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WRITTEN BY WILLIAM DIETRICH
PHOTOGRAPHED BY HARLEY SOLTES
GO BY TRAIN pleads one.
GO BY STREETCAR urges the other.
Something tells me we're not in Seattle anymore, Toto.
No, we're in Portland, American headquarters of the "New Urbanism" philosophy that touts neighborhood density, walking and transit over the car. Portland is doing almost routinely what Seattle keeps dreaming and arguing about.
Light rail? It's here. Streetcar? Ditto. Transit mall? Yep. Close-in, upscale neighborhoods dotted with restaurants and shops? Check. Approximately 27 blocks of parks to create an airy, inviting downtown? Got it. Elimination of Harbor Drive along the Willamette River and its replacement with a riverside park? Yes, plus a companion park on the opposite bank. Interesting architecture? Better than Seattle's. Use of brick, trees and design detail to make sidewalk strolling inviting? Of course. Less congestion? Afraid so.
Head the other way on Interstate 5 and the comparison is even more striking. Downtown Vancouver, B.C., is becoming a glittery, mini-Manhattan, but cleaner and far more livable. It, too, has a transit mall, and the elevated Skytrain. The entire downtown peninsula is ringed with a continuous, magnificent park, much of it paid for by developers instead of taxpayers. The city's downtown residential population is four times higher than Seattle's, in a metro area with only two-thirds the population.
Condominium towers are so popular that they're sold out before they're built. Some 25 percent of the units are designed for families with children and 20 percent for low-income residents. Vancouver is building its first inner-city elementary school in 30 years. Nearly 20,000 more people have moved downtown in the past six years, and, as they do, auto traffic is perversely declining as people give up a car.
"Vancouver is a counterintuitive city," says Larry Beasley, the hard-bargaining planner of the city's downtown development. More people, less congestion. Go figure.
But when it comes to livability, we seem stuck in first gear and our neighbors are more than a little condescending. Seattle's OK, they say, but a little crass. Yokels on planning. Bumpkins on design.
"Seattle has an ethic of passivity," says Portland developer John Russell. "People throw up their hands and say there's nothing we can do."
"I can't figure out why you guys don't build better buildings," says Homer Williams, the developer behind the burgeoning new Pearl District and the upcoming Macadam restoration along the Willamette River.
"I think Seattle's in big trouble," says Gordon Price, a city councilor in Vancouver. "There's no fallback except having to live with congestion."
"I went up to Seattle and there's no planning," dismisses a woman waiting for Portland's new streetcar. "It's a hodgepodge. There's nothing happening there."
"In the Pacific Northwest, you plan your trip around, or to get through, Seattle," says Rex Burkholder, Portland Metro councilor.
Hmm. Me, too. Did I mention we're perceived as rubes? Ditherers? Losers?
(Example from Williams: Why is our costly, people-friendly baseball stadium blocked from downtown by our monolithic, less-frequently-used football stadium?)
Some of Seattle's problems can be blamed on its glorious but difficult terrain. Ice Age glaciers left the city squeezed by deep water and striped with long ridges called drumlins that make transportation difficult. Portland and Vancouver have gentler hills, and Vancouver is an "end-of-the-line" city that has the luxury of not having to shuttle traffic through itself.
But much more can be blamed on a political history that has robbed the Seattle metropolitan area of the consensus and cooperation that Portland and Vancouver enjoy.
Seattle has always had a contentious edge. It was a town competing desperately to become queen of Puget Sound, a place of lumber boom and Yukon grubstake, of war employment and wealthy entrepreneur. Its big-business ethic spawned a corresponding backlash of union, Wobbly, black and native-American activism, and university and church liberalism. We had busing for desegregation, white flight, and a splintering of the metro area into rival jurisdictions of different social makeup. The result is that the region's biggest metropolitan area is as difficult to coordinate as the Soviet Union or Ottoman Empire.
Portland's roots are in Willamette Valley farming and the steadier, more moderate, family ethic that Oregon's history fostered. Vancouver has Canada's tradition of Crown control of much more land and deference to government and authority.
