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Another Tale of Two Cities [Rich Carson]

Dan

Dear Leader
Staff member
Moderator
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17,846
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59
Rich Carson asked me to post his most recent Plan Net editorial on the Cyburbia Forums. There's no op-ed section on Cyburbia, but the Make No Small Plans forum comes close.

The following represents the POV of the author only.




Another Tale of Two Cities
by Richard H. Carson
April 27, 2003

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” So begins Charles Dickens’ epoch tale of two great rival European cities. Fast-forward two centuries later. Two American cities, that straddle the mighty Columbia River, find they are now rivals. To the south is Portland, Oregon and to the north is Vancouver, Washington. They are cities divided by good decisions and bad decisions made in the name of urban planning. One city thrives and the other one is almost bankrupt. And people are fleeing from one city to live in the other.

The city of Portland, once considered the Mecca of American urban planning, has degenerated into what the press now calls “Little Beirut.”[1] Oregon pioneered state mandated land use planning in 1973. Portland started building its 44 miles of light rail starting in the 1980s and was on the cutting edge of transportation planning. And the city mothers and fathers embraced every new urban planning innovation that came their way. Comprehensive planning, growth management, new urbanism and smart growth each had their rainy day in the Portland.

But the urban prospect for Portland, Oregon these days is nothing but bleak. The poster child for progressive urban planning is reeling from the national media debacle of middle- and upper-income Portlanders fleeing across the state border, in this case the Columbia River, to the neighboring city of Vancouver, Washington. And the residents of Vancouver find themselves in the odd position of telling Portland, Oregon residents to “Visit, but please don’t stay.”[2] The latter of course is the quote attributed to the late Governor Tom McCall of Oregon about the California in-migration of the 1960s.
The regional newspaper for southwest Washington recently used the same quote to editorially admonish Portlanders to not move across the Columbia River. The editorial said, “The last thing we need is a bunch of Oregonians who have already fouled their own nest coming north across the Columbia River to foul ours.” [3] A related story talked about the growing number of Oregonians turning in their driver’s licenses in southwest Washington. It said that Washington, “…is looking like a golden haven with funded schools, cheaper housing, attractive neighborhoods and no income tax.”[4]

What went wrong?

Simply put, the prime motivator behind this migration is that Vancouver, Washington looks very attractive in comparison to Portland, Oregon. Why? Because Oregon’s great social experiment failed to measure up to political reality. The fact is that Oregon’s government infrastructure and services are deteriorating, and with it is going Oregon’s quality-of-life. Things in Oregon have gotten so bad that Washington Post national columnist, Neal Peirce, recently wrote an essay that asked, “Have you Oregonians gone daft?”[5] There are also businesses moving across the river. The Portland area’s homebuilder association told its membership to stop building in the city because of unfair regulations.[6] Stories, like the one about a pizza storeowner being charged $27,000 because he wanted to move across the street, have become the stuff of urban legends.[7]

So what brought about this failure of governance in Portland, Oregon?
  • In 1990 an Oregon ballot measure resulted in property tax limitations. It passed because the tax burden had reached new highs of over $30 per thousand of assessed value. The measure cut that in half to $15, which was close to the Washington property tax rate. So the taxes on a $200,000 home went from $6,000 to $3,000 a year.
  • One ballot measure passed in Oregon in 2000 was the most draconian property compensation law the nation has ever seen. It passed in part because voters were getting tired of the state and local government’s high-handed property takings. But government officials persuaded the Oregon Supreme Court to invalidate the vote and that subterfuge angered even more voters.
  • The voters turned down the last two attempts to increase taxes to expand the light rail system. So the city of Portland and the local transit authority found ways to build the last 11 miles without the voters having a vote. Again they circumvented the will of the voters.
  • The defeat of a recent ballot measure was the last straw. The measure was put before the voters, in January 2003, as a last ditch attempt by the Oregon legislature to keep the state on economic life support. Its defeat meant even deeper cuts in a state already reeling from a recession. The state then announced it was laying off 100 state troopers;[8] releasing some 3,300 criminal prisoners;[9] and cutting social and medical services. People would start dying because of the lack of medical support.[10]
  • The financial crisis has resulted in Portland being listed by CNN as one of “America’s unsafest cities.” Portland had a crime rate in 2001 of 80 crimes per 1,000 people.[11] Across the river the rate in Clark County is half that at 40 per 1,000.
  • The schools have not faired any better. The Portland School District planned to cut 24 days off its school calendar, making it one of the shortest school years in the nation. Washington school district officials have Oregonians calling them and asking if they can live in Oregon and put their children in Washington schools. The answer, of course, is “no.”
  • Then the public theater of the absurd was played out in the city of Portland. The city considered a proposition that allows a native-American gaming casino in the city limits, in exchange for them underwriting a new baseball stadium.
The New Eden?

