Vanishing Automobile update #62

How Not to Run a City
Part Two: Planners Derailed

10 July 2006

Despite bad reviews offered by, among others, the Cascade Policy Institute, Thoreau Institute, and others, Portland, Oregon is still touted as the model for other cities to follow. Streetcar proponents in Madison, light-rail proponents in Minneapolis, and dense housing proponents in Denver all point to Portland as a successful example of these activities.

In Portland itself, the number of advocates for such plans is rapidly declining. The 2004 Neil Goldschmidt sex scandal fractured the consensus among Portland's elites. But rank-and-file Portlanders had already become disenchanted with Portland's expensive, congestion-producing plans.

To see this trend, let's briefly review the history of planning in Portland:

Up to this point, almost all of the impacts of Oregon's planning rules have fallen on rural landowners, who have seen their properties downzoned, first to 40-, and then to 160-acre minimum lot sizes. (A 1993 rule would be even more strict, forbidden rural landowners to construct a house on their own land, even if they owned 160 acres, unless they actually farmed the land and earned $40,000 to $80,000, depending on soil productivity, per year from farming it.)

Oregon's urban residents think they benefit from these rules. They get to enjoy pastoral vistas instead of subdivisions as they drive between Oregon cities. Of course, they tell themselves that the rules "protect the farmers," but many farmers are frustrated by the strict and sometimes inane rules governing their land.

In 1976, angry rural landowners use the initiative process to put a measure on the ballot repealing the law that created LCDC. But demographics weigh against them: two out of three Oregon voters live inside of an urban-growth boundary. Not surprisingly, the measure wins less than 43 percent of the vote. When ruralites try again in 1978, they get less than 40 percent of the vote.

In 1981, Oregon enters a deep recession which many blame on the state's "anti-business climate." But when rural landowners try to repeal Oregon's land-use law again in 1982, they manage to get just 45 percent of the vote.

             Table One
Election History for Land-Use Measures
Year   Measure            Yes    No
1976   Repeal LCDC        42%   58%
1978   Repeal LCDC        40%   60%
1982   Repeal LCDC        45%   55%
2000   Property Rights    53%   47%
2002   No Densification   66%   34%
2004   Property Rights    61%   39%
(All results statewide except 2002, which is Portland-area only)

By the late 1980s, LCDC and 1000 Friends appear to have won everything they ever wanted. The plans were done and nearly 98 percent of the state was set aside for minimal to no development. LCDC had been tested at the polls three times and received overwhelming support from the state's urban voters. Some people wonder if 1000 Friends has any reason to continue. Indeed, looking for more worlds to conquer, founder Henry Richmond started the National Growth Management Leadership Project to spread the gospel of growth planning to other states.

Then, in about 1988, the Oregon Department of Transportation proposed the Westside Bypass, a new freeway in the Portland area to serve suburban Washington County, the fastest-growing part of the Oregon side of the Portland area. (Relatively unregulated Vancouver, Washington was growing much faster than anything in Oregon.) The area served by the freeway was entirely within Portland's urban-growth boundary, but the highway itself would briefly cut across a corner outside the boundary.

Though the freeway would have no exits outside the boundary, planning advocates went ballistic, claiming that the freeway was a "boundary buster," i.e., a covert attempt to expand the boundary. In reality, much of the opposition came from auto opponents who used the boundary as a way to snare land-use planners to their point of view. The effort was successful, as a 1989 memo from the director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development to then-Governor Neil Goldschmidt reveals that the agency was responding to the Westside Bypass by writing a "transportation planning rule" that would deal "with the question of how transportation planning decisions affecting land use are made."

1000 Friends jumped on the bandwagon, getting large grants from a variety of foundations to do a study of "land use-transportation-air quality" (LUTRAQ). Based largely on speculation, the LUTRAQ study claimed to show that people living in higher densities with good transit service would drive less than people in lower densities.

Influenced by LUTRAQ, in 1991 LCDC adopted a transportation planning rule heroically directing all Oregon urban areas with more than 25,000 people to reduce per-capita driving by 20 percent within 30 years (later reduced to 10 percent). To achieve this reduction, the rule specifically ordered cities to plan for higher densities, mixed-use developments, retail shops that front on the sidewalks instead of parking lots, and more transit service. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation abandoned the Westside Bypass, with the result that Washington County highways have become increasingly gridlocked (but planners don't care).

Metro's 1997 plan for Portland, described in detail in The Vanishing Automobile, called for a 70-percent increase in population densities, high-density redevelopment of at least three dozen neighborhoods and numerous corridors, and restrictions on large retail stores and parking in retail areas. This plan was largely a response to LCDC's transportation planning rule. In anticipation of the plan, most of the twenty-four cities and three counties in the region rezoned many neighborhoods to higher densities in the mid-1990s. In some cases, the zoning was so strict that if someone's house burned down, they would not be allowed to rebuild it: they could only build an apartment or other multi-family dwelling.

One problem with the plan was that Joe Weston's 1960s and 1970s apartments, combined with apartments built in the 1970s as a part of downtown urban-renewal projects, had pretty much saturated the demand for high-density housing in the region. Although single-family home prices were rapidly rising in the 1990s, real estate analysts found that rental rates were flat. So developers made no effort to build any of the high-density projects that planners had zoned for.

