Post image for Commercial Revitalization: Stop Displacing, Start Improving

You can look at commercial district revitalization in two ways: The first way, which is the common way, and unfortunately not the best way, is to hatch a scheme to get rid of everything that is underperforming and replace it with something else. Bulldoze it, and start over with a blank slate. This approach to economic revitalization is the cornerstone of many well-intentioned plans — the wholesale replacement of entire existing commercial ecosystems. It is also an approach that values typical male attributes: valuing big, valuing new, valuing the deal. This is truly a shame since these districts often have wonderful businesses, owned by locals, that serve as non-traditional anchors pulling from wide trade areas.

The second way to approach these eclectic, local, one-of-a-kind commercial places is to figure out how to improve what is already there. Not only improve, but fully embrace and leverage what is there to ratchet up economic performance and brand. Remember, it’s always easiest to brand around unique and authentic assets, which these districts typically have in spades. Growing your improvement from within, locally and incrementally, instead of imposing it from without, is what I call a female approach to economic development.

The bottom line is that we need our economic development approaches to focus more on cultivation, or adding to what is already there, and less on replacement. There are many reasons why. The wholesale displacement approach to commercial revitalization depresses local wealth creation because it calls for out-of-town developers, big money, and national chains. (On a side note, I am not sure why communities encourage outside development so heavily, because out-of-town owners are consistently listed as a primary obstacle to renewal in cities and towns of all sizes.) On the other hand, fertilizing what exists is affordable, it encourages local ownership, helps foster local wealth creation, and creates opportunity for a wider assortment of entrepreneurs through incremental improvements. As you can imagine, I am a big fan of the “improve what you have” approach, even if it seems messier, and requires a new toolkit, and doesn’t always come with a deal plaque!

A great example of cultivating economic development is being implemented right now on a corridor called Auburn Blvd in the city of Citrus Heights, CA. One of their first “improve what you have” projects was wildly successful. Two local gentlemen wanted to take a long-standing, boring, beige, vacant restaurant (pictured above to the right) and open a new venue for chowing down! When this restaurant startup applied for their permits, the city used the land use process not to create roadblocks, but instead to find opportunities to collaborate so they could work together to make the business, the building, and the street better! Citrus Heights offered these two amazing Latino entrepreneurs some guerrilla design assistance, together with matching funds, to help them affordably amp up this restaurant’s ground floor identity.

Every city should be doing this!!

The restaurant, Crepe and Burger, has been a big success, they did a wonderful job transforming this space. (The “after” exterior photo is above left, and the “after” interior photo is below right.) Customers are even frequenting the outdoor seating area, which is a welcome injection of vibrancy on such a busy corridor. It’s entirely true that people sitting at tables with eye-catching umbrellas is the best sign a restaurant could ever have.

And yes, the community is talking about this building because it’s not the standard TanLand beige stucco building with stacked stone that dominates the retail environment in Northern California! But you know what? Standing out and getting attention for your business is a good thing!!

So let’s talk about the “improve what you have” toolkit for ground floor retail execution. It certainly involves thinking beyond just facade improvement programs, which can be expensive, and are typically most effective with well-funded property owners. Instead, cities should be creating programs with a wider variety of options, that contain smaller steps toward improvement, and that can be implemented by a more robust mix of stakeholders, from the well-funded to the cash-strapped. Examples might include:

  • dated acoustical tile false ceiling removal program
  • window transparency program
  • window lighting education and improvement program
  • building color consulting (also known as Ban Beige!)
  • merchandising training
  • parking lot outdoor seating
  • district performance training tracking
  • extreme makeover team development
  • in-store improvement classes

Investing in the improvement of the ground floor experience is vitally important to the economic success of your local commercial districts right now, and also moving forward into the future as retail continues to evolve. (Heads up: retail has always been about reinvention, that’s the nature of the beast.) In the years to come, brick & mortar businesses are all going to have to offer a wonderful atmosphere, a curated experience, and excellent service in order to attract in-store customers, whether it be a lawyer, doctor, accountant, bank, clothing store, grocery store, or restaurant. If a business doesn’t offer a distinct experience, they will be trafficking strictly in a commodity. And more and more, commodities will be consumed online. We will diagnose our medical problems online instead of going to the doctor, we will get that LLC contract online instead of going to see our lawyer, and we will shop for groceries and clothes online instead of going to stores.

