Friday, March 5, 2021

City Council, March 8th - Our Salem, again, Soft on Climate

Council convenes on Monday and, after it was postponed last month in the ice storm aftermath, they'll take up the draft vision for Our Salem.

The central claim here is that Our Salem isn't fully ripe. Most importantly, it does not yet represent a considered and determined approach on climate; it remains too partial and half-hearted.

(Other items on the agenda will be in a separate post later. In particular there is a proposal for a signed bikeway between Bush and Clark Creek Parks, as well as proposals on adjustments to posted speeds on 17th and 45th Streets NE.)

Not Enough on Climate

On Wednesday the City published a blurb about the Climate Action Plan, and the tone is a little diffident, echoing ways Our Salem is not yet mature.

A "Merchants of Doubt" approach?
(Red comments added)

The City had earlier adopted emissions targets and the planning process should have been to manage to those targets, to figure out a way to reach them in a determined way.

But instead the City has repeatedly retreated from them as "aspirational," like they were some kind of luxury good and status symbol. Here they say only the city "could" reach the 2035 target. Strictly speaking that is factually true, but as a matter of rhetoric it plants the seed of doubt. It disparages the goal and makes it seem very optional.

At every turn the planning process has seemed designed to undermine strong action.

Our chapter is surprisingly uncritical

Curiously, after commenting extensively on the process shortcomings, our chapter now signals support for Our Salem. It is not clear how they see this plan as reducing VMT and emissions.

Even with the limitations on modeling, the current best available information suggests the plan that is on the table is far from sufficient.

We aren't trying very hard to reduce driving trips!
(March Climate Task Force presentation)

The Staff Report says the draft vision

showed little to no impact on the daily vehicle miles traveled per capita (VMT) in Salem’s portion of the UGB. Specifically, the daily VMT per capita is projected to be 17.66 if Salem were to continuing growing under current policies (e.g., current trends) versus 17.56 under the revised preferred scenario. The GHG emissions from transportation similarly did not significantly change: 792,000 annual metric tons of CO2e under current trends to 777,000 under the revised preferred scenario.

It is hard to see the grounds on which 350 Salem is supporting the plan in this form and they seem too optimistic about it at this point in the process.

We should see low-medium-high forecasts more often!
(March Climate Task Force presentation)

Council should send it back and ask for more definite emissions reductions in land use scenarios. Council could also ask for more choice. Why we haven't seen more of a minimum-better-best or low-medium-high trio of land use scenarios for emissions reductions remains a great mystery. Even if the highest, most optimistic level of reduction is reckoned a fantasy, it would be good to see what that looks like. (The four scenarios earlier in the process hardly differed and did not constitute a genuine low-medium-high approach.)

Housing Stimulus: The need for more Housing of all Kinds

Over on FB earlier this week there was a discussion about whether new market rate housing, even new luxury housing, helps housing affordability more generally.

A long-time observer and city advocate disputed that conclusion. They wrote:

Salem has been building at record pace. How are we doing? Are rents down? Are neighbors happy to see all the new development? It’s all about the reality of you local city that matters to me. ...

I’m saying that Salem has not seen any price reduction. Even when apartment vacancy rates are at 3% we see no reductions. It takes a vacancy rate of 4% or more to see any impact.

I base my opinions on real data over decades in Salem, not theory by some out of area "expert."

But a recent note, with real data, from the State Office of Economic Analysis suggests that we are wrong to see the recent uptick in construction as anything resembling a "record pace."

We are currently underbuilding homes
(Oregon Office of Economic Analysis)

Local data echoes the statewide data
(All building, not just housing, MWVCOG)

Only compared to the early part of the last decade is there an uptick. Compared to the longer period of 1975 to 2005, we are still badly underbuilding. Since we have a deficit and will continue to have one for a while, it will be a while before increasing supply really starts to make a dent in rents and housing costs.

Do we need a stronger statement
on affordability and abundance?

