Portland Area City Does Unthinkable: Adapt to Market

Events in Beaverton City near Portland, Oregon would be unremarkable in most cities in the U.S.: Faced with property that has been undeveloped for 15 years, the city has approved rezoning that will allow developers more flexibility. Local residents are up in arms.

The protests surround the designation of the Sunset Transit Center as a transit-oriented develoment in a devleopment called Peterkort Town Center. Peterkort is a 250 acre development, and the rezoning, which would allow for less commercial development in the short term, applies to 13 properties making up 138 acres of the total development. The city of Beaverton’s planners argue the maximum development potential designated in the plan–11 millions square feet of commercial develoment and high densityhousing at the transit stop–is unrealistic. So, the rezoning allows the developers to start out with 2.7 million square feet of commercial and higher density development in places within the zone (but not at the transit stop) where they think it will be commercially viable.

As one city planner told (Feb 8, 2012):

“The county generally agreed with the city’s approach, said Stephen Roberts, a county planner, but there were points of concern.

“In a letter to the Beaverton Planning Commission, county staff asked the city to consider more housing density close to the transit center, permitting less retail north of Barnes Road, the significance of a park or civic space near the station, and when housing would be phased in.

“McIntyre said the problem with the leeway provided by the new zoning is that up to 80 percent of commercial development could occur before any of the mixed-use housing is built, a recipe for spread-out strip malls.

“For example, in theory, Beaverton’s code allows for a maximum of 11 million square feet of commercial development, about eight times larger than Washington Square mall.

“Realistically, city officials said, that won’t happen, because the layout of the land, residential densities and traffic would prevent such a plan.

“The likelihood of that happening is so remote that it’s not a real possibility,” [Beaverton city planner Steven] Sparks said. A more likely scale is 2.7 million square feet of mixed residential, office and retail development, he added.”

In some ways, this is a classic problem of modern planning implementation: modern comprehensive plans are by definition static, prescribing outcomes that aren’t supported by the market. Beaverton is simply trying to change the plan to conform to what the market is willing to support.

If Beverton followed the original plan, or Washington Counyt’s harder line prescriptive approach, Peterkort Town Center could lay undeveloped for another 15 years.

Of course, this outcome wouldn’t be new. The land that the City of Euclid, Ohio prevented from being developed in the precedent setting case that established zoning, Village of Euclid vs Ambler Realty, lay vacant for more than 20 years after zoning precluded its development. Even more infamously, the acres cleared by eminent domain in New London, Connecticut (Kelo vs. New Londdon) to make way for private development also never materialized.