Portland and other local governments responded with tax waivers, tax-increment financing, below-market land sales, direct grants, and other subsidies to developers who would put in high-density or high-density mixed-use housing projects (see recent example). A few downtown condominium projects sold well, but most multi-family housing ended up with high vacancy rates. The shops that were supposed to occupy the mixed-use developments also remained vacant unless there was plenty of parking for them.

Studies revealed that, contrary to LUTRAQ's claims, most people in these developments did not greatly alter their driving habits. Instead, their cars jammed the streets that mostly had been designed to serve much lower density neighborhoods.

Planning advocates argued that higher densities were needed to avoid urban sprawl in Oregon's Willamette Valley, which covered one-seventh of the state but housed two-thirds of its residents. Ironically, this was refuted by a study commissioned by the Willamette Valley Livability Project, one of many groups created by 1000 Friends of Oregon. The study found that 5.9 percent of the valley had been urbanized in 1990 and predicted that, under current planning rules, this would increase to 6.6 percent by 2050. But if there were no rules, and "private property rights and short-term market forces" were allowed to prevail, 7.6 percent of the valley would be urbanized by 2050. So the restrictions on rural landowners and densification of urban areas protected just 1 percent of the valley from development.

The neighborhood densification that resulted from the transportation planning rule alienated many urban residents who had previously supported Oregon's planning. It was one thing to downzone rural lands to protect the scenery enjoyed by urban residents. It was another thing to upzone urban neighborhoods, increasing congestion and often bringing down residential values.

A visible sign of dissatisfaction with densification could be seen in the voting trends for light rail. While light rail was sold to the voters as a way of reducing congestion, planners considered it to be more of a land-use program. Light rail "is not worth the cost if you're just looking at transit," Portland planner John Fregonese told a Wisconsin newspaper. "It's a way to develop your community at higher densities." Indeed, under LCDC's rules, planners rezoned one-half mile around nearly every rail station to higher densities.

Portland-area voters were asked to vote on light rail four times during the 1990s. In 1990, 75 percent of them supported it. In 1994, 65 percent supported it, still a comfortable margin. By 1996, this had fallen to 55 percent. In 1998, only 47 percent supported it. Since the 1994, 1996, and 1998 votes were all for the same project, it was clear that people were becoming disenchanted with the idea. In the 1998 vote, residents of the city of Portland supported rail, but residents of every suburb but one opposed it -- a suburb that had no rail plans and so was not threatened by rezoning.

              Table Two
Election History for Light-Rail Measures
1990   Westside           75%   25%
1994   South-North        65%   35%
1996   South-North        55%   45%
1998   South-North        47%   53%
(All results for the Portland area only)

Light-rail advocates claim that the fact that Portlanders voted for three out of four light-rail ballot measures shows they support it. But, as usual, planning advocates conveniently ignore the clear and probably irreversible trend of increasing opposition to rail transit boondoggles.

In 2000, Oregonians in Action, a group representing rural landowners, sensed the alienation among urban voters and wrote an initiative petition, known as measure 7, restoring property rights to landowners whose property values had been reduced by land-use regulation. This would not stop densification; it would only help rural landowners who had owned their property before the rules were passed.

Planning advocates bitterly opposed measure 7. Oregon's governor, John Kitzhaber, warned that "it would destroy the quality of life, the very soul of our state." Yet the measure received 53 percent of the votes, many from people (as one planner admitted) "tired of heavy-handed government planners." In response, the executive director of Metro revealed just how out of touch he was with the voters by demanding a grandiose constitutional amendment mandating "tight regulation" and planning for "coordinated land uses."

Planning advocates took measure to court and had it thrown out in a precedent-setting technicality. Oregonians in Action fixed the technicality and put the measure, now numbered 37, back on the ballot in 2004. Opponents outspent supporters by four to one, yet this time the measure passed with a phenomenal 61 percent of the vote. The majority in every county in the Portland area and every county in Oregon but one supported the measure.

Like measure 7, measure 37 did nothing about densification, but in 2002 Oregonians in Action wrote another initiative seeking to take away Metro's right to densify neighborhoods. Metro responded with its own measure halting any densification until after 2015. During the campaign, Metro supporters claimed the Oregonians in Action measure was supported by greedy speculators while Oregonians in Action asked its supporters to vote for both measures. The Metro measure received 66 percent of the vote; the Oregonians in Action measure received only 42 percent. Both sides declared victory, but it is evident that Metro submitted its own measure only because it feared to fight a battle over density.

In the 1970s and 1980s, downzoning alienated rural Oregon landowners by taking away their property rights. In the 1990s, densified upzoning and tax subsidies for dense developments alienated urban residents by increasing congestion and threatening urban services. In 2004, the Goldschmidt scandal made the region's elite realize that Portland's plans had been hi-jacked by a group of developers seeking corporate welfare.

Still, many Portlanders remain unaware of the scope of the harm planners are doing to their city.

Fortunately, liberal bloggers such as Jack Bogdanski and Bill MacDonald have joined fiscal conservatives such as Save Portland and ORTEM in alerting the public about these plans. Planners know that if they ever again dare go before the voters seeking money for light rail or density, they are likely to lose. So the only question is how much damage can they do without ever again seeking voter approval.

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