So we should have a consensus that we need to build more, and build more of everything. More of luxury housing, more of modest/entry market rate housing, and more of social housing with subsidies and supports. We need policies to stimulate housing abundance, and the Comprehensive Plan might need more and stronger language on this.

The Idol of Single-Detached Housing

Then we would be free to focus on the next debate. Do we have the balance of single-detached housing and attached housing right?

By accident or design, the chart from Economic Analysis foregrounds single detached homes. 

Probably in response to the German Baptist Church project, and not specifically offered in comment to Our Salem, the Grant Neighborhood Association just changed their logo to center single detached housing, and in their formal goals they lead with "preserve single family housing" and also see historic preservation as an important tool to that end.

Craftsman Bungalow as Idol

But it's increasingly clear that the lot spacing, driveways, and lawns associated with single detached housing are bad for climate. The spacing is a kind of indirect subsidy for cars, because with everything so far apart the only way it makes sense to get around is by car. By introducing this latent requirement, there is an indirect subsidy. (Grant was established in late streetcar era, which overlapped with the start of autoism. It has an alley system. In its particulars it is better than mid- and late-20th century suburban development, but the dominant mode of single detached housing has many of the same problems whether in a 1920s or 1970s plat.)

The H-alleys of Oaks Addition

Single detached housing is also associated with exclusionary aims. Large housing on large lots is expensive and it is a feature, rather than bug, that it keeps the riff-raff out. It functions as a wealth check. The Grant history here talks about "affluence." A century ago, when the Oaks Addition in Grant was first conceived, "a reasonable building restriction assures you the Oaks addition will become Salem's most exclusive residence district." Our concept of historic preservation and neighborhood character needs to grapple with exclusionary impulses more deeply.

Ads for "building restrictions"
Main ad: April 13th, 1912
Inset detail: May 11th, 1912

So the cute craftsman bungalow is no longer something we should want to maximize and should not be the preferred housing solution to replicate. It is, in fact, increasingly a luxury good and status symbol. It should be available of course, but it should not be the dominant type as fact or as aspiration.

Indeed, they are lovely. The idea that single detached housing is under attack is a straw man. No mass demolitions are likely. (And if we ever saw evidence they were starting - mass demolitions, not onesy-twosy things - we could adopt new policies to curb that. Legalizing smallplexes and spreading them more widely doesn't necessarily imply mass clearance like a new round of "urban renewal" style clearance.)

A different neighborhood has specific criticism of the Neighborhood Hubs in Our Salem, saying they want to retain the single family designation.

SCAN opposes this Hub - vision map

"Remove it" says SCAN

SCAN says they support " the theory of Neighborhood Hubs...[but] think they theory needs to be tested before designating a large number of Neighborhood Hubs."

This is also evidence for going in the other direction: A reason the Neighborhood Center Mixed Use zoning didn't take off and the reason Neighborhood Hubs might struggle is because there are too few of them, and centrally designating them by theory primarily may be insufficient to actual market conditions and empirical fact. It is likely the case that we need more potential candidate areas, not fewer of them, and we need to let a selection and winnowing occur through market conditions.

But as for the particulars of SCAN, it is true that 12th & Commercial are not far away at all, and maybe this isn't the best spot. Why is the Hub there a couple of blocks away from Clark Creek Park? It is also interesting that these Hubs are often disconnected from parks, which are a natural activity center, and might better leverage neighborhood scale business.

At every potential site, property and business owners will evaluate prospects independently and may concur with a designation or may not. There will be a "wisdom of the crowds" effect. The need to test is an argument for a larger number of potential sites, not less. Mere designation on a map does not imply actual bulldozers and hammers!

Is Public Opinion Sufficiently Mobilized?
Neighborhood Association Engagement

A second Neighborhood Association offered more criticism of Our Salem. In West Salem, they worry about the removal of the "Craft Industrial" designation east of Patterson and north of 2nd. They also have concerns about Neighborhood Hubs, about multi-family land, and about process.

