The Story of a Neighborhood that Fought Metro

Planning Comes to Oak Grove

I first encountered Metro in the spring of 1995 when neighbor Jeanne Johnson put a note in my mailbox asking me to come to a meeting of the "Oak Grove Growth Management and Transportation Planning Committee." I almost ignored it, but the note had a slightly desperate tone to it that made me wonder what was really going on.

Oak Grove is an unincorporated area located on the east side of the Willamette River about eight miles south of downtown Portland. It began in 1892, when the world's first electric interurban railroad was built from Portland to Oregon City. Wealthy Portlanders soon realized that they could "get away from it all" by building homes along the rail line and commuting.

By 1930, parts of Oak Grove nearest the trolley line were subdivided into standard 50x100 lots centered around a small retail area. But much of the community was a "railroad suburb," with large houses on parcels of an acre or more, interspersed with farms and dairies. Over succeeding generations, the large parcels and farms were broken up and sold off. Today, the community has a wide variety of lot sizes and home styles.

The block I live on, for example, covers twenty-two acres. This itself is unusual--blocks in most cities are a tenth that size--but it is by no means the largest in Oak Grove. Individual lots on our block range from 7,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet or more (an acre is 43,560 square feet, slightly smaller than a regulation football field). At least one vacant lot is well over an acre in size. My own home is on a 15,000-square-foot lot, just over a third of an acre.

The oldest homes on the block were built around the turn of the century; the newest just five years ago. Since the houses were built one by one over a one-hundred-year period, each is unique, with many made of native rock by a pioneer family of Italian stonemasons--rare in the timber-rich Northwest.

The community has less than 70 percent of the population density of other Portland-area residential areas. Such a low density means there is little auto traffic. My dog and I walk four miles a day down the center of the sidewalk-free streets, meeting others who are also out walking or bicycling. We rarely have to make way for cars. Many people take advantage of their large yards to grow flowers and vegetables, and a few own livestock such as poultry, goats, sheep, horses, and even a donkey.

Oak Grove's glory days as a wealthy community are long past: Today, except for those on the river, most residents are blue-collar workers. The decline in wealth is probably due to the community's age and the many subdivisions of formerly large estates, neither of which are attractive to yuppies. This is fortunate for me, for otherwise I couldn't afford to live in such a low-density area.

Neighbors tell me Oak Grove reached a low point around 1980, when it was known as "the bad part of town," with crack houses and other forms of crime. There is no evidence of that today, and the neighborhood has been improving ever since.

At the meeting that Jeanne Johnson had asked me to attend, I learned that county planners had been working for six months with local residents on a "transportation and growth management plan." The purpose of the plan, planners claimed, was to give people more opportunities to walk and ride their bicycles. This seemed peculiar since no one I know has ever felt hesitant to walk or bicycle around the neighborhood.

Then they showed us a map of the plan. The block I lived on and several nearby were to be rezoned for 5,000-square-foot minimum lot sizes. Homeowners in this zone would also be allowed to build "granny flats," or small apartments, into their homes--effectively turning many into duplexes. The block across the street plus many others would be rezoned for multi-family dwellings with 24 units per acre (about 1,800 square feet of land per unit). Except for a senior center, no other apartments in the vicinity had more than twelve units per acre.

To give people a place to walk to, a significant chunk of our neighborhood would be "mixed use," with stores and other businesses located a few steps from residences. Planners wanted the multi-family dwellings in this area, which they called the "town center," to be three stories high--two stories is the current limit--with businesses occupying the street floor.

The goal was to quadruple population densities in the "downtown" area and double them elsewhere. We were assured that this "densification," as the planners called it, was for our own good and that it would encourage walking and discourage cars. We were also told that we had little choice in the matter, because a new plan that Metro was preparing, called the "2040 plan," would force planners to densify Oak Grove whether we liked it or not.

Neotraditionalism and Oak Grove

When my neighbors and I began criticizing the county plan for Oak Grove, we were immediately asked why we hadn't been to earlier planning meetings, which had been going on for several months. It turned out that a notice of the first meeting had been sent to most Oak Grove residents in a newsletter put out by the local sewer, water, and fire districts.