To convince customers to invest their time in real-world businesses, districts will have to tell a great story at the street level, and businesses will need to craft unique and interesting experiences to entice people to visit. So let’s get to work and help our existing stores, restaurants, and districts do just that so they can survive and thrive in the years ahead.

Thank you to Casey Kempenaar and Devon Rodriguez for the “After” photos of Crepe and Burger above.

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Oh the Stories They Could Tell…Astoria Armory Edition

by Michele Reeves on April 3, 2017

Post image for Oh the Stories They Could Tell…Astoria Armory Edition

This nondescript building in downtown Astoria, OR was hiding a surprise: a breathtaking expanse of clear span space with a rare domed lamella roof system. As unlikely as it appears on the exterior, this warehouse-like building was actually an Armory, constructed to provide entertainment for military personnel during World War II headquartered in this lovely Pacific Northwest spot — the gateway to the mighty Columbia River.

My grandfather was one of those people. He served in the Pacific Theater as a naval doctor and shipped out of Astoria. As a young child, my mother traveled up there with the family. Everyone thought her older sister was her mother! For me, the chance to tour this building and learn more about its past was like reaching back through time to picture life there in my grandfather’s era.

When I wandered through in 2013, the building had seen better days. It was on life support, being kept alive as a storage space for Astoria’s wonderful maritime museum. (When it comes to historic preservation, often, an occupied building is a saved building, no matter the type of occupancy.) As a consequence, the basement was a compelling jumble of nautical items from every era stored for future exhibits — boats, engines, harpoons. It was as if I entered the lair of a seafaring hoarder, with tightly packed treasure at every turn (see photos at the end of the post).

But the star of this space, even with the broken windows, dusty bleachers, and a bad stage remodel, was the soaring ceiling and the diamond shaped pattern of the roof. You could easily close your eyes and picture a crowded USO performance, hear the music, envision the mood.

One of the pure joys of my work is not only having the honor of seeing amazing structures and touring incredible places, but also witnessing communities take these assets and resurrect them to live another day. And that’s exactly what happened in Astoria.

The building was purchased by Craft 3, one of the most innovative Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) in the country. They bought the structure and leased it to an informal group of Astorians who had dubbed themselves “Friends of the Astoria Armory” (FOAA). The lease rate? $1. Basically, the deal was this: prove it can be a going concern, and Craft 3 would sell it to the FOAA.

According to this innovative lender, after buying it, Astorians put in about 1,000 volunteer hours and, and within a few weeks were hosting their first event: a roller derby bout! And over the next year and change, they clocked in over 175 events in the venue. In this short period of time, they proved the concept, formed a non-profit, and bought the Armory, with Craft 3 underwriting the loan.

This city of 10,000 is one of the best can-do small towns anywhere in the world. They restored and installed a rail trolley car on their riverfront tracks, they recently located and floated an historic ferry to Astoria that used to service the area, and now, they have restored their Armory, to name just a few of the incredible projects this community has made happen with duct tape, chutzpah, and a little bit of magic.

Please do check out the Astoria Armory site, marvel at the historic photos from the building’s heyday, and take heart, like I do, in the power of community and humanity to endlessly renew itself!

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Post image for On Nov 8th Morn…I Experienced Everything Great about America

My election day began with a meeting of a group I was recently asked to join, the NE STEM/STEAM coalition in Portland, Oregon. The group’s mission (I paraphrase) is to help students from communities of color gain access to careers and education in science, technology, and the arts.

It is an incredible collection of people and organizations, spearheaded by the indomitable New Market Tax Credit guru and all around community development expert Carl Talton. The members of this coalition include non-profits like Airway Science for Kids, Inc. (To put it in their words, they work with “Portland’s hard-to-reach youth” to build an actual airplane and sell it. Talk about inspirational.) And there is the retired school superintendent, Pixel Arts Education, a local college, the Rebuilding Center, educators… the list goes on and on. Amazing people doing amazing work to bring economic opportunity to all Americans.

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My next meeting of the day was to get together with a small, local property owner as a part of a public sector program that, in part, brings assistance to long-time resident owners so they can learn to leverage their properties as investments and stay in their neighborhoods as they change, instead of being displaced by gentrification. In this case, I had the absolute honor of meeting with an immigrant couple who moved to the US as adults, learned English, and over the years acquired buildings as they started businesses.

