A COMPACT COMMUNITY WITH DIVERSE HOUSING OPTIONS
Although Oregon is well known for its progressive growth management policies, greater Portland is not immune to the problems that plague new, poorly planned suburbs elsewhere in the country, such as main arteries with soulless strip-mall development, isolated residential areas, and automobile dependence. People who live at the edges of Portland, like those who live in most new suburbs elsewhere, must get in their cars to go to work, to drop off clothes at the dry cleaner, or to eat out. Those without access to a car or who cannot afford a single-family home are essentially excluded. Single people and empty-nesters who seek a different kind of lifestyle also find few choices that meet their needs.
One of the main streets in Orenco Station.
On the other hand, Portland is doing something about it. While several metropolitan areas have recently been building new light-rail lines and expanding existing ones beyond their core cities, Portland has been the first to combine its extensive light-rail expansion into the suburbs with deliberate transit-oriented development around the stations. This coordination of transportation and land-use planning is a very promising trend. Not only are previously isolated communities being connected to downtown and to each other by light-rail, but the stations also serve as a focal point for creating walkable, vibrant, mixed-use pockets in suburbia. Orenco Station, in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, is an outstanding example of such a development.
A Livable Neighborhood
Orenco Station is a new, 190-acre community, substantially but not yet fully built as of this writing. It is green, quiet, and safe, just like any desirable suburb. However, it is anything but a typical suburban development. First of all, it has a heart: a community shopping and gathering place. Within a five-minute walk, every Orenco Station resident can reach the town center to grab a coffee at Starbucks, shop for specialty wines, get a new prescription and eyeglasses, or enjoy delicious restaurant fare. Another notable feature of Orenco Station is the diversity of housing choices, including single-family homes, townhouses, loft apartments, and condominiums. One choice that merits special mention is the development's live/work units, which transform the notion of the morning commute from a grueling drive to a walk down a few stairs to the first floor of one's own residence.
For those who work outside of the neighborhood, Orenco Station offers multiple commuting choices. Most prominently, the community is anchored by a light-rail stop, linking residents to the regional transit system. Free light-rail passes are provided to all newcomers for their first year, encouraging them to try transit. In fact, according to a 1999 neighborhood survey, more than one-fifth of households had at least one member taking light-rail regularly, and over one-half of residents were using it more often than they had thought they would. In addition, many residents choose to walk or bicycle to their nearby offices. And many of those who drive have only a short commute, since Orenco Station is situated within Portland's high-tech corridor and its many workplaces.
Turning Challenge into Opportunity
The parcel where Orenco Station stands today Metro was originally slated for commercial and industrial development. In the early 1980s, Hillsboro began assembling land to lure high-tech Spaces companies to the area. One of the private development companies helping Hillsboro was Pacific Realty (PacTrust), which had acquired a number of the assembled parcels, including the future Orenco site.
Then, in the early 1990s, Portland's Westside light-rail line was approved, with a stop planned adjacent to the property. In order to receive funding for the light-rail, Hillsboro was required to rezone the area around the stop from the original commercial-only use to accommodate a compact, mixed-use development.
PacTrust faced a substantial challenge. It had not planned to build a mixed-use community on the parcel and, as a commercial development company, it had no expertise in such projects. Should it sue to keep the property zoned for commercial use? Should it get rid of the parcel?
Instead of fighting or giving up, PacTrust chose to embrace the challenge. Looking at its new situation with optimism, the company could sense opportunity. Also, the company's chief executive officer was himself a local resident, and he saw the value to the community of an innovative new development. The company initiated a series of meetings with Hillsboro planners, the Portland regional planning authority (Metro), and the regional public transit agency (Tri-Met) to work out planning guidelines. Once it was clear that the new development would have a strong residential component, PacTrust also joined with Costa Pacific Homes, an award-winning residential builder with local expertise.
Serenity and smart growth together in Orenco.
