Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
A local architect lays out a vision for a denser Portland—without a housing squeeze.
If the prognosticators are right, Portland, Oregon, will have 750,000 more residents by 2050. Twenty percent of those will push into the core of Portland where, according to local architect Rick Potestio, average density is somewhere between six to 10 units of housing per acre. This is dense, but not that dense: West Coast cities including San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Seattle have at least twice as many people per square mile. That other 80 percent, or 600,000 future Portlanders? They'll head for the suburbs, where there is—incongruously—actually more density, with 18 to 30 units per acre.
For urbanists, this backwards development with denser suburbs is a scary prospect. Potestio calls it "sprawl on steroids" in a piece published last week in the Portland Monthly. The good news is that the city itself is in the midst of a housing boom. A 2014 real estate report found that 5,200 residential units entered the market between late 2012 and 2013. Five thousand more were added by the end of 2014. The bad news? Potestio worries that this isn't the right kind of housing:
Meanwhile, in the city, current plans for high-density development imitate either Seattle’s apartment blocks (Division) or Vancouver, BC’s glass-tower “centers” (South Waterfront.) Thus the city’s vintage neighborhoods may remain largely free of development, except for a few skinny houses, corner duplexes, and ADU’s. And this sounds fine, until one realizes that the situation we’re replicating is actually San Francisco. In San Francisco, zoning severely restricts new development in historic neighborhoods. Demand far exceeds supply, and prices are skyrocketing—the median home price now hovers around $1 million.
Portland, Land of Apartments?
Portland has indeed gone all-in on building apartments, townhomes, and condos. The most recent iteration of the Metro Council's Urban Growth Report predicts that 60 percent of the homes built between now and 2035 will take those forms instead of single-family homes. This would be a pretty major shift for Portland. As Metro News reported late last year, "That would bring the mix of housing in the region from 67 percent single-family, 33 percent multi-family today to 60 percent single-family, 40 percent multi-family by 2035." Much of the multi-family apartment growth, the Metro Council plan anticipates, will take place in the city core.
Historically, the city's planners have promoted the development of these mid-rise, mixed-use developments around transit. But some say an apartment-centric strategy will only push housing prices higher. A report released by Portland State University real estate expert Gerard Mildner last year found that the Metro's plan would see "a doubling of apartment rents and home prices in the region." By Mildner's calculations, that would take Portland from the 15th most expensive metro area by median gross rent to the fourth by 2035, competitive with metros like San Diego, Washington, D.C., and, yes, San Francisco. Additionally, others (NIMBYs included) resist the addition of taller buildings to their historic neighborhood.
A Vision of a Garden City
Potestio has other ideas. The vision he lays out in the Portland Monthly takes its cues from one of Portland's densest neighborhood, the King's Hill section of Goose Hollow. This is not, he points out, an uber-planned part of the city. Instead, "the building pattern that occurred incrementally as Portland’s neighborhoods evolved between 1900 and 1929," as the spaces between grand mansions of the city's most well-to-do areas were gradually filled in with housing—bungalows, low-rise apartment buildings, and town homes—for the working class.
Potestio would like to see Portland housing organized around local "commons," made up of a school, playground, or park. The tallest buildings in each community would be organized around green, open spaces with wide streets. A variety of housing types would populate other areas: duplexes and town houses and courtyard-based apartments, with no building higher than four stories. Beyond that, local planning authorities would be given more latitude to make local planning decisions. The result, the architect hopes, might look something like New York City's Gramercy Park. He argues that this sort of plan would more than compensate for the influx of Portland-loving migrants, creating an average density around 18-25 units per acre in the city's downtown.
This is a dramatic solution to Portland's future growth, and would require aggressive policymaking and planning initiatives. But perhaps, as Potestio concludes, "the alternatives—sprawl, gentrification, and a loss of Portland’s treasured character—are far more ominous."