But the meeting notice said nothing about densification, mixed uses, or multi-family zoning. Instead, it concentrated on "making the Oak Grove community more pedestrian-oriented, with walking trails and bicycle paths." It also talked about "revitalizing the downtown area"--but not about design codes, granny flats, or any of the other ideas that were to become controversial.

At the beginning of the planning process, the county also conducted a "scientific survey" of local residents. As it happens, I was one of the people surveyed. Again, the survey concentrated exclusively on transportation, asking if I would like more bike trails or lanes, and so forth. There was nothing in the survey to hint that the county was planning to rezone the neighborhood.

The emphasis on transportation wasn't simply a cover for something more sinister. Planners believe that transportation and land use are inextricably related--not just that transportation facilities influence land use, which makes sense, but that land-use patterns influence whether people drive, walk, or take mass transit. This is the key to "Neotraditionalism," which one of the county planners described to me as "the latest planning fad."

Neotraditionalists believe that people will use cars less if we design our communities to be more like the towns Americans lived in before cars were universal. This includes high residential densities, mixtures of residential and commercial uses, narrower streets, and such design features as broad front porches and bay windows.

When one of my neighbors asked about the reasoning behind these ideas, planners responded with totally circuitous logic. Why did planners want to densify our community? "Because densification is part of the Neotraditional concept." What is Neotraditionalism? "Neotraditionalism is a planning concept that calls for densification."

I had heard something like these ideas before when I entered planning school in 1977. Alone among planning students, I also took a class in urban economics, where Ed Whitelaw taught students to build a model of an urban economy, test the model against reality, improve the model, and so forth. Soon we could ask such questions as "What happens to congestion if we densify a city within an urban-growth boundary?" The model clearly showed that congestion increased.

One day the same question was asked in my urban planning class. Everyone else, including the professors, leaped to the conclusion that, in a denser city, more people would walk or use transit, so congestion would decline. Someone could have said, "Let's check census data to find out the answer." Instead, after a short debate, a professor said, "Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion." That was the day I decided to drop out of planning and become an economist.

Clackamas County planners had already zoned a parcel of farmland to become a high-density, Neotraditional development. But planners everywhere knew it was not enough to build new Neotraditional suburbs. To dramatically reduce auto use, they would also have to redesign existing suburbs along Neotraditional lines. No one knew if that was possible.

To find out, the Oregon Department of Transportation offered federal grant monies to local jurisdictions that would volunteer to impose Neotraditional designs on existing neighborhoods. Clackamas County decided to volunteer Oak Grove and received a $34,000 grant from the state.

How did the county happen to pick Oak Grove? Because, planners said, Metro had designated Oak Grove a "town center" in its draft 2040 plan. A town center, says Metro, has "compact development and transit service" with "local shopping and employment." Its population density of 31 people per acre would be about four times Oak Grove's current average density.

At the time, I knew little about Metro except that it had something to do with garbage collection and recycling. "Metro is predicting that 500,000 people are going to move to Portland in the next twenty years, and we have to find room for them," we were told. "Metro is writing a plan to densify the entire city, and we have to do our part."

In addition to "land use and redevelopment," the group had two other committees: "transportation" and "downtown revitalization."

Making Oak Grove Safe for 50x100 Lots

The transportation committee was supposed to make the neighborhood safer for cyclists and pedestrians. But planners also wanted to build more streets to give people better "access." What they didn't say was that they really wanted to make it easier for people to subdivide large lots into 50-by-100-foot parcels--which is hard when the blocks are 600-feet by 1,500-feet.

Nearly everyone in the neighborhood agreed that they didn't want new streets. So planners suggested that bikeways and pedestrian paths be built across some of the larger blocks. That sounded all right to most people, and they drew lines on maps to show where pedestrian ways might go.