In its current form, popular opinion on Our Salem is not very deeply engaged, and moving to adoption may not yield wide and deep support for strong future action. In particular, the neighborhood associations, whose board members are among the most deeply engaged in civic matters, are not yet on board. Only West Salem and SCAN have submitted comment. The lack of comments from other neighborhood associations, and the texture of the comments from SCAN and West Salem suggest that the outreach has not yet penetrated deeply enough. Even if they hate it, every neighborhood association should probably comment.

The Associations are probably going to be a site of NIMBY resistance anyway, and more of that might be neutralized by more outreach and debate now rather than having to wait until one or more of them appeal to LUBA and create real problems. Quiet NAs might mean easier adoption now, but does it also mean stronger action later? It seems like we should do more of the hard work now to secure assent and stronger support so that the document is realized in action and is not words only. Public opinion should be more mobilized. 

Our Salem Needs more Revision and Outreach

In most every way, then, it seems premature to adopt the Our Salem draft vision. Council should ask for more revision and for more public engagement. If we are serious about meeting our climate goals, we will have to make more substantial changes than the document currently envisions. Words alone and signalling will not be sufficient.

Previously here on the draft vision see:


John Prohodsky said...

Historically, businesses in neighborhoods filled a need. Before automobiles made box box stores, including grocery stores, possible there were smaller stores dispersed in neighborhoods that met the needs of the local community. It is the combination of residences, businesses, schools, churches, etc. that created a unique identity for a neighborhood. These neighborhoods had commercial hubs often built around mixed use buildings. Salem is trying to bolt on neighborhood hubs and mixed use areas which previously developed organically.

Salem should take a long hard look at the zoning philosophy and resulting zones that excluded organic development of mixed uses and neighborhood hubs. If Salem truly believes that neighborhood hubs are needed, the City should provide flexibility in their placement. Does anyone really believe that the 2021 City Council has the ability to know what Salem, the environment, the economy, and society will be like in 5, 10, 0r 20 years?

I'm not a fan of letting markets decide everything, however I believe that the ability to learn what works or doesn't work is very valuable. Food carts were outlawed by Salem ordinance until it became obvious that they fulfilled a real need. Council made it possible to have food carts. Since they are mobile, their owners can try different locations and learn what works for them. In a similar vein, Salem needs to promote flea markets, farmers markets, and other outdoor markets at dispersed locations, typically parking lots, through out the Salem. If a location works it might be an indication that there could be a neighborhood hub there. Also, outdoor markets provide a low cost way for entrepreneurs to test their ideas and pivot to what works.

Salem has a choice, we can be a safe status quo community that prioritizes no surprises, no friction, and barriers to new ideas or we can become a community of possibilities, innovation, and have an identity other than a bedroom community of Portland, which is how many civic leaders see Salem.

Bob Cortright said...

As one of the contributor's to Salem 350's comments, let me say I share the concern that Our Salem falls short of meeting our climate goals and that more work  will certainly need to be done.   At the same time, the city's latest revisions - which embrace and call for accommodating growth through more walkable, mixed use development - is a strong step in the right direction that the Council should endorse and build upon because planning and zoning alone, while necessary, won't be enough to make mixed use development happen.   Building walkable mixed use neighborhoods will also require that the city change its plans and spending priorities, especially for transportation and streets.   Our letter points to several actions that the council should take to translate the broad vision and goals for more mixed use development into a more comprehensive implementation program guiding city plans and programs.  These include: setting housing and job targets for specific mixed use areas to guide subsequent planning and directing that the city update its other plans - again especially the transportation system plan, but also capital plans - to identify and prioritize projects that support development of mixed use neighborhoods.The poor showing of the latest analysis of Our Salem in reducing VMT is mostly a comment on the inadequacy of the tool we're using to estimate VMT (the SKATS regional travel model).   We know based on extensive work nationally and by the state (through ODOTs Statewide Transportation Strategy) that walkable mixed use development is both essential and effective in reducing VMT.    If the city commits to accommodate most new jobs and housing to walkable mixed use areas and along Cherriots core transit network, we think, based on the STS and national studies, that the city will be moving significantly in the right direction.    
Bob Cortright