The city of Vancouver is located in Clark County, Washington. The county is no stranger to growth. According to the 2000 Census, it was the fastest growing county in the state of Washington and in the bi-state Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. According to Portland State University researchers, almost 500 people leave Oregon every month and move to Clark County.[12] The Oregonian newspaper recently noted the “downward spiral that has driven middle- and upper- class students out of some urban districts, leaving schools overwhelmed with impoverished students.”[13] A Portland area high-tech executive noted that “You see the business community get weaker and weaker because you can’t recruit employees.”[14]

Part of the attraction is that parents believe the city of Vancouver and Clark County are family-oriented communities with good public schools. The county has one of the highest home ownership rates in the nation. If you move from Oregon to Washington, then you can get a 9 percent pay raise because Washington has no income tax. Washington does have a sales tax, but the truth is county residents are only about 15-minutes away from shopping in Oregon where there is no sales tax. The property taxes and homes cost slightly less in Clark County. Even the gas is cheaper in Washington because Oregon doesn’t allow its citizens to pump their own gas.

The city of Vancouver and Clark County also benefit from similar statewide planning legislation, the Growth Management Act, passed in 1990. Although it came 17 years after Oregon, the Washington version kept the positive aspects of Oregon’s efforts (i.e., urban growth boundaries, minimum urban densities, infill requirements) and ignored some of the more onerous ones. The latter includes the centralization of all land use authority to one Oregon state department with enormous administrative rule-making authority and a central land use court, both of which proscribe one-size-fits-all remedies.

But why would the citizens of Vancouver and Clark County not want Oregonians to move to their community? Part of the problem is that the county is tired of being a bedroom community to Portland. Some 60,000 county residents cross the Interstate-5 Bridge everyday to go to work in Oregon. Then Oregon has the gall to tax their income – even though they aren’t residents. Taxation without representation is as volatile an issue now at it was in 1776. The Clark County voters recently turned down a county charter because it included a provision for a local initiative process. The county residents have seen what the initiative process has done to their neighbors in Oregon.

There is also a very real concern about the quality-of-life in southwest Washington. The people of Vancouver have legitimate concerns about the character of these urban immigrants. After all, these people were complacent participants in the unraveling of their own social fabric. In the Oregon growth years, it was common to see bumper stickers that said, “Don’t Californicate Oregon.” So no one should be surprised if they start seeing new ones that say, “Don’t Oregonize Washington.”

Richard Carson is a writer and practicing planner in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, he moved from Oregon to Washington. He can be reached at richardcarson@qwest.net. A collection of his essays is on the web at http://www.carsonessays.org.

[1] http://www.wweek.com/flatfiles/News3422.lasso

[2] http://www.columbian.com/02192003/clark_co/12941.html

[3] http://www.columbian.com/02192003/clark_co/12941.html

[4] http://www.columbian.com/02192003/business/12963.html

[5] http://www.oregonlive.com/search/index.ssf?/base/editorial/1044622509221160.xml?oregonian

[6] “Ready, aim, shoot self in foot,” Portland Business Journal, October 8, 1999.

[7] “Portland moves to quell lament that business is too hard to do,” The Oregonian, June 27, 2002.