She is from Asia, quiet and whip smart. He is from South America, gregarious and very detail oriented. They were strong, open, caring people who have worked hard their whole lives, who take care of their parents and their extended families, and have contributed much to our economy.

Every person I worked with on election day personified, in tangible and heroic ways, the ideals this country was founded upon, and it was a privilege to have been able to spend time with them and be reminded of all that America can be.

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My What a Quaint Bridge Tender House You Have Chicago

by Michele Reeves on July 31, 2016

Post image for My What a Quaint Bridge Tender House You Have Chicago

Who knew that competition was so fierce and cutthroat in the world of architectural boat tours in Chicago? According to our guide, who was a docent volunteer on the official Chicago Architectural Foundation tour, CAF has turned their river meanderings into one of the top visitor draws in the city, which, of course, has spawned a lot of copycats. Damn tour counterfeiters.

Although I was feeling smug about having chosen the right tour, in truth, if I am totally honest with myself (which I try to avoid), it would have never occurred to me to take the tour unless my friend (and planner) Sara King had recommended it!

And, I can unreservedly recommend it to anyone visiting , even if you have no interest in architecture. It’s just really darn fun to be toodling around on a boat, on a river, in such an amazingly urban place. Chicago is truly one of our grandest and most interesting cities visually.

Tidbits that jumped out at me: there is a building that was designed to look like a champagne bottle…The structure used as City Hall in some Bat Man movies is a gigantic and vacant historic Post Office (they abandoned it and built a really ugly new PO next door, refusing to connect it up to the Riverwalk, way to go Feds)…The Chicago Riverwalk was inspired by a Daley visit to San Antonio…They use locks to get from the River to Lake Michigan because the lake is higher than the river…Montgomery Ward was responsible for all of the miles of the public access to the lake in Chicago. I was very impressed by the latter — Ward spent years fighting the city’s plans to develop this land, using his own money. And to this day, he is the reason over 28 miles of coast line is open and accessible to regular folks. Huzzah to Montgomery Ward.

I was particularly taken with the lovely scale of the river — not too big, and not too small — and the appropriately charming bridges that cross the river. They are bascule designs, perfectly balanced upon a fulcrum to open and close with only a small motor to move them. The bridges, and the wide variety of bridge tender houses (no two are alike apparently), serve as a wonderful counterpoint to the modernity and height that arise around the river.

And there is no better vantage point to see these charming little houses than from the river! Here are some examples that I was able to catch, sun permitting!

BridgeTender7_LowRBridgeTender5_LowRBridgeTender3_LowRBridgeTender1_LowRBridgeTender9_LowR

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BridgeTender16_LowR

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Post image for Oh the Stories They Could Tell… The “Is That a Beluga Whale?” Edition

There is a unique joy in walking through a building and experiencing what it was, understanding what it is now, and contemplating what it can be in the future.

Some structures clearly have a grand old past, evoked by remnants of fixtures, stained glass, and finish work. Some have a more sordid identity, making it difficult to imagine a new future.  Ruminating on building stories  — both glorious and sordid — is going to be a new series here on the blog.  And, the kick-off will be this tale from a structure often referred to as the Sugar Shack.

The story of the Sugar Shack is a tale of the more sordid variety.  And the tour of this building  was, perhaps, one of the most unusual I have ever had the pleasure of taking.

Imagine a mid-century strip mall, built in 1951, now entirely sided with corrugated metal, its storefronts lost to time.

If you took this metal-walled building and filled it with sea animal replicas, a largely empty porn video store, a wannabe natural history museum, a working strip club, and odd people living in the nooks and crannies of the rabbit warren of rooms that had been carved out over time, voila, you would have the Sugar Shack.

(Yep, you read that list correctly.)

On the day I took a tour of these fine facilities, we thankfully set out to look at the building prior to the adult entertainment business actually opening to the public.   It began in the seafood restaurant.  We filed into its darkened recesses, one after another.  As my eyes adjusted, I gasped when images came into focus and I could make sense of them.

“Is that a beluga whale over there?”

