Wednesday, January 8, 2014

North Gateway to Reconsider Portland Road Improvement Schemes

A reader sends a very interesting note about the North Gateway Urban Renewal Area.*

Apparently the costs for completing a long-standing concept for Portland Road improvements exceeds by a substantial margin the amount of money available to the Urban Renewal Agency.**

The project will need to be down-sized. So what to do?

Before the Interstate, Portland Road was our Highway to Portland
You've seen the movie Cars right? The Interstate by-passed the town of Radiator Springs on the old highway.

The problems of Radiator Springs are in so many ways the problems of Portland Road.  At best, low-value strip development has replaced the old motels and restaurants and shops

One of the old motels, the Rose Garden, is now a bare lot, ripe for redevelopment.  It's also known as the Epping property, and a couple years ago Council moved to change its zoning in order to make it easier to redevelop. Students in the Sustainable Cities Initiative studied it, as well.

The Police Station project also evaluated it as a possible site:

The Motel is gone, and one use for the property
could be a new Police Station - Rose Gardens Parcel
On Northgate Ave looking to cross Portland Road to Bill Frey Drive:
Portland Road is 5/6 lanes, large truck traffic also on Bill Frey Drive.
This isn't the way to encourage visits to the Kroc Center!
The Kroc Center is also here, and there remains the problem of making it easy and safe for kids to walk and bike from Northgate/Hallman across Portland Road to access the Kroc Center.

Most of North Gateway Urban Renewal Area:
Mostly industrial, cut by two rail lines and Portland Road,
and bounded by the Parkway and I-5, it has real challenges.
Note loop for Bill Frey Drive and the Kroc Center
There's a Q&A posted to the Urban Renewal Board, and it outlines some of the issues. One notable thing appears to be the loss of the WPA-era underpass for the rail line!

Portland Road Underpass Sidewalk:  Salem Daily Photo Diary
Icky, and a little scary, in truth.
Safety in the tunnel is an issue, as is drainage and the way it is too often used as a bathroom. At the same time, there's some great art-deco-y detailing on it, which would be sad to lose.

Portland Road Underpass at walk entry:  SHINE historic digest for 1936
But the pricetag for a new overpass in 2008 was $25M! (This is an example, by the way, of the way the railroads get to offload costs onto municipalities and states.)

But all this isn't really surprising.  More interesting might be some very general assessment from realtors and developers and the way it shows that we have to think about systems - about changes to roads, to buildings, about the whole fabric of a neighborhood, and not merely atomic elements - and the way it show some of a disappointing same-ol'-same-ol' retread thinking.
[F]eedback from area realtors indicates that the road improvement alone is not expected to achieve the objectives identified, including attracting new investment. Preliminary discussions with real estate professionals familiar with the area identify other challenges, beyond the condition and appearance of the road, including:
• Perceived lack of safety; lack of cleanliness, general appearance and lack of upkeep in the buildings in the area
• Aging or undersized utilities; aging building stock that does not meet current industry needs; property owners need assistance to make these improvements
• Limited access to rail lines/spurs for industrial uses
• A catalyst tenant is needed in the area; focus should be concentrated, possibly beginning with the I-5 interchange
• Demographics of the area and vehicle traffic are not strong enough to support national/large anchor tenants; financial incentives are needed to draw major uses to the area
One of the elements we don't talk maybe enough about in "sustainability" is the need to sustain business in a place. Again, systems. (Like with the Kroc Center - it has "sustainable" features, "gadget green," but sustainable transportation for kids and sustainable operating budgets weren't given sufficient thought.)

Maybe the fundamental criticism of the Pringle Creek Urban Renewal project - with the Civic Center, Pringle Parkade, SAIF, etc., is that it created a low-density campus (oh wait, the Kroc, too...) that at one time might have looked pretty, but didn't actually sustain the foot traffic and variety of uses that makes for a vibrant place. This is the same problem with the Capitol Mall, which is dead in the evenings and on weekends. Adjacencies, pattern, off-setting times - all these things are important ingredients beyond just nice things, nice furniture. Diversity, mixture. They help sustain things over time.

