Portland Observations – Part 3

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This will be my last big Portland post on the streetcar.

I will preface this by saying that I am NOT a rail nut. I am however a city nut, and transportation is key to making a city livable. Especially important are transportation alternatives to cars (and to a lesser extent buses). This is because cars tend to destroy the things that make cities attractive. They make streets less safe for pedestrians, they add pollution, they segregate populations, and they make rehab of pre-auto cities difficult. But the biggest problems with autos in the city is that they require lots of dead space for parking and they generally lead to dispersed development. The whole attractiveness of cities is based on the concentration of activities not the wide dispersal encouraged by cars. The car and the removal of old streetcars in the 1940’s destroyed cities like Cincinnati. Freeway construction and parking lot development demolished thousands of buildings. Housing and shopping was dispersed and the urban core entered a decline that it has yet to recover from.

It is a hard to ignore fact that most beautiful and successful cities have rail transport as part of their transportation solution. I would love to see a rail line in Cincinnati connecting UC, XU, downtown, Covington and beyond. And maybe we will get there someday. That day is many many years away, but a streetcar system is a near term possibility. What surprised me in Portland was that the Streetcar is not just a slower and cheaper stepchild of “real” rail transport, but that it is in many ways even better.

The evidence that it is better is the number and type of users, and the successful business districts surrounding it. Because of the ease of use, the clear route, the digitized stops, and the handicapped accessibility, it’s use is very popular. It was obvious to me that many older and disabled people have become dependent on this for daily errands.

A streetcar would never be a quick way to get from Xavier University to downtown, or to the airport. These connections should be made with a faster, separated-grade system. The strength of the Streetcar is it’s ability to tie the downtown area together and to make living, shopping and working here more competitive with the suburban alternatives. And this is something that cities all over the Midwest have been struggling to do for several decades. Many tricks have been tried, from subsidized parking lots to urban shopping malls. Still not many people live or shop in downtown Louisville, Indianapolis, Cleveland etc..

The problem is that most people here drive everywhere. If they are enticed to come downtown, they want to park near their final destination, and they are not going to take public transportation. They just aren’t. What the streetcar does is lower the barriers. You could hardly come up with a simpler, easier to use and easier to understand system. And if you can get people separated from their cars, then you have begun to break the system that has destroyed cities and made them uncompetitive.

But a streetcar is not just for suburbanites when they come to the city to visit. Quite the opposite. It mostly serves those who live and work near it.

I’ll start with some photos of developments in the Pearl District, along the Streetcar line. The Pearl District has some similarities to our OTR. However they are also very different. OTR has much more to offer both in existing population and sturdy buildings and infrastructure. The Pearl offered more low-rise and vacant land for larger developments. The Pearl:

New construction apartments in Pearl district. I believe this is an “earlier” development:

Old loading docks converted to condos on the streetcar line. There is some criticism of this kind of development because there is no street front retail here:

The Gregory. New condos styled to look like an existing building. This building, as most new buildings, has commercial storefronts at the street level. I believe this is a zoning requirement:

Condo tower in Pearl. Also notice a bus stop and one of the solar-powered centralized, well-marked parking meters:

What looks like a very expensive condo building, as seen from the bakery we found:

Playground in the Pearl District:

Park with out of season spray ground, surrounded by new condos in the Pearl District:

New smooth glass condo building, just south of CBD on the streetcar line:

There is a new downtown grocery near this project, and I believe this is the project in which the developer has reduced the number of parking spaces from the typical 1.75 per unit to .75 per unit.

Condos under construction in Pearl District:

Next I would like to show a few photos of new tower condos at South Waterfront. This area is somewhat comparable to our riverfront, and some of the condos look like what is now being built in Newport.

Here is a map of the area:

New kitchen in high-rise housing at South Waterfront:

View out of the South Waterfront condo looking down onto other condos and the Willamette River:

View of river and downtown from codo:

View down onto condos and the riverfront park and trail. Compare to Cincinnati’s beautiful riverfront parks:

Next I would like to show a few photos of development around the suburban light rail stops. I think they are less successful than development around the streetcar. I think many books and articles have been written about the mixed success of such Transit Oriented Development (TODs). I you are interested in such things you can google TOD or Orenco and you will get some reading info. I think it is a decent attempt but I didn’t see much mixed use. They all seemed heavily residential.

Suburban rail stop showing bus connection, concrete chairs and multi-family development:

New housing near Quatama, a suburban stop:

The Quatama stop:

Just to show that not all is new, here is a trailer park along the tracks:

And to round out the photos, I would like to show some other sites that I found interesting around the streetcar line:

Older apartment building, on the streetcar line:

Low rise condos under construction on the streetcar line:

Low rent apartments in downtown area:

Soup Kitchen near streetcar line:

This place was packed with older people with walkers and wheelchairs and getting here by streetcar would be very easy.

Goodwill, by downtown library and on streetcar line:

A few more points:

The streetcar is successful at supporting lively node of activities. People are attracted to these nodes. People want to go where other people are. This is what urban life is about.

The streetcar is a system that treats handicapped people as equals. This is true even more so than light rail, because with the streetcar, you truly can live car-free. I saw more bicyclists and travellers with luggage on the lightrail line. If you are in a wheelchair and get off at a suburban stop, you are potentially stranded. Also compare this system to other types of lightrail such as elevated trains and subways. Both of these require elevators, whereas the streetcar is inherently ADA friendly.

One last thing. The Deters argument and the gentrification argument:
Deters got lots publicity for comparing the streetcar to Jurassic Park, implying that the residents of OTR are criminals waiting to prey on trolley riders. Conversely, others are concerned that the streetcar is just a way to further gentrify the neighborhood. For both of these camps, I would point out that OTR is already changing. District One has the lowest crime rate of the City’s five districts. Related to this, OTR already has lost thousands of residents, many of these since 2000. We had riots in 2001 and in 2003 Tom Denhart sold all his property. This neighborhood is not the old neighborhood. The question is, what direction do we want to go from here, and how successful will we be at attracting more people?

There are many people working to provide both condos (3CDC, Urban Sites, et al) and affordable housing (OTRCH, Model) in OTR. But the results will be mediocre if everyone who lives here still needs a car and dedicated parking spaces. Certainly the retail will never come back if it is auto dependent. And providing parking spaces for new apartments is expensive and a waste of space. This city must explore all alternatives to get people out of their cars. Being a pedestrian in a car-oriented city is no fun. The best way to support urban life is by supporting the pedestrian. Support pedestrians with stopsigns not stoplights, widened sidewalks, safer streets and low-barrier public transit like streetcars.

One thought on “Portland Observations – Part 3

    ValkRaider said:
    February 20, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Portland’s Pearl District also has the cities highest concentration of “affordable housing”. They have done an outstanding job of intermingling it in with the market rate housing. Most people don’t even know it is there.

    And the streetcar also loops through our state’s largest college (as will the new MAX light rail green line when it opens), connects to the city’s largest employer – OHSU, a research college and hospital – and another smaller hospital in NorthWest.

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