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The room was filled with all manner of creatures from the deep blue sea — on tables, on the floor, and still hanging from the ceiling.  It was eerie in the gloom, and we had to be careful not to trip over said sea life as we traipsed around the room.

We then stepped through to the strip club, poised to begin operation for the day, replete with disco ball, low lighting, and tired interior.

The walkthrough also included areas that showed how the internet killed brick & mortar pornography, including an abandoned adult video store and little used lap dance studios.

By far the strangest, and most surprising part of the tour was the retail space devoted entirely to a very complete collection of taxidermy.  I kid you not.

Taxidermy1Smaller

Once again, we found ourselves in the dark, no natural light intruded upon this area of the building.   It had a musty aroma — a combination of the dead animals and wood chips that were strewn about the floor.  The impressive collection of animals was intermittently illuminated by the swinging flashlights and cell phone beams of us tour goers, creating a surreal atmosphere.

This structure has certainly seen some hard days, it has housed some highly illegal activities, and the operators have been investigated by what seemed like every law enforcement agency in existence.  But that’s not its entire story.  That’s not what this building is, nor is it what this building has to be.

You see, the community took this building back when it was purchased recently by a group of area non-profits, and they are working now to consider what it can be, and determining how it can tell new stories — stories of hope, stories of jobs, stories of activity — stories that are good for the neighborhood.

I, for one, am very excited about the next chapter of the building formerly known as the Sugar Shack.

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One-Way Streets, A Coffee Shop, and a Reunion

by Michele Reeves on March 7, 2015

Post image for One-Way Streets, A Coffee Shop, and a Reunion

Working away in a coffee shop one day (I know, how very Portland of me), I couldn’t help but overhear the phone conversation of the young woman sitting to my left. (Why are cell conversations in coffee shops always so loud? #unavoidableeavesdropping)

Anyway, she was chatting with someone about how long it had been since they had seen each other, and that she couldn’t wait until they were reunited at the coffee shop.

(I know, you may be wondering, “What the heck does this have to do with one-way streets?” Be patient, it’s coming!)

My table neighbor hung up the phone, and I went back to working. Soon, her cell buzzed, she answered quickly, and offered concise directions to the coffee shop. I assumed this was her reunion-seeking compatriot. A visit was nigh!

Or, so I thought.

Instead, her phone rang again–more directions ensued. Rinse. Repeat.

She was patient, clearly swallowing some exasperation. (As was I. At this point, I had invested some serious time in this eavesdropping and wanted to see the reunion actually happen.)

Finally, a young man walked into the coffee shop and headed in our direction. The young woman rose and ran toward him, he ran toward her and they hugged. (I had to speculate they had been romantically involved at some point, and may still have held a torch for each other–but then, I am a romantic.)

So, what was the first thing they discussed after not having seen each other for 7 years?

One-way streets.

Young Man, “I’m sorry it took me so long to get here…I kept getting lost. I forgot how horrible it is to find your way around Portland with all of the one-way streets, it’s even worse than Eugene!”

And in the pall one-way streets cast over this coffee shop reunion, we see the ways in which they discourage everyday commerce and exploration.

(Photo pictured above is a one-way street from a favorite town that I wish would abolish their one-way streets: Astoria, OR!)

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A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

by Michele Reeves on March 11, 2014

Post image for A Wall, No Matter How Pretty, Is Still…a Wall

During the summer of 2013, my husband and I took a very uncharacteristic vacation to a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona. I say “uncharacteristic” because a spa in the desert at the height of summer would not normally be at the top of our list of vacation destinations.

But, long story short, we were quite happy to find ourselves, sans children, in this suburban Arizona town in June. (And, may I say, it was a lovely location from which to watch the super moon!)

So, one of the things that jumped out at me about The West’s Most Western Town (yes, that is Scottsdale’s somewhat official nickname), is that the built environment of this relatively new, arterial-focused city is dominated by walls.

Undulating walls…walls made of different materials…short walls, long walls, tall walls, grand walls, pony walls. There are walls with embedded art. There are elaborate walls along freeways. One special wall, my personal favorite, had fish sculptures on it that glowed a deep, blood red in the night.

And I realized something by the end of my stay there: no matter how much you spruce ’em up, a wall will always tell a story of division, of separation, of disconnection, of hinderance, and of restriction. They certainly lent an air of desolation while driving about the city, and made me rather desperate to penetrate the walls, so I could feel as if I had arrived somewhere.

