the city. Clearly the magazine knew nothing about the political history that has turned Portland into a caricature of itself. God help us if this is America’s civic ideal...

Things began to unravel in 1973, when the Oregon legislature required cities in the state to set development boundaries with the goal of preserving farmland from “leapfrog development”​—​that is, new subdivisions not adjacent to established developments. Portland became the first major city with an “urban growth boundary.”

This fact opened up a world of possibilities that are still being inflicted upon us. “Urban planners have long believed in a land-use-transportation connection that would allow them to manipulate one through the other,” writes Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole in a damning policy paper on the failure of Portland’s growth policies. “So Portland plans land uses to try to reduce the amount of driving people do while it plans transportation to try to slow the conversion of rural land to urban purposes.”

The same year Portland began implementing its urban growth boundary, Neil Goldschmidt became mayor. Goldschmidt quickly recognized that the land-use-transportation connection could be exploited to political ends, and this insight would make him the state’s largest powerbroker for decades to come.

In 1974, Goldschmidt canceled a major interstate freeway project before it broke ground. Aside from the usual gripes about a freeway reducing nearby property values, Congress had just passed a law allowing federal highway funds to be used on capital improvement for public transportation. More public transportation looked like a good way of helping Portland stay within its urban growth boundary.

The problem was that the feds had allocated so much for the highway project that the city couldn’t possibly absorb it all in buses. Goldschmidt had to find an irrationally expensive new mode of public transportation, and thus began liberal America’s love affair with “light rail.” And light rail had another advantage over buses, namely that the laying of tracks and the placement of stations allowed Goldschmidt even more power to manipulate land use, making him a kingmaker among developers. Naturally, Goldschmidt’s pioneering of a public works project distinguished by its exorbitant cost earned him a job as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of transportation...

By 1987 Goldschmidt had been elected governor. During his term, the state began requiring urban areas to adopt plans to reduce per capita driving by 10 percent in 20 years and 20 percent in 30 years.

This necessitated new restrictions on development. “To reach those goals, the rule specified that planners must increase residential densities, promote mixed-use developments, mandate pedestrian-friendly design (meaning, among other things, that retail shops should front on sidewalks and not be separated from streets by large parking lots), and various related policies,” writes O’Toole.

As for Goldschmidt, he stunned political observers by leaving the governor’s office in 1990 after one term. But he found private employment much more lucrative than public service. He founded the consulting firm of Goldschmidt Imeson Carter, and you’d have to draw up an impressive flowchart to keep track of the interconnected corporate and civic interests that quickly put him on retainer. It seems Goldschmidt’s services were heavily in demand​—​primarily from people who wanted him to help navigate the draconian development restrictions that he himself had put in place...

Contain your surprise, but it seems Oregon’s integrated land use and transportation planning system was being manipulated to award Goldschmidt’s consulting clients hundreds of millions in state and city contracts relating to light rail expansion and the accompanying high-density developments.

This morass of rules that has retarded the city’s economy and facilitated political boondoggles seems like one hell of a price to pay to justify the existence of an arbitrary boundary line and a public transportation system that, according to O’Toole, has reduced vehicle use in Portland about 1 percent. Nonetheless, Portland remains firmly in the grip of mass-transit mania. The city proposed a budget in January that would eliminate “major road paving” for the next five years, apparently under the theory that the only way finally to get cars off the road is to let the potholes swallow them whole.

But America’s enlightened planners and progressive politicians must be aware of something I’m not​—​Portland’s decision to tie land use rules and transportation plans is now popularly known as “smart growth"...

Thanks to Jack Bog's Blog for the link.

Randal O'Toole: "Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn't Work"

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At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing new under the sun. England was amongst the first to try out "new towns" planning from the ground up. Growth controls or finding ways to accommodate growth are still a work in progress.

When economic times are good there will always be pressures to grow. It is tough to figure out how to accommodate physical growth in the most cost effective way.

In SF the major demographic shifts of the last 40 years to a non-family, singles/non related adults city has created more demands on everything...

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This all sounds like upside to me... I just keep waiting for SF to price you out...

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Nato said...

If people didn't like it, they wouldn't want to live there, and real estate prices wouldn't go up so much. Nike et al. have been pushed out because others pushed in. If it was just politics and constriction, then the population wouldn't have almost doubled since 1980 and the unemployment rate wouldn't be far below low-density areas of the state like Medford and Bend.

In any case, the Cato study cited is 11 years old and history since then has not exactly borne out (amongst other things) Otoole's claims about people not wanting to live in Portland high density developments, nor the failure to reduce per-capita driving: I also find the sources cited for who is cross-subsidizing whom to be extremely dubious*. Finally, O'Toole claims the cost of widening the freeway would be only $10-20 million, but the real figure for only 1.2 miles was $60 million:
Of course, that also doesn't pay for improvements to local streets or any of the other costs of car-storage in Portland. These kind of deeply flawed analyses are precisely why we have so many failing suburban areas now, and will have many, many more if the massive transfers from high density areas to low-density areas increase.

I will definitely agree that there are more free-market ways of moving toward transit, just as suggested in the Cato article, and I certainly wish that we could use some methods we used to employ in the 19th century that worked very well until we decided to legislate for and subsidize a free automotive infrastructure instead of the privately-built transit systems.

*One reason why the 90s studies came out the way they did was because it differentiate between cities that were still hollowing out from urban decay (e.g. Detroit, Flint, St. Louis, parts of Los Angeles) and those that had already started to redevelop. There are other reasons, but that's the most obvious.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Nato said...

Typo: I meant if the transfers *decrease*


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