Smart Growth Vote in Portland;
Train Wreck in the Making

May 22, 2002

By Wendell Cox

For years, the Portland, Oregon area has been considered the world leader in "smart growth," an urban planning philosophy that seeks to control urban sprawl by making urban areas more dense, while forcing people to use mass transit instead of cars. Over those years, smart growth missionaries have been sent from Portland to the "uttermost parts of the earth" to spread the gospel of smart growth.

Other notable figures have joined the movement, such as Maryland Governor Parris Glendenning, who, if nothing else, is credited with coining the term. More recently, Smart Growth plans have been adopted in many states and localities, and several federal programs include elements that encourage, if not require, local officials to use smart growth principles (HUD, EPA and Transportation, for example). Earlier this year, the American Planning Association published a legislative guidebook , Growing Smart. Its proposed model legislation is based upon Smart Growth principles.. Finally, Congress is now considering the Community Character Act, which could impose a the Smart Growth value set through federal funding conditioned on adoption of Smart Growth land use plans.

It is thus news that there is trouble in the paradise called Portland. Census data shows that little more than one in ten new workers chose to use transit in the last decade, despite a doubling of transit service, including a new $600 million light rail line cost $1 billion by the time it was completed. Meanwhile, as highways have been neglected, traffic congestion has grown more than four times the national average, trailing only Atlanta, with population growth much greater than Portland.

But Smart Growth's sorry record in Portland is not the story. The planners at Metro, the elected regional government in charge of smart growth policies, are determined to significantly increase the density of neighborhoods. This has caused residents and community groups considerable concern. Apartment buildings do not make single-family residential areas more attractive. Building less than 20 foot wide town houses may be appropriate in gentrifying sections of old Philadelphia, but not in single family residential areas in this city that sprawls nearly as much as Phoenix. As obvious as this seems, it escaped the planners, who naively believed that their doctrines had been embraced by all in the community..

So, while the smart growth missionaries were overseas, the faithful at home became restless. A citizens group, Oregonians in Action, qualified an initiative to strip Metro of its powers to density the area. If, as Metro's planners allege in their speeches, there was overwhelming support for their smart growth policies, then the referendum would have been no threat. But contrary to their devoutly held doctrines, their internal polling appears to have brought them back to reality. Sensing the unpopularity of densification and fearing passage of the Oregonians in Action initiative, Metro placed its own purported density limitation referendum on the ballot, in the hopes that it would garner more votes, and thereby block enactment of the stronger citizen's initiative. The Metro alternative was advertised as limiting Metro's ability to increase densities in single-family neighborhoods.

It would be up to the electorate to decide . On May 21, the voters of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties would choose which of the two, if any, measures would become law. If one or the other passed, it would be an indication that the community opposed densification. If both failed, then Metro's densification dictates would be demonstrate their popularity. Needless to say, the Metro campaign had the advantage. Oregon Governor John Kitzaber and Congressional Smart Growth Caucus Chairman Earl Blumenauer taped campaign commercials that seemed to run endlessly on local radio. The mayors of all 24 cities in the area endorsed the Metro proposal. In the face of such stalwart opposition, who could possibly vote for the Oregonians in Action initiative?

The answer is 34 percent. The Metro referendum obtained 66 percent of the vote and will take effect. Under normal circumstances, 34 percent might seem like a loss. But these were not normal circumstances. And, with 66 percent of the voters supporting what they perceived as a limit on density, it seems clear that the referendum tactic saved the day for Metro. If the ballot had contained the single Oregonians in Action initiative it probably would have passed. It seems clear, if smart growth means more density (which it does), then Portlanders seem to want none of it.

Given the lockstep coordination of the Portland establishment and their well financed campaign, 34 percent is quite a respectable number. Indeed, the first attempts to enact tax limitations in California (Proposition 13), Oregon (Measure 5) and Colorado (the Bruce Amendment) received similar support, but were eventually enacted as arrogant governments short-sightedly perceived their unpopular policies to be sustainable.

Metro advertised its referendum as prohibiting higher densities in single-family residential neighborhoods. The joke here is on the voters.. In fact, Metro does not need to require additional densities. Its plans already, before the election, contained sufficiently high density requirements that densification will continue. Like others who have vainly waited for their purchases to be delivered, Portlanders are likely to soon find that they have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge.

In the end, however, it the joke may be on Metro. The Oregonians in Action initiative was a "shot across the bow" of the Portland planning apparatus. The question is whether Metro got the message. If they follow historical precedent, they will, like the used car salesman who forgot the promised warranty, stand aside as their own ordinances require densities to become higher. If, and don't hold your breath, they get the message that single family residential neighborhoods do not want more density, they will find some politically palatable way to climb down from their untenable regulations. The latter course of action would preserve their dignity, and they could still dispatch their missionaries with the empty platitudes they so automatically recite..

It is thus apparent that Portland's smart growth planning doctrines have not improved the quality of life and are not politically unsustainable even at the local level. People and neighborhoods do not want higher densities, nor do they have any affection for more traffic or air pollution. It is unlikely that the people of Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham or Boston will feel any differently. Public officials, from the federal level to the local, would do well to step back, look at the evidence, and fashion their policies based upon reality, not doctrine. They should recall that the vision of this nation is not a government of the elite, it is rather about a "government of the people."

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