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I Bet You Can’t Guess What this Is!

by Michele Reeves on June 4, 2013

Post image for I Bet You Can’t Guess What this Is!

From the annals of Did an intern design this building?

Can you tell what it is?

I was speaking at a Society for College and University Planning conference in Denver this spring, and walking back from my talk, a few blocks from my hotel, I stood on this corner and looked at this building and thought, What the hell is this monstrosity?

I didn’t understand the huge wall of beige on the side of the building. I didn’t understand why there was absolutely nothing that interacted with the street. I didn’t relate to the dark reflective surfaces on the structure’s outward face, reminiscent of something built for the Land of Mordor.

People thought me a bit batty, standing on the street corner, staring.

I was trying to guess the use. I came up with nothing…office maybe? Finally, I grew tired of my guessing game and walked closer to peruse the sign. It turns out this beauty of a buliding is a Four Seasons — hotel and residences.

To say I was stunned is an understatement. On their website, the Four Seasons states, “Taste is More than a Flavour.” Indeed. There is little that reflects the Four Seasons brand in this building; there is no opulence, no luxury, no taste, no elegance, no style, no presence. There is nothing to set the tone as you reach the corner of their property (pictured above left). It’s just a bad building, with bad site design dominated by parking access, and no discernable entry or street presence. (The main entry is pictured below right — lovely, isn’t it? So inviting.)

fourseasons2

After I took these photos, I was sitting about a block away at a coffeeshop, outdoors on the sidewalk since it was a lovely spring day in Denver. You know the sort, where all the Denverites run around in shorts because it’s sunny, even though it’s still freaking cold outside. So I was sitting there sipping a chai latte and a woman came into view, sprinting up the sidewalk, past the Four Seasons, and stopped in front of us latte sipping sun worshipers. Out of breath, she began scanning the surroundings, swiveling her head to the left and right frantically, obviously late and searching for her destination.

“Where is the Four Seasons?” she finally relented, asking us cafe goers.

“You just ran past it,” we responded, pointing back in the direction she had come.

QED

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It’s Official, I’m a Parking Groupie!

by Michele Reeves on May 9, 2013

Post image for It’s Official, I’m a Parking Groupie!

Yes, this is my autographed copy of the High Cost of Free Parking!

I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with one of my professional crushes, Donald Shoup, at Railvolution in LA late last year. Oh yes, it gets better. He actually sat next to me, too! I brought my book to the conference in the hopes that I would overcome my fear of being overwhelmingly dorky, and would work up the nerve to ask him to sign it. Which I did, and he so graciously assented.

Of course, as I handed it to him, a fierce internal debate was raging: should I explain why my copy looked so pristine and unread!?! You see, I pored over, and took copious notes from a library copy, and loved it so much, was impelled to buy my own. The book I handed over to the good doctor was so clearly recently purchased, I was very concerned that it didn’t look as worn as I thought it should for such a loved tome! Thankfully, I resisted the urge to blurt all this out in one long, run-on sentence.

What I did manage to say to Dr. Shoup, and it is absolutely true, is that this is one of the most well written books I have ever read. It was such a treat to be able to tell an author directly how much I appreciated his writing style, and the care he took to make it amazingly entertaining as well as amazingly informative!

The book is well known in the planning world, but I think many treat it like Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence — something that everyone wants to have read, but they are daunted by the size!

Well don’t be…daunted by its size, that is. The whole read is charming (I know, that sounds like a strange description for a 734 page book about parking), his chosen metaphors offer wonderful insights into the parking ecosystem, and the research is meticulous. It’s one of those volumes that, as you read it, you constantly quote it to hapless bystanders. Which, sad to say, was totally me during the entire duration of my first pass through this parking opus, snagging anyone nearby and asking,

“Hey, did you know…”

“…In 2002, the total subsidy for off-street parking was somewhere between $127 billion and $374 billion a year. If we also count the subsidy for free and underpriced curb parking, the total subsidy for parking would be far higher. In the same year, the federal government only spent $231 billion for Medicare and $349 billion for national defense.”