There's some dumb luck involved, too. Freeways never penetrated to downtown Vancouver, creating congestion that, unexpectedly, made living downtown an attractive necessity. The Communist takeover of Hong Kong helped pour refugee money into the city's development. Its small downtown peninsula invites concentration.
Portland's share of Interstate 5 knocked down the city's historic black neighborhood but left its downtown across the Willamette unscathed. By giving up a proposed freeway to Mount Hood, Oregon got federal money to build its first leg of light rail. Some of the growth Portland gets credit for containing has, in reality, simply spilled across the Columbia River into Washington's Clark County. And Portland's small downtown blocks, platted in the 1800s to give greedy developers a maximum of corner lots, makes it feel less monolithic.
But give Portland and Vancouver credit. They've made smart choices we have not.
Portland, for example, took an arguably bad idea 1960s-era urban renewal that tore down working neighborhoods and replaced them with sterile, government-driven developments and let it evolve into something that works. The state-created Portland Development Commission, now almost half a century old, works with developers to reconstruct large sections of the central city under a unified plan.
Improvements such as parks and streetcar lines are paid for by a financing scheme Washington voters rejected twice in the 1980s: tax-increment financing. Amenities to attract residents downtown are paid for at the front end with bonds, and the new property taxes generated by the development are earmarked to pay off the improvements, something like a mortgage. While Washington's Legislature has authorized a form of this, its constitutionality has never been tested and the tool remains largely unused.
The amenities create the neighborhood. "The streetcar was first a development tool and only second a mode of transportation," says former Portland councilor Charlie Hales, who championed it. The line wasn't built to get to the Pearl District, it was built to create the Pearl District. It was also an emotional tool. "Americans like trains and denigrate buses."
The Portland metropolitan area established growth-boundary limits around itself two decades before the Seattle area did, discouraging sprawl and encouraging urban infill. It also set up a three-county governing body called Metro, run by elected councilors, which oversees transportation planning for the entire area.
To make matters worse, Seattle has a frequently-warring, strong mayor-strong council form of city government. By contrast, Portland's tiny council of a mayor and four commissioners means just three votes are needed for a decision. Moreover, each commissioner is given oversight of city departments like a cabinet minister, making them directly responsible for bureaucratic performance.
While Seattle is planning to spend as much as $14 billion replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Portland simply did away with Harbor Boulevard, as San Francisco did away with its Embarcadero elevated freeway and Vancouver did away with part of its False Creek arterials. The world has not come to an end in any of these cities: In fact, it improved.
And Portland has built a light-rail system that stretches from Gresham to Hillsboro and is planned to extend north. The train is clean, fast, cheap and simple. An example of the metropolitan possibilities it creates is Orenco Station, between Beaverton and Hillsboro. The stop seems to be in the middle of nowhere, but step off the train and the future becomes clear. Beyond a Park-and-Ride lot and grassy fields slated for development, a cluster of townhouses and shops creates a compact new village. Just beyond is a gigantic Intel plant. Instead of classic sprawl, Portland is creating a 190-acre, 1,834-unit urban neighborhood next to new industry, linked by rail to its downtown.
The city's successful development of its West End high-rise apartments was the first sign that Canadians were willing to live downtown and avoid the metropolitan area's heavy congestion. The city and federal government then acquired old rail and industrial acreage along the bay known as False Creek for the Expo world's fair site, then sold it afterward at the bargain price of $145 million (Canadian) to Hong Kong developer Li Ka-Shing to put up high-rise condos.
That's when the bargaining began in earnest. The deal, brokered in part by planner Beasley, was this: You get the land cheap. You can build the towers high, to maximize the number of units you can sell. (The downtown peninsula was rezoned in several areas to allow this.) But in return, the city gets $250 million (Canadian) in parks, schools, community centers and other amenities, gets final approval over design, and the towers have to be narrow and spaced far enough apart to preserve light and views.
Agreed. The result has been an investment of more than $3 billion Canadian to build 9,100 condos and apartments and 2.5 million square feet of office and retail space on the former Expo grounds.
