A touch of Portland in offing for capital
By Mary Lynne Vellinga -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004
Call it the invasion of the planning warriors from the north.
These migrants from the misty, "smart growth" mecca of Portland, Ore., seek not to ransack California's sunny capital, but to build loft-style apartments downtown, make the region an easier place to walk and relieve its traffic woes.
Although the evidence is strictly anecdotal, people working in the urban planning and building arenas say they've noticed a recent influx of people who've made their mark in Portland and now seek to do the same thing here.
Last week, on the same day that it adopted a ground-breaking, 50-year growth vision for the six-county region, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments named recent Portland emigre Mike McKeever as its new executive director.
The choice of McKeever to lead Sacramento's most influential regional planning institution came just two weeks after the city of Sacramento chose Portland development chief Ray Kerridge to do the same job here.
Kerridge will oversee the city's effort to streamline its building permit process and remove obstacles to urban "infill" projects.
In addition to these high-profile positions, many more planners, architects and construction professionals who helped create the 1990s building boom in Portland's urban neighborhoods have set their sights on Sacramento, particularly downtown, midtown and the city of Davis.
Five years ago, Portland-based Walsh Construction opened a Sacramento operation, called Walsh & Forster. The firm has since renovated a former car dealership at 16th and J streets into lofts, offices and restaurants, and is currently finishing up work on the new Safeway complex at 19th and R streets. It has worked on projects for the University of California, Davis, and renovated the Ping Yuen affordable apartments in Sacramento's old Chinatown.
"There are a lot of good architects in Portland; I see them on the plane every week," said Randy Boehm, president of Walsh & Forster, who spends three days a week in Sacramento.
The newcomers say they are attracted by Sacramento's potential. It reminds them, they say, of Portland 15 or 20 years ago.
"There's a feeling about Sacramento that it's on the move; I feel it," Kerridge said. "When I first came to Portland in 1979 from London there was that same feeling of energy in Portland. There was a lot of development going on, a lot of plans. The city had defined a vision for itself."
A quarter century later, the Rose City's bloom may have faded a bit. Portland is "getting built out," Kerridge said. Its economy isn't great, and state and local planning types face a political backlash from property owners, particularly those in rural areas. Anti-tax sentiment is on the rise.
In November, Oregon voters passed a statewide ballot initiative, Measure 37, that some predict could gut the state's centralized approach to containing suburban sprawl and encouraging "infill" developments in existing neighborhoods.
It requires local governments to reimburse landowners whose property values have been hurt by adoption of a new land use rule, or waive the rule.
Recent arrivals from Portland say they're not sure what affect Measure 37 will have on the state's ballyhooed efforts to steer growth to cities while preserving valuable farmland and open space vistas.
"The worst case scenario is that it will completely undermine the state land use system," Kerridge said.
Kerridge and McKeever agreed that Oregon's growth control measures have become too Draconian for many people to accept.
"I do think in some respects the Oregon system has gotten too legalistic and overregulated," Mc-Keever said.
It's a scenario, he said, that is unlikely to be repeated in California, where local control is king.
Sacramento has thus far taken a more ground-up, voluntary approach to regional planning. SACOG played host to more than 5,000 local residents at workshops before its Dec. 16 approval of a new 50-year blueprint for growth for the six-county region - a vision that has no actual binding authority over local government planning decisions.
"I definitely think this project will avoid a backlash because we've worked so hard at the grass-roots level," McKeever said.
Whether it will produce anything resembling Oregon -style results remains to be seen. While Portland is about the same size as Sacramento, it feels much more like an eastern city, with a densely built core.
Its light-rail corridors are lined with new offices and housing. The river is connected to downtown by a park. About 15 miles from the city's heart, buildings abruptly give way to farm fields.
Boehm, of Walsh & Forster, said the city of Portland remains far ahead of Sacramento when it comes to encouraging urban development.
At this point, he said, the much-smaller city of Davis more closely embodies Portland-style planning principles.
"When I cross a street in Davis, I'm not going across a one-way street with four lanes of traffic and wondering if someone is going to run me over," he said.
In Portland, Boehm said, the city spends huge sums of tax money to get development moving, usually by building streets, trolleys and other infrastructure. The city is currently planning a streetcar line extension and an aerial tram to serve a new campus of Oregon Health & Science University planned for an old industrial district.
"The city will pick an area and throw money at that area," Boehm said.
Kelly Robison, 27, a Portland transplant who works in Walsh & Forster's Sacramento office, said she still prefers Portland, even though Sacramento's urban scene has gotten livelier since she arrived five years ago.
"I miss the friendliness and openness of the people, and the geography up there is prettier," Robison said.
Not everyone shares her perspective. Mount Hood may be stunning, but there is that little matter of constant rain. Portland gets more than twice as much rain as Sacramento, most of it in the fall, winter and spring.
"It rains all the time," Mc-Keever said. "The chamber of commerce wouldn't like me saying that. When the sun's out, it's a little slice of utopia. But then there's the other 300 days."