This led to an interesting exchange between two of the planners at the next meeting:

Planner 1: We are proposing to construct a number of pedestrian ways. We have located these on maps, and have examined aerial photos to make sure they can be built. We don't think any will have to go through anyone's houses.

Planner 2 (firmly): None will have to go through people's houses.

Planner 1: (as if he misheard) Some may have to go through people's houses.

Planner 2: (more forcefully) None will have to go though people's houses.

Planner 1: (puzzled) Some will have to go through people's houses?

Planner 2: Oh, all right, it looks like they will have to go through just three houses.

Then someone asked, "Are these pedestrian ways going to be barricaded so people can't drive their cars down them?"

"Oh, no," said planner 2. "We can't deny anyone access to their property." Why would people need access to their backyards?--unless the "pedestrian ways" were really just another way of encouraging people to subdivide their large lots. Sensing this, the committee unanimously vetoed that idea.

The transportation committee ended up making recommendations for bike lanes but against new sidewalks on most streets as well as most of the other ideas planners had.

Preserving the Historic Character of Downtown

Oak Grove's "downtown" includes a number of shops and a machineworks located at the intersection of the former streetcar line and Oak Grove Boulevard, the area's "main street." In 1933, the state built a "superhighway" paralleling the interurban line but about a half-mile east of downtown Oak Grove. The downtown area declined as most businesses moved out to or were replaced by ones on the highway.

Beyond the two-block long downtown, Oak Grove Boulevard stretches through a neighborhood of large, historic homes until it reaches the highway. Until recently, the downtown area had a full-sized supermarket, but poor management (some say) plus competition from larger and lower-priced markets on the highway put it out of business. Remaining shops include, among others, two convenience stores, a karate studio, a tavern, and a beauty parlor.

A Neotraditional redevelopment of Oak Grove would replace most of the buildings downtown with three- or four-story mixed-use apartments that had shops and businesses on the ground level. But planners didn't dwell on this, emphasizing instead sidewalk configurations, planting trees, and other features of street design--most of which would have to be paid for by local businesses.

Curiously, planners' maps defined "downtown" as not just the four blocks of businesses but also the half-mile-long stretch between the businesses and the highway. The many large homes on this street included what to my mind was one of the most beautiful solid stone houses in east Portland.

So I was stunned when the planner from the revitalization committee announced that, "To preserve the historic character of downtown Oak Grove, we propose to allow zero-foot setbacks of buildings." How does allowing people to tear down or build false fronts on existing structures "preserve" their historic character?

I wondered if I had misheard this statement. But at a later meeting planners distributed the proposed zoning codes for "town centers" and "town center residential." The town center code allowed no setbacks. The town center residential code changed traditional minimum setbacks of thirty feet from the street into maximum setbacks of eighteen feet, while setbacks between properties were changed from a traditional minimum of five feet to zero.

In other words, the codes encouraged owners of the historic homes on Oak Grove Boulevard to tear down their homes and build row houses or apartments. Someone who owned a home on a one-acre lot would not be allowed to subdivide and build one or two new homes. If they subdivided at all, they would be required to build apartments, row houses, or other suitably dense developments. No one would be forced to subdivide, but after a few did, many others--preferring to live in a less dense neighborhood--would probably sell out too.

The codes also included numerous design frills. Roofs must be hipped or gambrelled, not flat; shops had to have at least 19 feet of window space for every 25 feet of street frontage; "consistent design elements shall be used throughout the district to ensure that the entire area is visually and functionally unified." Individualism and history would be replaced by unity and cute design.

"People Come and Go. I Plan for the Land."

Most of the members of the planning committee seemed comfortable with the idea of increasing Oak Grove's population density. In some cases this was because they didn't even live in Oak Grove: they were business owners or employees of the local sewer, water, or fire districts who lived elsewhere.

But none of Jeanne Johnson's liked the idea of densification. So one of the planners offered to walk the neighborhood with Johnson and visit with some of us in Johnson's home.

