Durable Growth

You can’t go home again, part 3: Missed opportunities

Old Mill District with historical smokestacks

Old Mill District with historical smokestacks

I recently traveled to the Pacific Northwest where I once lived for eighteen years.  The trip allowed me to observe how urbanism has advanced, or failed to advance, in several communities that I knew well once upon a time.  I’m distilling my insights into a series of “observations”, of which Part 1 on stroads and induced traffic and Part 2 on the long-term impact of land-use missteps were previously published.

This post, I’ll look at missed opportunities for urbanism in Central Oregon

Observation #4: Urbanism opportunities shouldn’t be dismissed by flawed logic – In my previous post, I wrote about how a large proposed residential/recreation community on the westside of Bend wasn’t approved by the Planning Commission, in large part because of concerns over a mixed-use core.   After nearly twenty-five years, I don’t recall all of the concerns expressed by the Planning Commission.  But I clearly remember a comment by the mayor.

The mayor played on the softball team fielded by the firm where I worked.  He played shortstop while I manned third base.  So we had occasional opportunities to chat about municipal matters, typically during pre-inning warm-ups.

One game, I broached the subject of the proposed project.  The mayor had a ready answer.  He had reviewed the conceptual plan and noted that the mixed-use core was larger in area than the entire Bend downtown.  And he felt that it wasn’t right to challenge the pre-eminence of downtown.

In 1990, there were two recently-built shopping centers on the north end of Bend, each of which had more acreage than downtown.  Furthermore, within a few years the city would approve a massive retail project on the eastside of town that would dwarf downtown.  So it wasn’t that the mayor believed new retail shouldn’t challenge downtown, only that any new retail shouldn’t look like a downtown.

I still regret not being able to muster the obvious response that the mayor’s comment deserved.  The layout of the Bend downtown had evolved over a hundred years and reflected a model that was time-tested.  The new shopping centers were guesses about what would work for the shoppers of the future.  Nor were the guesses particularly good, with all of the shopping centers having undergone major renovations since that time, while the downtown has continued to serve the community with limited alterations.

Any right-thinking mayor should have been thrilled to have new development that mimicked his successful downtown.   And I kick myself for not having the words to express that sentiment while fielding warm-up grounders.

For the record, the mayor wasn’t much of a shortstop.  Nor was I much of a third-baseman.

Observation #5:  Good urbanist intentions can go astray in the marketplace – Even if the Planning Commission had approved the large westside project, it’s very possible that mixed-use core would still have not come in existence.  The marketplace can often subvert urbanist intentions.

During my final years in Bend, a long-time sawmill a short distance south of downtown finally surrendered to the changing timber economy.  The site was sold to a local developer who put forth an aggressive plan for redevelopment, including an appealing blend of retail, office, and residential.  It had the potential to replace the missed westside opportunity.

By the time, I moved to California, only a small portion of the development had proceeded.  I recall a restaurant, a movie theatre, and a few offices.  I often thought of the site and hoped that it had met its goals.

Old Mill District retail

Old Mill District retail

It hadn’t.  Upon my visit to Bend, one of my first meetings was with a former client who suggested we meet in the Old Mill District.  I was distressed by what I saw.  Retail and offices were there in abundance but, except for a hotel with its transient population, there were no residents in the core of the property.

A solid network of non-vehicular paths allowed a good number of bicyclists and walkers to visit the Old Mill District from nearby residential areas, but nonetheless the predominant mode for reaching the project, and the mode on which the retail relied, was automobile.

As a result, the retail area, although having an attractive street appearance, was backed by large parking lots.  The Old Mill District had become a lifestyle center, a visual simulation of a downtown, but without the soul, durability, or sustainability of a downtown or a fully-realized mixed-use area.  And as is typical of most lifestyle centers, many of the retail tenants were national chains.  There was only a smattering of local businesses.

The developer deserved credit for retaining many of the physical elements of the historical sawmill, but not for the form of the development.

A few Bend conversations confirmed my expectation.  Faced with the debt burden from property acquisition

Old Mill District rowhouses

Old Mill District rowhouses

and the reluctance of lenders to support mixed use, the developer allowed his project vision to be tweaked, eliminating residential in the core.  It’s a pattern I’ve seen elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

To be fair, there were still pockets of residential, including a charming rowhouse development near the north end of the Old Mill District, but none very close to the core.

Next time, I’ll write about a Bend project that did meet its mixed-use objective.

(Clarification: To avoid getting sidetracked into regulatory details, I implied above that the Bend Planning Commission was considering a project application for the large westside project.  Oregon readers will know that I’ve misstated the process.  Under Oregon law, Planning Commissions are legislative bodies, not quasi-judicial.

In this case, the Planning Commission was considering a text amendment to the zoning code, creating a new zone under which a project application could be submitted.  The actual application would have been heard by a Hearings Officer.  But the Planning Commission refusal to approve the text amendment stopped the project just as surely as a hearing denial would have.

The limited role of planning commissions is a quirk of Oregon law that I think is often beneficial to the land-use process.  But I didn’t want to sidetrack the discussion on this fine point of law.  Hence this parenthetical footnote.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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