Durable Growth

You can’t go home again, part 5: Oregon land-use rules

Orenco Station residential over retail

Orenco Station residential over retail

In recent posts, the last of which is here, I’ve been describing a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, a region where I lived for 18 years during the last century.  The trip allowed me to observe how urbanism has progressed in the region.

In this post, I’ll look at how the Oregon approach to land-use has affected its cities.  I‘ll also share an observation about how urbanism requires quality design.

Observation #9: Regulatory encouragement for urbanism is good, but not nearly enough – Many describe Oregon land use rules as controlling and anti-free-market.  Looking at the several Oregon cities I visited, it’s hard to see the truth in the charges.

It’s probably true that there are more recent urbanist projects in Oregon than in other states with similar demographics.  Northwest Crossing in Bend that I described in my last post is one.  Orenco Station described below is another.  And the Oregon approach to land-use regulation has been a factor driving those projects.

But if one looks beyond the handful of urbanist projects, land use in Oregon looks much like every other state.  When I visited the outskirts of Portland, Bend, Salem, and Eugene, it seemed that those places, except for the mountains on the horizon, looked much like Everywhere USA.  Having since visited Nebraska and Iowa, Oregon looked a bit less sprawling than those places, but not hugely so.

Through its legal underpinnings and philosophy, the regulatory system of Oregon has promoted urbanism.  But the strong national biases toward sprawl are hard to overcome at a state level.  There is little that a state can do to internalize the costs of automobiles that the national government chooses to make external or to modify mortgage regulations so the urbanism can play on a level field.

Also, Oregon politicians and regulators, in response to recent economic troubles, have weakened key elements the Oregon land-use approach.  Those decisions were a flawed attempt to chase immediate economic activity at the cost of long-term financial sustainability, the same doomed approach that politicians and regulators in other states have been following.

Thus, although more pockets of new urbanism can be found in Oregon than in other states, the overall ethos of Oregon land use, like the nation as a whole, remains sprawl.  And that’s a shame because where urbanist projects have been built, they’ve found an enthusiastic Oregon market.


Orenco Station residential over retail

Orenco Station residential over retail

Observation #10: Quality matters – In the Portland suburb of Hillsboro is an urbanism project that dates from the late 1990s, the dawn of the current era of urbanism.  Orenco Station was built on land that was formerly the manufacturing yard of the Orenco Pipe Company.  When a light rail line was constructed near the production yard, mixed-use urbanism became the higher and better use, so Orenco Pipe moved elsewhere.

Orenco Station is a delightful place, with nicely done residential over retail in the core and architecturally interesting small-lot single-family homes within a short walk in several directions.  Given the access to light rail, I pick Orenco Station over Northwest Crossing if I were ever to return to Oregon.

Orenco Station was developed by Costa Pacific Communities, an early high-flyer in the urbanism world.  After securing numerous awards for Orenco Station including being named by the Urban Land Institute as one of the top 25 communities in the world, Costa Pacific undertook several other urbanism projects, including a pair in Bend in which I was involved.

The Costa Pacific management team were committed visionaries which whom I enjoy working.  However, it seems that the recent economic turmoil has taken a toll on their operation, with their website showing little sign of recent activity.  Because of institutional barriers, urbanism remains a relatively low-profit land-use activity, so urbanist developers are particularly subject to economic hard times.

During my trip, I spent a pleasant afternoon at a sidewalk table in the heart of Orenco Station, catching up with old friends and with the development.  It is a delightful and active urban setting.

Despite nearing its 20th birthday, Orenco Station remains an attractive project with solid home values and few

Development adjoining Orenco Station

Development adjoining Orenco Station

vacancies.  Because it was designed and built well, it is aging well.

But a nearby development shows what happens when good design and construction are absent.

When I last visited Orenco Station in 2009, a key parcel between the light rail station and the heart of the development remained vacant.  Since then, the site has been filled, but not by the same developer as the original development.  Key design details, such as careful masonry details at the eye-level of pedestrians, are noticeably absent.  And the overall construction quality seems lower.

Development adjoining Orenco Station

Development adjoining Orenco Station

As an apparent result, the new building remains partially vacant and seems like a place apart from the original development.

Urbanism may be a coming force in the world of land use, but quality still matters.

In my next post, I’ll look at a couple of areas of Seattle.

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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