Forecaster Forum: Midtown project is a failure of Portland city government

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The temperature of public debate is rising on the Midtown project proposed for Bayside. What no one on either side disputes is that this area of Portland needs to be redeveloped. The fundamental question dividing supporters and opponents is what kind of development, and by whom?

Overlooked in the rhetorical battle over Midtown is the central culprit in Bayside’s ongoing blight. It’s not The Federated Cos., the developer that simply wants to make the highest possible return on its investment. And it’s not us, the residents and concerned community members who are appalled at the abandonment of the “New Vision for Bayside” and its replacement by a massive concrete megaplex.

No, the responsibility lies squarely at the steps of our own City Hall.

Let’s start with the proper role of municipal government in development: it’s to facilitate the work of private enterprise by setting in place essential infrastructure, such as a proper street grid, and responding to challenges, like sea level rise. Such public investment enables the “magic of the market” to grow neighborhoods in response to market demand.

But in the decade plus since the Bayside plan was adopted, the city has done next to nothing to enable the diverse, walkable, human-scale community in Bayside with good jobs and access to green space that was envisioned.

Instead, the city-led charge for an all-or-nothing development in lower Bayside has caused one letdown after another, whether civic center, university school, or office park.

Following these repeated failures, has the city ever changed strategy and offered small lots for diverse development as the Bayside plan imagined – a herd of healthy ponies instead of a few lumbering mastodons – while using federal funds to extend the streets and raise them as needed? No, not once.

No surprise then, the Bayside neighborhood has been so beaten down by multiple city-led false starts that some of its leaders and some of its residents are grudgingly accepting the flawed Midtown project as the only deal on the table.

In the case of Midtown, the city has simply upped the ante – and the downside for residents – in its quest to act as a developer. Essentially, the city of Portland drew up a template for a private development that acted in almost all respects against its own development rules.

The city signed a contract with The Federated Cos. that not only did not require Federated to abide by the Bayside vision or existing land use ordinances based on that, but actually obliged the city to go to bat for waivers and exemptions to those rules sought by Federated.

Did the city do what it should have done, namely, go back to the neighborhood to see if Bayside wanted to change the vision of its future? No. The city simply went to the City Council to change the height limits, and then, and now, to the Planning Board, seeking the changes to urban form that will allow this out-of-scale, out-of-character development to go forward despite its multiple contradictions of what is wanted by the neighborhood.

Isn’t it time for the city to stop overriding the neighborhood, to stop playing developer, and to offer the land up for those who want to build within the rules the neighborhood and the city have agreed should be used? And shouldn’t the city first adopt a sea level-rise policy and announce which streets it will extend and which it will raise?

Development that builds on Portland’s strengths rather than threatening its “Top 10 Most Livable Cities” rank is happening all over Portland. Look to East Bayside to see incubator businesses seeding the future economy of Portland, or up the hill in Bayside to find mixed income housing at Pearl Place.

So many better things could happen – good paying jobs, properly scaled buildings, and sunny, central open spaces that generate a vibrant 21st century walkable neighborhood – if the city would return to its traditional role of making development possible, instead of trying to dictate what development will, and will not, take place.

The city is the root of the problems with Bayside’s development, not those of us who are pointing out the city-created problems.

Peter Munro and Tim Paradis are co-founders of Keep Portland Livable.