Johnson, a school teacher, lives with her husband in a beautiful, 1908 craftsman-style home. After walking around the area on a sunny spring day, the planner exclaimed to Johnson, "What a lovely neighborhood. The only other time I've ever walked around here was last fall. It was raining, the edges of the streets were muddy, and I couldn't figure out why anyone would want to live here." She was from the government and she was here to help us Neotraditionalize our neighborhood.

Johnson's neighbors, some of whom had lived their entire lives in Oak Grove, then tried to explain why they didn't like the plan. Some feared higher densities would bring back crime. Others worried about congestion. After listening, the planner--who had spent no more than a few hours in the area--looked at the Johnsons' 87-year-old river-rock fireplace and replied, "People come and go, but the land remains. I plan for the land."

I gave the planner a paper I had written describing incentive-based tools for reducing congestion and pollution and protecting open space. Later she sent me nice letter thanking me for my "participation," but saying my ideas "aren't part of our business-as-usual" and "would take major paradigm shifts to accomplish."

The Oak Grove Plan

As the outlines of the county's plan became clear, I was struck with what was missing from it. First, there were no data. Any requests for populations or numbers of homes were met with, "well, we haven't got our geographic information system working yet." They didn't get it working until the plan was almost done. Second, there were no alternatives. Except for a few maps ("60s suburban," "pure neotraditional," and "Metro 2040") that were apparently dismissed after the first planning meeting, this one considered none.

A week after our neighborhood meeting, planners had scheduled a public meeting at the local school gymnasium so that they could present their plan to the community. To let people know about the meeting, planners distributed another innocuous flyer that talked about bikeways, "public space," and "common sense zoning," whatever that is.

In response, Jeanne Johnson wrote her own flyer that emphasized high density, multifamily dwellings, mixed use, and prescriptive zoning. She and her neighbors distributed hundreds of these to people's homes.

Obviously expecting a small turnout, planners had set out around 100 chairs in the gym. In fact, nearly 200 angry residents showed up. Planners took an informal poll that showed that fewer than 20 people attended in response to the planners' leaflet, while at least half came as a result of Johnson's flyer.

Planners were ready with a program that devoted an hour-and-a-half on boring presentations about bike paths and pedestrian ways before saying anything about zoning. The presentations were made by the "neighbors" on the planning committee--one of whom was an absentee business owner--thus deflecting people's anger from the planners to the committee.

At the end of the presentations, planners refused to allow any member of the public to comment and provided only 15 minutes for questions and answers. But it was clear that people opposed the plan, and the meeting was punctuated by frequent outbursts such as "go home" and "who asked you, anyway?"

Earlier in the planning process, one of the planners had lamented that "It is too bad that Oak Grove doesn't have a community identity because it isn't incorporated." At the end of this meeting, she announced, "Well, if nothing else, at least we've helped you get a community identity."

After the meeting, planners decided that they "made a mistake in not allowing more people to talk, and in not letting people make more comments." So they held another meeting three weeks later. Johnson and her neighbors leafleted again and 150 people attended. Two hours of questions and acrimonious debate made it clear that community members at the meetings were almost unanimously opposed to the plan. Some people liked the idea of revitalizing downtown, but no one wanted increased density, more multi-family zones, granny flats, or design codes.

Planners could see they weren't getting anywhere, and promised that they would drop the plan if that is what the community wanted. "But if you don't let us pass this plan now," warned one, "Metro will make us impose even more densification on you next year."

Why Oak Grove?

Since planners were threatening Oak Grove residents with the Metro "bogeyman," people began to wonder why Metro had picked Oak Grove to be a town center in the first place. Metro's council made that decision the previous December, but a September draft plan did not include Oak Grove among the town centers.

County planners said that the town center designation came "at the request of North Clackamas business leaders." But Oak Grove business people anxiously assured residents that they had nothing to do with it.

It turned out that the requests came from the sewer, water, and fire districts. The heads of these districts apparently believed town center designation would make them eligible for more federal or other funds. "Funds and resources would be channeled into these centers," the fire chief told his district board of directors. Town centers "will be focal points for development and funds" said the water board. The boards for all three districts petitioned Metro to add Oak Grove to the list of town centers.