However, behind the realtors' critique of the area might lurk too much faith in the transformative powers of big box business. Do we really want Portland Road to mimic the development patterns now on Mission Street as it heads towards I-5 and Lancaster? Portland's streetcar districts are transforming powerfully without big box development.

Portland Road probably needs streetcar scaled development more than it needs big box anchor development. Storefronts, not parking lots.

But that means making the roads smaller, not bigger.

And the whole thing isn't set up for this.
Current traffic volumes on Portland Road do not exceed City or State traffic standards for capacity or delay. Recent recorded traffic volumes on Portland Road do not warrant changes to traffic circulation or access as part of the scope of Portland Road improvements.
But we know Portland Road isn't working as it is now! (Remember, streets aren't just for traveling through; they're also for capturing/creating property value at.) How does its current dysfunction not "warrant changes"? Well, because the only dysfunction that matters is congestion and vehicle delay - through movement. Never mind that people who might walk or take transit and patronize a business are dissuaded from doing so because the road environment is so spectacularly crappy!

Interestingly, recent changes at the Lloyd Center in Portland might provide a nearby counter-example:
Wade Lange of American Assets Trust, a major local landowner preparing to redevelop 16 blocks in the area, said last year that though the bikeway certainly didn't enable their huge projects on its own, the slower traffic speeds on Multnomah Street — caused not by any changes to the speed limit but by narrowing the lanes and adding parking — fit perfectly into creating a more walkable, comfortable and ultimately valuable commercial district. [italics added]
And we have seen how - and this is really relevant for an urban renewal district that relies on tax-increment financing! - small-grained, streetcar-scaled development is amazingly more efficient at generating private wealth and public tax dollars than big box sprawl.

Mid-rise downtown development generates 10x
property tax/acre over suburban big box sprawl
(see this post for full notes on image credit)
And maybe profits are more likely to stay with local investors and developers and business owners in streetcar scale than with a big box store, where it's all flowing out to national chains or REITS or whatevers?

Now, obviously we need to dial back things a bit.  Portland Road here isn't downtown, so the benefits of streetcar scaled development will be on the lower side of the estimate ranges.  Maybe just one-story storefronts...

But even Jimmy's Pizza generates value
more efficiently than Walmart!
Strong Towns Blog
But if we put people rather than cars first, and thought about creating places that people would like to be in, to visit, and to move through, maybe redeveloping Portland Road and the greater North Gateway area would happen faster and more cost-effectively.

(Finally, this is not a part of town I visit often, and the issue is a new one to me, so the arm-chair quarterbacking is especially chair-ful here. As far as opinions here go, these are regrettably on the uninformed side. If you have local knowledge, please chime in!)

* The actual web tab for the North Gateway URA is not linkable! - City Web Fail!  Here's a link to all the URAs

** The page on the Portland Road projects is also difficult to understand.  Its timeline tails off in 2004 and the nature of "phase 2" is not at all clear.  Obviously the page hasn't been updated recently, since it refers to phase 2 as starting in "FY 2012-13."  And there's not a good before/after summary, with pictures and diagrams, of the work done so far.

These are perhaps good examples of the way the City does post information - it is "out there" publicly - but yet does so in such a way that only dedicated and persistent civic sleuths can figure it out.  Crucially, the information requires sleuthing.  It's not easy to figure stuff out. Curious citizens have to invest too much energy and time. As an economist would say, there are significant barriers to entry!

It is on this basis that several of us deny claims that the City likes to operate in secrecy, but yet might agree that the City isn't as public-minded and transparent as it could be.  That is, at any rate, the position here. 


Sarah Owens said...

Commenting on your penultimate paragraph (beginning "These are perhaps good examples of the way the City does post information..."), I don't think my Councilor would mind if I shared the following correspondence from mid-December 2013:

I wrote: [G]iven the volume of public criticism of the City that can be traced back to poor communications, perhaps a bond measure to improve/overhaul/replace the City's website is in order. I was struck by Ms. Warnke's statement at our last neighborhood association meeting, to the effect that the [City's] website works well for one involved from the start of a project, but not so well for those new to it. I would submit that it is precisely "those new to" a project that government websites should have in mind when they are designed. Assuming you agree, and as it appears the City is aware of the problem, I'm thinking the reason the problem continues is a lack of funds. Is that an accurate guess? I'd be interested to understand the situation better. Perhaps I could be referred to an appropriate resource to find out more?