“…Every day, cruisers [looking for parking] within [the] 15-block [Westwood Village neighborhood] drove farther than the distance across the US. Over a year, their cruising creating 945,000 excess vehicle miles traveled — equivalent to 38 trips around the earth or two round trips to the moon.”

“…For a downtown concert hall, Los Angeles requires, as the minimum, 50 times more parking spaces than San Francisco allows at a maximum. These different priorities help explain the very different parking arrangements for Louise Davies Hall (home of the San Francisco Symphony) and Disney Hall (home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic). San Francisco built Louise Davies Hall with no parking garage, while Los Angeles completed Disney Hall’s 2,188-space $110 million parking garage three years before it had raised the $274 million needed to start building the 2,265-seat Disney Hall itself.”

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…With the installation of the first parking meters in Oklahoma City, “cars pulled into metered spaces and moved out when their owners had finished their business, while in the unmetered zones, the old congestion remained. Magee’s idea of a coin-operated meter for the regulation of parking on city streets was proving itself, although at the time of installation most everyone had been skeptical of what the meters would accomplish. Within a few days other businesses were asking for meters on their streets, and within several months far more than the original 150 units had been installed.” (From Oklahoma Historian LeRoy Fischer)

Somehow, Dr. Shoup has managed to compose a book that is equally powerful to the geekiest of transportation engineers, and to the most enthusiastic of community volunteers.

I am going to leave you with a final passage…which are the opening few sentences to the book:

“Children first learn about free parking when they play Monopoly. The chance of landing on free parking is low, about the same as the chance of going to jail. Monopoly misleads its players on this score, however, because parking is free for 99 percent of all automobile trips in the US.”

Vintage Shoup! Now go out and get a copy and read it. Seriously.

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Portlandia: Milquetoast Bureau of Planning Edition

by Michele Reeves on September 10, 2012

Post image for Portlandia:  Milquetoast Bureau of Planning Edition

Since the 1990s, Portland has not had parking minimums in much of the city, from the downtown core to more traditional neighborhoods with single family housing. Portland has been very proud of their no parking minimum. Portland has trumpeted this zoning policy as a shining example of why Portland is the City That Works!

The irony?

Up until recently, it was very rare for a residential developer to build anything without off-street parking. Finally though, that is changing. “Of 40 apartment building projects to be filed [with the city] in the last year and a half, 25 offer no parking,” according to a story from Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB).

As you can imagine, “Not in My Backyard” reactions to these projects are common, particularly in many of the eastside single-family home neighborhoods that are adjacent to the corridors where these projects are proposed.

To understand how entitled Portlanders feel to the street spaces in front of their homes, I want to share a personal anecdote I experienced right after moving to Portland and buying a house in 2001. We found a great house in the SE quadrant of the city, a few blocks from the Hawthorne District, which is a hopping mixed-use corridor and east/west arterial in the city. The neighborhood we chose was was comprised mostly of single-family houses built between 1910 and 1930, and it featured a designated bike corridor as well as abundant on-street parking. In fact, I don’t believe we ever had to park more than half a block away from our house in the over six years we lived there. Also, most homes in the neighborhood shared a driveway and a garage with their neighbor, giving most dwellings at least one off-street parking space.

As we were moving in, our neighbors came up to chat and introduce themselves. They were a lovely couple — a nurse and a school principal who had lived in the area for decades. They immediately informed us that we didn’t want to ever park, or allow any of our guests to park, across the street in front Bob’s (pseudonym) house. We thought they were joking and had a good laugh, because how could they be serious? Bob didn’t own the curb-side spaces in front of his home. Unfortunately, our neighbors did not join in our joviality. “No really,” they insisted, “He has been known to burst in on other people’s dinner parties and yell at guests to move their cars…of course, he has gone to anger management classes, which seem to really be helping.”

Yikes. They were serious. And as we met more and more of our neighbors, they all said the same thing after introductions were out of the way: “Don’t park in front of Bob’s house.”

Parking is always a hot-button issue in areas that are trying to increase density. So, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the city of Portland, and its planning bureau, that there would be some neighborhood resistance to developers finally bringing product online with no off-street parking.

But apparently, it did come as a surprise, because the bureau’s response to this inevitable backlash has been purely passive. Pretty shocking considering they could have spent the last year and half planning for, and proactively addressing, these issues on the neighborhood level as applications for these kinds of projects began coming in over the permit counter.

