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Problems with “urban renewal” in North Bethany

Posted by Peter W on August 13, 2007

People in the Portland metropolitan region are concerned about the environment and stopping sprawl so much so that they are willing to take a personal hit – having more development in their own neighborhood instead of in former farms and forests (according to this Metro Study [PDF]. So does the idea of using an “urban renewal” funding source – created by Oregon to promote redeveloping centers and increasing density – for the purpose of enabling development to sprawl out over 800 acres of green space make sense to you? I didn’t think so.

An article, “Diverting Funds to help new area ruffles officials” in in the Oregonian’s Metro section today talks about the problem with using “urban renewal” in North Bethany, and there are a number of officials in the county who are either opposed or worried about the effects of this.

Here are a list of problems they didn’t cover:

  • Existing development is made to pay for sprawl. This would make sense if sprawl were desirable, but it isn’t. For anyone living nearby in Washington or Multnomah counties who likes to walk or bike (which is most of us, at least occasionally), North Bethany means more cars speeding by – which means roads are more dangerous and less people will be likely to take their kids on them, and even just trying to cross the street will be more difficult. In addition, it is unlikely that the new development will pay for things like streetlights, crossing walks or signals, or even bike lanes and sidewalks that are lacking in much of Washington County. For folks driving or taking public, North Bethany means more delays and traffic jams on their way to work. (Remember, new development doesn’t require capacity improvements everywhere traffic is worse, only in places where traffic engineers deem it unacceptably worse. Also note that traffic engineers don’t can’t justify projects to improve only bike lanes and sidewalks, because they say not enough people use them.)
  • The roadway capacity projects list is so extensive because the new development’s density will be too low to support and encourage private auto alternatives. An average of 10 units / net acre is not very dense (that is, if you included the acres of land used for open space and roads in the calculation, it would be less than 10 units per acre). As far as I can tell, the county planners have not made any attempt to determine what density is needed to enable frequent service transit, let alone encourage it.
  • The cost of roads is detached from the visible price of driving. By using Urban Renewal districts and and development fees which people pay regardless of how much they drive, there is no reason to drive less. People could be encouraged to make more efficient transportation choices if road enlargements were payed for with gas tax, vehicle sales taxes, vehicle registration fees, or increased developer fees based on amount of parking available to residents. For example, the guy who has a BMW and 3 Hummers parked in a four car garage does not necessarily pay more for roads than a guy who rides the bus and doesn’t own a single car. Does that seem right?
  • The North Bethany development is being planned to be built at such a low density that only 10,000 people will live there. If we need to accommodate 250,000 people by 2030, Washington County will have to clear 20,000 more acres of land for them. And then, after we’ve cleared that giant chunk of our farmland, what do we do when the next 250,000 people move in by 2060? Where will they go and when will it stop? At the density that Rome was built at, even without modern technology such as elevators, 118,000 people could live in North Bethany (source). In modern cities like Groningen, Netherlands, which are designed to also accommodate the automobile, density is lower, yet still as high as 100,000 people in 800 acres.

Washington County planners say they can’t do higher density development because they don’t think the market will support it, yet have they done any studies or read anything that verifies that, or are they just guessing? Consider this:

  1. Married couples with children make up only 23% of the housing market, according to the 2003 US Census. Everything I’ve read indicates that more and more people don’t need or want detached houses with private yards. Personally I’ve lived in low and higher density developments in Washington County, and I’d easily trade a small yard for a nice park at the end of the street. I suspect the reason developers like building detached houses is because they can use a “one size fits all” philosophy and cookie cutter development to save their design and architecture costs, instead of spending time figuring out what the community really wants, like parks or community gardens.
  2. However, even if the whole development were done using detached houses, according to the University of Minnesota Metropolitan Design Center the density could be up to 15 units / acre (see their Housing Types Sheet [PDF]).

One Response to “Problems with “urban renewal” in North Bethany”

  1. Jen said

    I really enjoy the new layout! Keep it up.

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