Portland ‘Central City’ plans for influx of people, jobs

10 districts covered by the current Central City Plan

Downtown Portland, July 10, 2008 (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)
Downtown Portland, July 10, 2008 (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Although the central city covers just over 3 percent of Portland, the City Council has decided it should accommodate 30 percent of all growth between now and 2035 — including 38,000 more households and 51,000 additional jobs.

To help make that happen, city planners have prepared Central City 2035, a plan to be considered by the council on Sept. 7. Among other things, it adjusts the maximum allowable height of residential and office buildings in various parts of the 11 districts concentrated on both sides of the Willamette River. It is also designed to preserve historic districts and create more open spaces to improve livability.

“This plan makes sure there’s room and space for both, and that we have a welcoming, prosperous and equitable city for everyone,” says Susan Anderson, director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which drafted the plan.

The council set this goal last year when it updated the state-mandated Comprehensive Plan intended to guide growth in the city for the next two decades. Planners believe it can be achieved because the central city has the highest concentration of infrastructure needed to support such growth, including the Transit Mall where TriMet bus and MAX lines cross.

Although the “comp plan” update has yet to be officially acknowledged by the state Department of Land Conservation and Development as required by state land use planning laws, work on CC2035 — as city planners call it — has been under way for seven years. Plans for each district have been drafted, along with transportation, environmental protection and other plans that cross their borders.

Most of the area designated as central city is located on the west side of the Willamette River. It includes the Downtown, Pearl, Old Town/Chinatown, Goose Hollow, West End, University District/South Auditorium, and South Waterfront districts. On the east side, it includes the Lower Albina, Lloyd and Central Eastside districts.

Key changes

Fitting so many more people and jobs into just five square miles is very challenging. The combined plans are as thick as a phone book and difficult for the average person to understand. But planners say the following opportunities help make it possible:

  • The 13.4-acre U.S. Post Office distribution center at the south end of the Broadway Bridge will be demolished and replaced with a new neighborhood. The site was bought last year for $88 million by Prosper Portland, formerly known as the Portland Development Commission. The city urban renewal agency is preparing a master plan known as the Broadway Corridor that includes approximately 10 additional surrounding acres, allowing for 24 acres of redevelopment between the Pearl District and Old Town/Chinatown.
  • A proposed Green Loop would connect both sides of the river with a broad, tree-lined pathway reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists. Described as “a six-mile linear park,” it is expected to encourage walking and biking within the central city, both for commuting and recreation. Although the exact route has yet to be determined, some parking and traffic lanes are expected to be eliminated on a number of downtown and central eastside streets.
  • Creating incentives to encourage the redevelopment of underused properties, such as surface parking lots.
  • Protecting and enhancing the environment along the Willamette River through the central city with a new overlay zone, while also encouraging small businesses such as ice cream stands and kayak rentals along its banks.
  • Preserving historic districts by lowering maximum allowable heights in them and encouraging seismic upgrades of existing buildings by transferring their potential increases to new projects in other areas.

Even though maximum heights are proposed to be lowered in some areas, they would be raised in others, so total development capacity in the central city would be increased 7 percent, including bonus heights to meet such goals as increasing affordable housing.

The plan is not without controversy. In October 2015, the City Auditor’s Office ruled that property owners on a West End advisory committee should have declared potential conflicts of interest before voting to recommend denser developments. Although no one was penalized, public comments available on the planning bureau’s website show some people are concerned about encouraging tall buildings there.

“A building taller than 100 feet will block the sun from reaching my windows as well as hurt the community garden we have on the second-floor court yard. I also think taller buildings will create a less livable and communal environment, which is important since so many people live and play in the west end, as opposed to the business district, where livability is less important,” writes Don Hew, a resident of the St. Francis Apartments at 1024 S.W. Main St.

In addition, the Transportation System Plan approved with the comp. plan update includes rebuilding the intersection of I-5 and I-84 in the Rose Quarter to reduce congestion, a top priority of the Oregon Department of Transportation. That is opposed by environmentalists, who argue such projects encourage driving and more greenhouse gas emissions.

Building a denser central city

Central City 2035 builds on two previous landmark growth plans. The Downtown Plan approved by the City Council in 1972 coincided with a regional shift from freeway building to investments in mass transit and resulted in the downtown Transit Mall and Pioneer Courthouse Square. The first Central City Plan approved in 1988 expanded the concept of the urban core to include nearby neighborhoods on both sides of the Willamette River.

The 10 districts covered by the current Central City Plan encompass 2,972 acres, just 3.2 percent of Portland. Unlike the first Central City Plan, Central City 2035 proposes only a modest boundary increase. It would add the 18 acres known as the Clinton Triangle along the north side of Southeast Powell Boulevard just east of Southeast Milwaukie Avenue. Even if that is approved, the Central City would still be a small fraction of the 92,846 acres in Portland.

Despite that, the number of households in the central city is expected to grow from 26,000 to 64,000 by 2035. The number of jobs is forecast to increase from 123,000 to 174,000. Altogether, Portland is expected to add at least 132,000 more households and 140,000 jobs over the next 20 years.

The City Council held a work session on the plan Aug. 15, although only commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman were able to attend. Both were generally supportive. “It’s a good-looking plan. I like it,” Saltzman said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler has already told the planning bureau he intends to introduce some amendments, however, and Saltzman said he may do so, too, after the public testifies on it.

The council is expected to vote on the plan in January 2018.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.