My Councilor replied in pertinent part: "I do agree that the city needs to improve its communications. We don't have a quality newspaper in town that provides consistent, accurate information on city activities and the city knows it. That means the city is going to have to vastly improve its own information sharing. Right now, I don't think it's lack of money but rather lack of time and staff to take the issue on. We have changed leadership recently in the IT department and I have very high hopes that a big part of their direction will focus on public information. I know the City Manager is committed to this activity and it is a goal of the City Council this year. I would appreciate any thoughts you may have on this and any sites you think would serve as a good model of one that you have found meets your needs for information. I share the ones I use with them regularly.
Chuck Bennett
Councilor, Ward 1"

So, SBOB and SBOB readers, I hope you'll all think about what we DO want to see in the City's website, let your councilors know!

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I was told by Courtney Knox that the City is indeed working on developing a "new" webpage. I offered some insights via e-mail after that.

One suggestion was that the City create a Community Relations Advisory Committee made up of key stakeholder groups and regular folk. This CAC would be a great source of information and help on this and other communication issues.

She was open to the idea in theory, but she did say that they were going to ask some people for input. "Some people" not being defined yet of course.

Keep pushing this idea and hopefully we can get some results.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Wanted to comment just briefly on the main topic of the North Gateway plan and Portland Road. I have to admit that I seldom go in that part of town. However, recently I have been attending a meeting at a building near Bill Frey Way and Portland Road. So, it has gotten my attention that the area is in real need of something.

I am not totally aware of the details of the Urban Renewal Plan, but now that you have pointed the way, I will try to look it up (if I can find it on the City website).

As a long-time land use participant I have to wonder about such plans and why they seem to not work out so well.

I participated some years ago in the Downtown and North Downtown UR plans.

I also participated in a NEEDS planning process for my neighborhood in East Salem about 15 years ago.

Typical of all of these planning processes was that it was about telling property owners what they should do with their properties and not actually or directly including them. Seems kind of strange to do a thing like that, but the City model of how to do these things is to bring in some outside consultant with grand ideas about how other cities have done projects and then see if they can be done here in Salem.

Wonder why that doesn't work? (she said sarcastically)

What did work in our neighborhood case was that after the whole City process was done, a large property owner came to me and said, I was thinking....

And then we talked about some possibilities for his property and as a result he changed directions. Instead of getting a mobile home park, we got a community church with a school. Then when another property owner was thinking about selling his land for a low-income apartment developer, he contacted me again and said, have you another suggestion. Eventually we connected to a person who bought the land and developed a retirement apartment complex instead. Two better projects that were never in the City designed plan.

So, I guess my conclusion is that maybe what needs to happen in North Gateway is that the land owners need to start talking to the neighbors in a less formal way so that perhaps they can work out a way to redevelop the area. it might also include re-zoning some of the area to allow for more housing to support the businesses. Mixed use has not been very successful in Salem, but putting people next to businesses has.

I noted that 12th Street has kind of done their own urban renewal by business people just talking to each other and one seeing what this person is doing getting others to think about what they can do. I also noted that when the City government tried to do this to the area with an overlay zone it blew up. So, maybe less government planning and more people talking is the key. Just a thought.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Susan, maybe you've already done this in one of your old land-use-network media, but if you haven't - would you have any interest in writing a historical analysis as a guest post, fleshing out your points about collaboration with property owners and the way "mixed use has not been very successful...but putting people next to business has." More, perhaps, too, on the failures of overlay zones?

It is the belief here that close-grained observation and analysis of Salem could take us a lot further than we sometimes think. Data matters, and the most relevant data is right here in Salem!

Thanks for the perspective!

Susann Kaltwasser said...

I will try to put something a bit more detailed together for a future post about how we worked in East Salem with property owners to get appropriate developments. And how using the city funded NEEDS process was not successful and why I think it did not work as hoped.

Susann Kaltwasser said...

Can you contact me off Blog so we can share the post prior to putting it here?