[8] http://www.advocate-online.net/news/111502/morebudget.html

[9] http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/news/2002/ocjchearing.htm

[10] http://www.mailtribune.com/archive/2003/0202/local/stories/06local.htm

[11] http://money.cnn.com/pf/features/lists/unsafest_cities

[12] http://www.oregonlive.com/search/index.ssf?/base/front_page/104591892457720.xml?oregonian

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,080
Points
34
A portion of a city's population moves out every year?
Votors turn down measures to raise their taxes?
Homebuilders don't like land regulations?
A big city has more crime than a small one?

I guess Portland really is falling apart, unlike what we hear in thousands of other reports.

I will not hesitate to recognize some failings of Portland's administration, in land use, transportation, or other areas, but this is a very one-sided commentary. Quite a bit good has come out of Portland.

As for people leaving the city; 1) people always move out of cities, just as they continue to move in; 2) lower-cost locations (suburbs) have always drawn people, especially when there is a tax differential between neighboring states (visit St. Croix County, Wisconsin); 3) Portland continues to have a positive growth rate.
 

jresta

Cyburbian
Messages
1,474
Points
23
that commentary could've been about any city in the country. taking on the trend of the previous poster -

*politicians subverting the will of the public?

*states and cities facing fiscal crises?

*the middle-class skipping town because of high property taxes?

*neighboring cities in unofficial competition over jobs and residents?
 

nerudite

Cyburbian
Messages
6,544
Points
30
This editorial is so overly simplistic and one-sided, I'm afraid to even start addressing all of its shortcomings. In fact, I don't even think I'll try.

So here is a more general response.

Portland's suburbs are expanding in all directions, not just north. And yes, Vancouver and Clark County are growing, but how is it *really* faring? There is no mention of Clark County's and Vancouver's failing transportation systems (in terms of LOS). Vancouver has consistently not met their levels of service, to the point that they lowered them to what many communities would consider LOS F. They even stopped measuring LOS on an intersection basis, because they were failing almost every scenario... now it is LOS averaging over an entire corridor. A sneaky way to get more houses in without making the necessary improvements to failing intersections.

Meanwhile, Portland is continuing to expand its light rail lines. Just about two years ago the light rail line expanded all the way to serve the international airport, making it the first West Coast city to have light rail to the airport. Clark County and Vancouver voters defeated measures to connect light rail to their own cities.

There are ups and downs in the markets of every community. It's always easy to say "wow, we're great!" when business is booming. But the sad fact of the matter is that both Clark County and Vancouver are making very poor planning decisions *right now* that are affecting the liveability of their municipalities in the very near future.

Despite what Mr. Carson says, Vancouver has been in a budget crunch for years now. Cuts and layoffs have been occuring every budget cycle for the past three or four years. Some of this is due to referendums at the State level and restructuring of the taxes, but also some is due to costs associated with the unbridled growth, especially heavy transportation costs.

Fifty years from now, which will be the healthier community? My bet is on Portland.

Edit: I forgot to mention, that part of the reason that Clark County is booming is due to Portland's high standards. Don't want to follow Portland's strict rules for a healty community? No problem! Build in Vancouver or Clark County, they'll accept snout houses, approve ugly garagescapes, just about anything. In the Pac NW, Vancouver is referred to as "Portland's Dirty Little Secret"... for good reason.

(There are some good things coming out of Vancouver, it's not all negative. I think Vancouver is doing a great job at bolstering development in its downtown, which is redeveloping very nicely. But the majority of the town is sprawling suburb, and it's been managed quite badly... the same with Clark County.)
 

BKM

Cyburbian
Messages
6,464
Points
29
But everything you describe, nerudite, is good to the antis like Carson. It represents FREEDOM. High standards and public transit are EVIL. We should all quit our jobs and become public works permit facilitators.
 

nerudite

Cyburbian
Messages
6,544
Points
30
BKM said:
But everything you describe, nerudite, is good to the antis like Carson. It represents FREEDOM. High standards and public transit are EVIL. We should all quit our jobs and become public works permit facilitators.
Yeah, I know... I got so peeved reading this before I went to work this morning that I purposely put off responding for three hours so I wouldn't just flame out of control.

