Vox Populi – Watching the “Game of Zones”

By Robert McCullough

You may suspect that this title is a parody of the wildly popular “Game of Thrones” television serial.  And it was chosen in an attempt to direct your attention to a dull subject without dragons, intrigue, and skullduggery.  This is partly true.  Portland’s newest comprehensive plan has no dragons.  On the other hand, it has been replete with intrigue and skullduggery.  In fact, there are so many unanswered questions that it might be appropriate to consider whether we should simply scrap the exercise and start anew on a plan with better factual assumptions, transparency, and public involvement.

In the 1970s, Portland was a progressive city with strong environmental and land use planning values.  While times have changed downtown, the evidence is that Portlanders still hold those values, albeit being ignored and sometimes derided for their beliefs.  In 1973, Oregon passed its comprehensive planning law – Senate Bill 100 – and Portland adopted its first comprehensive plan.  The first plan worked fairly well.  Elected officials (our version of the lords and princes of the Game of Thrones) actually visited neighborhoods and discussed the plan with inhabitants.  All of the documents and discussions were public.  The result was a better written and more professional document than the one the city plans to adopt today.

Environmental issues are often in the press these days as Portlanders learn – belatedly – that our mid-size industrial city is, in fact, not very green at all.  Not surprisingly, the draft comprehensive plan is largely silent on issues like air toxins, the rapidly diminishing urban canopy, and the equally rapidly increasing congestion on our roads.

Our commitment to land use planning has faltered badly.  While the comprehensive planning law specifies that substantive public involvement is the first priority, this requirement has been largely ignored.  There have been meetings.  In fact, there have been quite a few meetings, but the substantive part has been lost.  As in the Game of Thrones, the meetings are mainly “listenings” where the extras listen politely as the important members of the cast give their lines.  A letter this spring from representatives of the city’s neighborhood coalitions stated “. . . community members, in general, appear to have had little effect on the outcomes.”  Inexplicably, there was no response from the city’s planners.  This underscores how little input Portlanders have had on their own draft comprehensive plan.

Substantial public involvement on the Game of Thrones model just has not worked out very well.

As envisaged in the original law, the comprehensive plan would provide a framework for our consensus.  After the plan, we would turn to zoning.  (And, yes, we are getting to zoning, now.)  Zoning is an interesting concept.  It grew out of medieval times when certain parts of the city would reflect different uses.  In 1875, the first zoning law in the U.S. specified a standard to allow inhabitants of New York City tenements access to the sun.

If you live in Southeast Portland (and the odds are that you do if you are reading this) you may wonder if we will be getting the same protections that poor neighborhoods received one hundred and forty-six years ago.  Well, I hate to break it to you, but the answer is “no.”  Portland used to have solar zoning, but as this posed a cost to developers and has been dropped from the plan.

Zoning these days has generally meant to protect uses like residential neighborhoods, commercial districts, and industrial districts.  Traditionally, residential neighborhoods like quiet streets, lawns, and trees.  There are some good reasons why these environmental values should be protected by zoning.  With these protections absent, sixty ton heavy trucks can hurdle down streets where children play carrying raw materials to an industrial facility who release dangerous contaminants into our lungs.  Sadly, the zoning slipped into the comprehensive plan is not helping much here either.  Residents just east of the sprawling rail yards in the center of Southeast Portland complain frequently about increased truck traffic through their neighborhood streets.  And more recently, they have complained about the industrial pollutants released by the poorly regulated industry just north of them.

The comprehensive plan does contain many features designed to make these residential areas less environmentally friendly and livable.  Here we raise the poorly understood issue of infill and density.  As one of the chief planners remarked in a meeting “when will these guys [citizens] give up their houses and move into apartments?”  Translated into normal English, his question is “how soon can developers raze affordable housing in favor of expensive new developments?”  There is little evidence that Portlanders share much affection for the planners answer: “Cuz.”

The city’s planners commissioned a survey to support their vision of our future this winter.  They did not like the results.  The citizens of the city resoundingly voted for trees and lawns and safe streets for children to play by.  Cement and heavy trucks came in a poor second.  You will not see much discussion of the survey.  Moreover, a request for the actual survey results has, as usual, been ignored – in violation of Oregon’s Open Documents law.  Getting documents from the city’s planners often require threat of litigation and substantial cost.

Since they did not publicize the results, it is useful to report them here, and ask why they were not used to guide the comprehensive plan.

The top five concerns on residential infill were:

•   Existing viable homes are being demolished.

• Neighborhoods are be-coming less affordable.

• Green spaces and tree canopy are being lost.

•   New houses are bigger or taller than nearby houses.

• Additional homes are reducing available on-street parking and increasing traffic.

And, yes, you need not ask whether the comprehensive plan or its zoning recommendations address these concerns either.

So where do we go from here?  We have one contested election for city commissioner this fall.  It is pretty important to ask about trees, lawns, smoke, and heavy trucks.  Sadly, both candidates are likely to give the right answer and then proceed on their merry way.  Alternatively, it may be a good moment to scrap the developers’ comprehensive plan and develop one that reflects strong environmental and land use planning values.

With enough outrage it might well be possible to win the “Game of Zones.

Vox Populi – Watching the “Game of Zones”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top