Public-Private Partnership -- Each Doing What It Does Best
As is often the case with smart-growth developments, a key to Orenco Station's success has been the public entities' willingness to give private developers flexibility in devising their own ways to meet public needs. "The public agencies did what they do best -- setting worthy policy goals. We did what we, as a private company, do best -- finding out what would sell in the market and delivering it in an innovate and cost effective way," says Mike Mehaffy, project manager for PacTrust. "We actually became more ambitious than we would have been under more prescriptive guidelines, because we were in control of our risk management." For example, PacTrust experimented with narrow streets and houses sitting close to the sidewalks to encourage a walking environment. In spite of conventional wisdom among developers (also held by many public sector planners) that an automobile-oriented clientele prefers wide streets and that front yards are essential, the alternative features did well in the market.
In fact, market research pushed the developers not toward a more traditional suburban design, but rather toward bolder innovations. Early in the process, a survey of 1,500 local employees revealed important information about the housing interests and needs of potential residents. A majority of respondents who indicated an interest in living in a community like the still-evolving Orenco Station placed a high priority on walkable streets, neighborhood shopping and meeting places, commuting options, and a sense of community. Potential residents also expressed nostalgia for the "great old neighborhoods" of past eras. Many of the respondents were single, couples with no or few children, or empty nesters, all market segments poorly served by sprawling subdivisions.
The planners found innovative solutions to provide these amenities. For example, communal green spaces provide beautiful vistas and encourage encounters between neighbors. The compact design helps put more people within walking distance of the light-rail stop and the commercial portion of the development. Putting garages behind houses (they are accessible from alleys), another innovative design idea, not only strengthens the pedestrian environment, but also enhances the "great old neighborhood" feel of the community. Instead of driveways and garage doors, passersby are greeted with porches and varied design elements of English cottages and Craftsman bungalows.
Orenco Station is proof that traditional sprawling suburban development is not the only choice that sells well in the market. Not only have sales been high, but also the units command as much as a 25 percent premium over other suburban homes in the area, even though the latter have larger square footage and yards. This is especially impressive given that the original Orenco Station parcel had no natural amenities such as water, scenic views, or even large trees. Today, the large communal green space and the parks throughout the development provide attractive substitutes for the missing natural amenities.
Costa Pacific was so encouraged by the market success of Orenco Station that it has purchased a large parcel on the other side of the light-rail stop and is planning to develop it, too, according to smart-growth principles. Eventually, the catalyst of the original development -- the transit stop -- will be at the heart of an even larger extended community.
SNAPSHOT: Smart Growth and Infrastructure
As we build homes, workplaces, and shops, we must find or build a network of infrastructure to serve them. In addition to the driveways and utility lines that are needed on each building site, there are a number of categories that are typically furnished by the community at large, frequently at public cost. These include neighborhood costs such as streets, water distribution lines, sewer collector lines, and recreational facilities; community costs such as roads, water and sewer trunk lines, electricity lines, telephone lines, schools, emergency services (police, fire, and rescue), libraries, and parks; and regional costs such as regional roads, central water and sewer treatment, solid waste disposal, and central electricity and telephone facilities. Sprawl development costs more across all categories because it requires more infrastructure and more travel for service per unit.
With more compact, planned growth, on the other hand, the need for new infrastructure and services can be reduced, because growth can be directed to areas with existing service capacity, such as schools with additional classroom space. Where new infrastructure must be built, smart growth requires less of it to serve the same number of new units and also enables economies of scale for some services such as water and wastewater treatment.9
9. F. Kaid Benfield, Matthew D. Raimi, Donald D.T. Chen, Once There Were Greenfields: How Urban Sprawl is Undermining Americas Environment, Economy, and Social Fabric, (New York: Natural Resources Defense Council, 1999), pp. 89-116.
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
Kaid Benfield's Blog
Kaid Benfield writes about development, community and the environment on Switchboard.
Kaid's Recent Posts
- The many benefits of street trees and urban greenery (excerpted from People Habitat)
- posted by Kaid Benfield, 4/23/14
- My place on the earth
- posted by Kaid Benfield, 4/22/14
- City growth outpaces that of suburbs: new data
- posted by Kaid Benfield, 4/16/14
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.