Improving Neighborhood Commercial Centers

By Don MacGillivray



The improvement of community life in Portland is often the topic of policy discussions resulting in implementation difficulties.

The current conception of a neighborhood’s commercial center is under review by the Neighborhood Centers Policy Expert Group (PEG) of the Comprehensive Plan.

Portland has lots of great neighborhood centers like: St. Johns, Woodstock, Hillsdale, Hollywood, Multnomah and Lloyd’s Center, but many of the linear commercial streets in Portland provide this function with a long narrow street front.

Examples of commercial corridors are especially frequent in the SE such as: Hawthorne, Division, Belmont, Burnside, Glisan, Grand Ave. and 82nd St.

PEG is studying both of these types of commercial areas for ways they can accommodate new growth, provide a wide range of commercial goods and services, so they are designed to enhance the character of the neighborhoods.

The committee discusses and explores the characteristics, urban design, transportation, housing, economic development, and infrastructure policies relating to the projected growth and change. This is the cornerstone work of improving neighborhood functionality and walk-ability in Portland’s urban environment.

PEG is composed of 14 community members and 14 staff members with various types of experience and expertise. The lead staff member is Bill Cunningham and the group is facilitated by Steve Faust. The committee has been meeting once a month since the end of last year.

Areas tagged for great change are light rail stations. Changing them into medium and high density centers will eventually encourage the use of transit and reduced of auto usage.

The subject of scale between higher and lower density development along corridors (between commercial and residential zones) is a matter of much discussion.

Currently there are few zoning approaches to address this issue and using design review is problematic. This is more of a problem on commercial corridors, but it is also an issue in centers.

Discussions of the PEG members expressed:

• concerns about pollution generated by auto traffic and other point sources,

• additional plazas and parks for collective, healthful community activities,

• buffers or screening to address issues with the conflicting business, industrial, and residential uses, impact of freeway, etc.

• changes to the building code to solve various problems around noise, odors, pollution, etc.

• new tools to address traffic impacts and to encourage mixed-use development,

• a greater range of regulations, zoning approaches, and fees to address competing interests of a mixed use city.


Care should be taken in examining the characteristics of each specific corridor and center. They all are unique and for too long, Portland has applied city-wide zones and regulation to situations where they do not work well with existing neighborhood contexts.

Who should be involved in decisions about land-use changes? Is it only developers and city staff or should local residents and business owners be fairly represented?

It is often hard for the lay public to understand complexities and impacts of new developments in 3 dimensions when reviewing them.

Today there are many news ways of communicating this information easily and inexpensively. Portland is well- known for good planning, but there are differences of opinion about how this should happen.


Information about Centers and Corridors, PEG and their activities is on the  Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website. You’ll find meeting minutes, background reports and schedules for future meetings. See 

The webpages of the Mixed Use Zones Advisory Committee for related information area at


Improving Neighborhood Commercial Centers

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