On the Coal Harbour side of downtown, the Canadian Pacific Railways spinoff Marathon Development has built another waterfront park, sold land for an expansion of Vancouver's convention center, and is letting another group of Hong Kong investors erect eight condo towers totaling more than 1,000 units.
This wasn't easy Marathon executive vice president Graeme Stamp estimated his company participated in more than 100 meetings and hearings but the result is turning a rail yard into an urban Mecca. People are buying so quickly that downtown's population is ahead of projections. Vancouverites are raving about a new waterfront park they didn't have to pay for.
Statistics alone, however, don't really explain what all the fuss is about. For that you have to walk or bike. Beasley and city councilor Gordon Price show off a roundhouse turned community center, paid for by developer money. A supermarket at the base of a condo tower almost invisible from the street (its parking is underground) but crowded with shoppers. Children's soccer games in a park built among the high-rises. Low-income complexes so well-designed they're barely distinguishable from the luxury towers next door.
The city is being designed, Councilor Price explains, "to be experienced at 3 mph," a walking pace. The rule of thumb is that transit stops and stores must be within a quarter-mile, or a five-minute walk. Streets are narrowed, and traffic slowed. Trees are planted. Sidewalks are textured. A new Costco is being dropped between bridge ramps and topped by housing. Entire areas are designed so pedestrians can logically find "routes" or "trails" of sidewalks to get from one place to another.
Try doing that in Lynnwood or Factoria.
PORTLAND AND Vancouver are not the only cities with innovative approaches, of course. San Diego rezoned its core in 1992 to promote high-density housing and, like Portland, has a commission that works with developers. Towers are going up and the southern California city expects 50,000 downtown residents or 2 1/2 times Seattle's present total by 2025.
Copenhagen deliberately eliminates 2 to 3 percent of its street parking a year to slowly force commuters and shoppers into the habit of walking or taking mass transit. Public bicycles are "borrowed" for about $2.50; when finished the users park them at one of 110 bike stands and get their money refunded.
Singapore uses a battery of high-tech surveillance devices to monitor traffic, dispatch repair trucks and charge tolls automatically on credit cards mounted on vehicle dashboards. GPS units on taxicabs tell authorities how fast traffic is moving. Smart intersections recognize how many cars are waiting at a red light and adjust its timing accordingly.
None of this is a cure-all. There is no large city in the world that has solved traffic congestion. Conservative critics point to statistics suggesting these new downtown neighborhoods, however nice, are hardly making a dent in overall gridlock or sprawl. Sprawling Surrey, B.C., may soon pass Vancouver itself in population. Moreover, while Vancouver has dynamic new "urban villages," it has another corner of downtown crowded with drug addicts and prostitutes.
In Portland, one of Burkholder's neighbors still drives three blocks each Sunday morning to buy a coffee and then drives three blocks home to drink it. Habits die hard.
And what the "New Urbanism" really provides is choice. Western Europeans make only half the car trips Americans do not just because of transit, though that helps, but because density makes it possible for them to walk or bike for routine errands.
Yes, you can commute to a suburban enclave in Portland and Vancouver. But you can also, increasingly, live downtown.
Vancouver, unlike Seattle, has a regular public high school near the heart of downtown. "My ultimate target is still the suburban family with children," says Beasley. "If they come back, everything comes with them."
Portland's Hales suggests the orange-juice test to determine where "New Urbanism" exists. Does a proposed neighborhood have a shop where a 12-year-old can be sent, swiftly, to fetch orange juice? Is it safe? Is it fun?
Seattle's potential has barely been tapped. Possible areas for high-density residential, developers say, include the docks opposite Pioneer Square, the waterfront if the Viaduct comes down, South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle, the shoreline between Queen Anne and Magnolia where autos used to be unloaded, the Pine-Pike corridor and, ultimately, Lake Union as a whole.
What's lacking is vision, will and political and business partnership. What's lacking is certainty: about what we want, and what we guarantee developers can do.
To see how it's done, take a drive up or down I-5 and visit our neighbors.
Or, as they say in Portland, Go By Train.
William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Taste||Northwest Living||Now & Then|