By Michael Mertaugh
My wife and I moved to Portland recently from the Washington DC area, where I worked for twenty-five years as an economist at the World Bank. We were attracted to Portland because of its spectacular natural setting, its respect for its rich architectural heritage, and the quality-of-life features that are responsible for its consistent high ranking among America’s most livable cities. To us, Portland embodies a rare combination of small-town ambiance combined with big-city amenities (culture, parks, restaurants, etc.) and the lovingly preserved architectural reminders of its seafaring past.
We were also attracted by the lively civic engagement in local issues – including the past citizen initiatives that led to Portland’s historic preservation ordinance and the decision to preserve Portland’s working waterfront. We have not been disappointed; we love Portland and are proud to call it our new home.
But we are disappointed to see that Portland’s current strategy for promoting growth and development appears to give priority to projects that emphasize size, quantum increases in density, and minimum-wage service jobs rather than targeting more positive development goals and building on the unique features that have contributed to Portland’s attractiveness and recent success.
A number of the projects that have been approved for Portland in recent years involve the construction of new hotels, large-scale housing projects, and new premises for retail trade. These are not bad projects, but neither are they likely to generate higher-paying jobs and to stimulate the creation of other jobs through economic linkages that characterize the manufacturing sector and many other service industries.
The city’s enthusiasm for higher residential density appears to be partly motivated by an expectation that higher density would generate new tax revenues that could be used to reduce Portland’s tax burden. The experience of many other cities suggests that this is likely to be a vain hope. The additional tax revenues from higher residential density are likely to be fully offset by additional costs for public services – schooling, transport, water and sanitation, police and fire protection, etc. – necessitated by the additional population.
Using data from the 2010 census and census estimates of population, William Frey of the Brookings Institution (http://www.brookings.edu/experts/freyw) has found that the American cities that are attracting young professionals are knowledge based, high tech, and “cool.” One of the cities cited in Frey’s analysis is Portland, Oregon, which grew by over 3% between 2010 and 2012. Our Portland is not among Frey’s “cool” cities and had no net growth between 2010 and 2012.
Portland, Oregon and other cities that are growing – including the Silicon Valley communities and their various offshoots – are attracting growth by making themselves attractive to young professionals through amenities like urban light rail transit, bicycle sharing programs, and widely available broadband internet. These would be more enlightened and progressive investments in Portland’s future than some of the large-scale projects that have been proposed recently for implementation in Portland.
Capitalizing on Portland’s strengths would require a different approach to Portland’s development. Rather than a reactive approach that responds to specific proposals by developers – and often involves concessions such as zoning variances and public subsidies – it would require a pro-active and deliberate approach designed to build on Portland’s strengths and attract the type of development that we want for our city.
This could involve a variety of instruments, including investments in digital infrastructure and urban transit (maybe even replacing some of the abandoned trolley lines that contributed to the city’s past development), targeted outreach to developers and investors, tax credits, job training partnerships, and financial inducements to small entrepreneurs.
Portland’s comparative advantage is in promoting high-quality, small-volume, custom design and manufacturing, a marriage of old world “craft” production – think beer and high-end leather goods — and high-tech industry including green technology and biotechnology. All of these opportunities would involve a new vision of “small is beautiful,” and would need to be reflected, among other things, in the marketing in small parcels of any public properties considered for future sale.
In pursuing promising opportunities such as these, a paramount concern should be to preserve the physical beauty and small-town feel of our city. We owe much of our current identity to the far-sighted efforts of many generations of Portland residents and friends. What would Portland be today without the Back Cove trail, or the Eastern and Western Promenades – the legacy of James Phinney Baxter, Frederick Law Olmsted and countless others?