What has been their response? As reported in the Daily Journal of Commerce:

The BPS is starting to take notice of these complaints. As part of the effort to update the Portland Comprehensive Plan, the bureau is weighing whether to make changes to the zoning code, according to Dabbs [communications officer for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability]. These changes could involve design and compatibility of new residential and mixed-use development on the east side.

The BPS also is re-examining its theory that tenants in apartment complexes with little or no on-site parking do not own cars. Earlier this summer, the bureau hired an outside consulting firm to conduct a survey of six apartment buildings without parking to find out if their tenants own cars.

“We’re hearing from the community; this is something we’re concerned about,” Dabbs said.

What? Are you kidding me?

It already sounds like the city is caving, just when the zoning is actually working and attracting the type of development they have dreamed of seeing since the 90s. Indeed, in the DJC article, one neighborhood leader said, “I think there is some momentum toward (zoning changes).”

Is that really the message the city wants to be sending?

There are myriad reasons why it would be a horrible idea to change the zoning. Below, I am going to focus on two of them.

COST OF HOUSING. As Portland’s in-city neighborhoods have gentrified over the last 10 to 15 years, lower-income and middle-income residents have been driven out. This has happened throughout the nation’s coastal cities.

In my mind, San Francisco is a great example of rampant gentrification. A few years ago, I heard Fred Blackwell, from the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, tell an audience contemplating neighborhood economic development that you couldn’t fill Candlestick park with the number of African Americans left living in that city. To say I was shocked was an understatement. On a more personal note, many of my cousins, who grew up there, cannot come close to affording something in the city where they were raised.

In one of my favorite books on parking, “The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup wrote:

Reducing, or removing, off-street parking requirements, however, can increase the supply and reduce the price of all housing, without any subsidy. Planners everywhere are concerned about housing costs and urban sprawl, but they have not attempted to evaluate how parking requirements affect either housing costs or urban density. …Parking requirements substantially increase development cost and reduce density. Scarce land and capital are shifted from housing for people to housing for cars. Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people.

Diversity of income and culture brings creativity, innovation, and life to a city. But, this diversity will be difficult to maintain in the decades to come, because Gen Y and the Baby Boomers all want to live in walkable neighborhoods. Fantastic pedestrian places are going to see a tremendous increase in demand for housing, office, and retail space, and, unfortunately, gentrification’s negative side effects will prevail, unless we find ways to offer an array of housing options suitable for both lower-income residents and the middle class.

The bottom line: eliminating parking minimums results in a larger inventory of housing accessible to a wider variety of people.

CORRIDOR DEVELOPMENT. The OPB article has a good map of the proposed projects, and as you can see, nearly every one of them is either on a major mixed-use arterial, or adjacent to a mixed-use arterial (the Eastside), or in the densest portion of the city grid (the Pearl/NW Portland). The Eastside of Portland is where there is the most pushback to not having parking minimums, and also where there are the most single-family homes, some of which are less than 15 blocks from downtown (it doesn’t get much more in-city than that).

To be clear, Portland zoning protects single-family home districts with R5 zoning, which allows only 1 house per 5000 SF lot, the average sized lot in the city. There are certain transition areas that step down to a row house ratio, such as 1 house per 1000SF lot. So, Portland’s in-city, single-family housing districts are protected from dense apartment dwellings springing up, disrupting their bucolic, in-city life. Where these projects are presently being built are along the commercial and mixed-use corridors that have flexible zoning that allows for a variety of uses and sizes, and requires no off-street parking. In fact, these neighborhoods should be excited about zero lot-line buildings, built next to one another, with a variety of uses creating a 24-hour district along arterials. Why? Because Portland’s most economically successful and vibrant mixed-use environments all have historic infrastructure with exactly those characteristics: one hundred percent lot coverage, no off-street parking, and single-story/multi-story structures built right next to each other. They knew how to build great places for people back in the streetcar days!

A neighborhood spine that offers activity and density will build district-wide identity and increase long-term property values for the surrounding single-family homes. Not to mention the fact that these mixed-use corridors provide walkable amenities for all to enjoy.

So I say, “Let ’em build without parking!”

All images in this post are from mixed-use infill and redevelopment projects from Portland’s eastside that increased intensity of use, but offered no off-street parking.

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