I thought, maybe we should look at Clark County's planning...

Here is Vancouver's UGA:


Okay, now here are approved subdivisions in the County, smack dab in the middle of Vancouver's UGA (the interchange is I-205 and 78th Ave on the above map):



The pink area is the subdivision that will be attached to this thread (if I can manage to reduce the size). What I'm trying to show is that the UGA for Vancouver (which the City is depending on for the next 20+ years of growth) is largely being developed to Clark County's standards. Growth is "leap-frogged" throughout Vancouver's UGA, and will make the City upon annexation look and feel disjointed. But it won't be Clark County's problem upon it's annexation to Vancouver, so why would they care? Is this the type of planning that is head and shoulders above Portland?
 

Lee Nellis

Cyburbian
Messages
1,371
Points
29
I guess I will chime in, too, with just a bit of a different take on why Rich is -- as usual -- not just wrong, but not asking the right questions. I agree that some of the experiments happening in Portland probably aren't going to prove out in the long run. But while I love stopping in Portland on a road trip or vacation, I NEVER go across the river. Clark County is a suburban wasteland until one is past Cougar and headed for the backcountry! Portland's ills, to the extent it has any that are not, as everyone else points out, shared by virtually every other city of its size, are a result of experimentation. What other city is consciously experimenting and learning the way Portland is? And if it costs more to live in Portland than it does in Rich's ideal city (which is? I think we Cyburbanites ought to demand an answer to that question before giving Rich any more bandwidth), isn't that cost counterbalanced by the quality one is getting?
 

Cardinal

Cyburbian
Messages
10,080
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34
Lee Nellis said:
And if it costs more to live in Portland than it does in Rich's ideal city (which is? I think we Cyburbanites ought to demand an answer to that question before giving Rich any more bandwidth), isn't that cost counterbalanced by the quality one is getting?
So how about it, Rich? Where is home?
 

nerudite

Cyburbian
Messages
6,544
Points
30
Michael Stumpf said:
So how about it, Rich? Where is home?
Rich is the director for Clark County Planning (or at least he was when I was still working in Vancouver). According to his article Clark County is "eden".
 

Richard Carson

Cyburbian
Messages
32
Points
2
Another Tale of Two Cities... from me.

I will try and speak to your comments in sequence.

- Yes, people are always leaving cities, but this is an unprecedented migration noted in Oregon and Washington papers. Argue with them.

- Clark County's "failing transportation system" is transparent because we have state mandated transportation concurrency. Oregon doesn't. We are just honest -- like Florida -- about the truth.

- No layoffs in my department. I have 138 employees and they all are keeping their jobs. On the other hand we are getting 200 job applications, most from Oregon, for every job opening we have.

- Portland's high standard means a pizza business owner, who wants to move across the street and in the same zone, has to pay $27,000. I guess you are so rich you have $27,000 laying around. He just got screwed.

- Public transit is not evil. I love light rail. It says a lot about a society who is willing to give a decent ride to the poor, the elderly, the young and the handicapped.

- Growth doesn't leap frog in Clark County. We have the same urban growth boundary requirements (under the 1990 Growth Management Act) as Oregon.

- I love Portland. I am a member of Mayor Vera Katz's Growth Management Committee. I meet with her and them every month in her conference room. The only difference is that she tolerates me and some of you don't. I guess she appreciates the devil's advocate.

- Calling Clark County a "suburban wasteland" is a cheap shot. If you have never been there, then how would you know? That's just ignorant. But you have a Consitutional right to be ignorant.

- Finally, I moved to the hills outside of Vancouver. I built a house on 21 acres, a barn and just bought a quarter horse. My two adopted Chinese daughters love it. We walk on the trails, see the deer and love the seasons. They know Eden when they live it.

Advertisement: In the July issue of Planning Magazine will be a story about how Clark County and the city of Vancouver were selected by a business consortium of Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and AT&T to build the next evolutionary level in technology. It is i-Government that is has fully integrated electronic technology. If you are curious about the next technological paradigm shift, then search for HP and "cooltown."

- Vaya con dios.
 
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