I reviewed Metro documents and interviewed Metro staff, but could find no evidence that town centers would be special recipients of any funds. "There might be some transportation funds to make the areas more pedestrian friendly," Metro staffer Mark Turpel told me, "but that's all."

Curiously, the fire chief opposed Neotraditional designs. "My fire trucks sometimes have to get into people's backyards," he told me. "That's why we need at least five feet of setbacks along property lines" (which would mean at least ten feet between buildings). When I told him that the town center zoning codes would forbid such setbacks, he was surprised but didn't think such buildings would ever be constructed.

A memo I found written by the fire chief revealed something else. "Metro planning staff, specifically John Fregonese [Metro's growth management director], agrees" that Oak Grove should be a town center. "He stated that it was designated but the county planning staff removed it." Later, county planners told me that they remembered that, during preparation of the 1980 plan for Oak Grove, residents had fought long and hard against any zoning denser than four units per acre.

"We Aren't Even Going to Read this Plan"

Jeanne Johnson and her neighbors decided that they had to try to convince Metro to undesignate Oak Grove as a town center. A few weeks after the public hearing, the planning committee met with two of Clackamas County's three county commissioners.

By this time, the strong responses at the public meetings had completely transformed the situation. Most of the original committee members distanced themselves from the plan, saying they were duped. A poll of committee members who actually lived in the neighborhood revealed them to be 100 percent opposed to the plan that they had previously acquiesced to. In fact, it was almost impossible to find anyone who actually admitted to being on the land-use committee that dealt with densification--everybody claimed to have been "someplace else."

The day before the meeting with the county commissioners, the head of the sewer district, Kent Squires, had lunch with the commission chair, Judie Hammerstad. Squires told her that people were just confused about the term "town center" because the area's largest shopping center was called "Clackamas Town Center."

Although no one leafleted for the meeting, it had a fairly large turnout. Hammerstad spent several minutes trying to explain that a "town center" was not the same as a large shopping mall. Finally, someone said, "No one is confused about what a town cen-

ter is. We just don't want more apartments, mixed-uses, and higher densities--and that's what Metro's town centers are all about."

After listening to comments from many more people--some of whom said they had felt misled by planners--Hammerstad held up the 120-page Oak Grove plan and said that "the commission will probably not approve this plan." "Does that mean that you might approve this plan?" someone asked.

"We probably aren't even going to read this plan," she said, and slammed it down on the table.

Is Oak Grove Safe from Metro?

On July 24, 1995, Clackamas County Commission Chair Judie Hammerstad sent a letter to Metro requesting that Oak Grove not be designated a town center. "There is no community support for a `town center,' " she wrote. She added that "we found in our planning that parcelization patterns, transportation systems, market forces, and underlying geology make it difficult to make a town center work," but these were just rationalizations for Metro's sake--the real reason was neighborhood opposition.

Planners held a final meeting with residents a few days later. The planning team leader somewhat wistfully stated that "Metro staff told me that a public hearing would get people upset. They said I should just hold open houses, like they do." But, she said, she didn't believe that open houses gave the public a fair chance to comment on a plan.

A few months later, Metro sent out a newsletter with the latest map of its 2040 plan. Oak Grove was not listed as a town center. Except for the corridor around the "superhighway," Oak Grove is just an "inner neighborhood."

The 2040 plan still calls for inner neighborhoods to increase their density to an average of 12 people per acre--about 50 percent more than Oak Grove's current density. "Infill" of vacant sites will probably satisfy Metro's requirements--especially since county planners aren't likely to try changing zoning codes in Oak Grove anytime soon. So Oak Grove is safe--for now.

Yet many other neighborhoods are going to feel the demand for densification that Oak Grove felt. In a small way, Oak Grove's successful effort to avoid densification will, given Metro's current targets, impose a little more density on everyone else. But the 2040 plan may fail if every other neighborhood makes the effort to oppose such densification.

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