Vanishing Automobile update #8

The Myth of Northwest 23rd

Portland's Northwest 23rd Avenue is lined with classy shops and restaurants. When residents of the Portland area ask planners for an example of their vision of a high-density, mixed-use area, they are often told to look at Northwest 23rd, where residents have supposedly learned "to walk and ride transit rather than drive."

As shown on the Thoreau Institute's Oak Grove tour, however, the real Northwest 23rd is jammed with cars throughout the day. This is because local residents are not numerous enough to support the shops on the street, so those shops have worked hard to attract people from throughout the area. Nearly all of those people drive to get there.

Recently released census data reveal that the densest census tract in Oregon is located right next to Northwest 23rd. This census tract has more than 23,500 people per square mile, which is the average density of New York City and nearly half the density of Manhattan. Yet even this high density is not enough by itself to support a street of shops and cafes.

Nor do the people who live in this census tract rely solely on transit, bicycles, and shoe leather for transport. Indeed, one of the major problems in the area is lack of parking, since shop customers frequently park in front of residences, and the residents have no place to park their own cars.

In fact, the president of Neighbors West Northwest, the local neighborhood association, told the Oregonian that the traffic and parking problems that accompany the area's high density have made "the livability worse than it was" before the area became trendy.

Claims that Northwest 23rd demonstrates that density will increase livability or reduce congestion are thus simply lies. But the most subtle lie about Northwest 23rd is that planners had anything to do with its development. Supposedly, Portland's decision to build light rail instead of freeways has led to an urban renaissance.

In fact, most of Northwest 23rd is closer to the on-ramps for Interstate 405 than it is to a light-rail line. Far from being the result of urban planning, Northwest 23rd is primarily the vision of local entrepreneur Richard Singer.

As detailed in an article in the March 25 Oregonian, Singer began developing properties on Northwest 23rd in 1982. He had a vision of a street of one-of-a-kind shops whose personalities would attract customers from all over the Portland area. He and his family own a dozen properties on the avenue, and he has helped develop more than a dozen properties for other investors.

His developments emphasized unique stores and restaurants with such names as Duck Duck Goose, Souleiado, Moonstruck, and 3 More Monkeys. He would leave spaces unrented rather than let national chains such as 7-Eleven or Subway move in. Those national chains that are on the avenue, such as Urban Outfitters and Restoration Hardware, have no other outlets in the Portland area. As a result, says one retailing expert, "There's more awesome one-of-a-kind stores on just this one street than most whole cities have."

In short, Northwest 23rd Avenue was designed to serve the entire Portland area, not just the local neighborhood. Some of the local residents resent this, feeling that the avenue is more of a regional mall and their streets the mall's parking lot. But many of the residents moved to the area because they like the to be near the shops.

Significantly, the only mixed-use buildings that Singer owns or manages were mixed use before Singer acquired them. Although many of his developments could support upper floors of apartments, he stayed out of that market. His brother Don Singer points out that all but one of the new apartments built in the central city in the last decade required tax breaks or other subsidies. "If it was profitable," he says, "we would have done it."

Portland and Metro planners have visions of creating scores of Northwest 23rds throughout the Portland area. But how can the region support thousands of unique shops and boutiques? And even if it can, how will that reduce the amount of driving people do?

On the other hand, if the goal is to create streets of shops that primarily serve the local pedestrian neighborhood, then Northwest 23rd is not the model. In fact, outside of New York City and possibly a few other pre-auto cities such as Boston and San Francisco, there is no model for such a street anywhere in the U.S. It is simply not possible for a street of shops to provide the same services, goods, and value provided by giant Safeway or Kroger supermarkets, Office Depots, Wal-Marts, and other growing categories of big-box or warehouse stores.

Update: After sending this update out, I got a response from a resident of Northwest Portland who reports, "I have been meeting
substantially all of my daily service / goods needs on foot from my home." But he also noted that Richard Singer's shops on 23rd do "not contribute to this functionality" -- which again shows that unique boutiques are not for neighbors within walking distance.

The complete Oregonian article about Northwest 23rd can be read on ProQuest, though you may need a subscription (often provided by local or university libraries) to access ProQuest's newspaper database.

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