News: Charlotte Exclusives

The Portland Smart-Growth Implosion

Planners' dream city heads toward its logical, anti-family nadir

The land use plans undertaken by the city of Portland in recent years have not just been a model for city planners in Charlotte, but nationwide. Portland’s avowed goal of stopping “sprawl” development has been emulated in varying degrees locally, while Mecklenburg County’s multi-billion dollar light rail mass transit/redevelopment plan cribs heavily from Portland’s playbook.

So, how are things shaking in Portland? Not so good if a low-cost, family-friendly environment is what you crave. Then again, it is becoming clearer and clearer that Smart Growth aims to Europeanize American cities, which means few families with kids, few jobs, and few reasons to actually live there. (As opposed to visiting for a week.)

One sure sign that Portland’s regional planning is having the desired effect is that the cost of housing is going up. As restrictions are placed on building further from city centers, either by refusing to build roads, schools or other infrastructure there, or by favoring high-density designs which comport with mass transit plans, in-fill development becomes the norm.

In fact, any buildable land becomes scarce, driving prices up. As the price of raw land goes up, the price of the structure that can be profitably built on that land goes up. As a result, the supply of affordable housing starts to decline. Any of this sound familiar to Charlotte-area residents?

The process is just much further along in Portland which in 1997 adopted its Year 2040 plan that set a firm Urban Growth Boundary beyond which no “sprawl” may pass. Now Portland is hitting its land-use “tipping point,” the point at which it is cheaper for developers to buy existing structures, tear them down, and build new on the same land. This is the Smart Growth dream as it adds to the tax base without adding sprawl.

But there is a small catch. Home builders are actually telling Portland home buyers that a price point between $279,000 and $310,000 for a town house is “perfect” for first-time home buyers. Yeah, sure. Perhaps if you are one of what author and New Urbanism critic Joel Kotkin calls a “trustafarian” – young, single, and independently wealthy thanks to a large trust fund.

Yet that is exactly the type of resident this type of land use plans seeks and, in fact, requires. Let’s assume that being de facto anti-family is a perfectly reasonable stance for a local government to take. After all kids are expensive to have around and don’t pay a lot in taxes. Fair enough.

The problem is there are just not many independently wealthy, child-less folks to sell your city to, especially since the bursting of the dot com bubble. Empty nesting-baby boomers will give you some numbers in coming years, but city planners do not envision city cores -– certainly not Uptown Charlotte -– as a geriatric ward. The millions you need in hotel-motel, restaurant taxes to pay for the city core you built won’t get paid that way. You need the nightlife. So you target the young and hip. Basic city planning -– good roads, schools, police and fire protection -– goes by the wayside as marketing and trendy redevelopment take over. It is process not without a good bit of propaganda along the way.

Writing in Architecture Magazine, one former Portland planning insider recently explained what is going on.

“For the advocates of recent planning trends — such as smart growth and New Urbanism — to attract financial supporters and sympathetic voters, they use pejorative labels like sprawl, big-box, and McMansion. In order to demonize sprawl you need a demon. Rural farmers and foresters can’t be vilified because planners are supposedly conserving resource lands for their use. And it’s politically incorrect to malign lower-income families living in trailers. So who do special-interest groups scapegoat? Rich people and McDonald’s are easy targets — thus: Rich people + McDonald’s = McMansion,” Richard Carson wrote.

This is the stage Charlotte now finds itself in, the name-calling and wispy marketing phase, along with a few ominous trends. Housing starts are not keeping pace with local population growth and there are already rumblings about the need for more “affordable housing” in Mecklenburg.

One current Portland resident fairly nailed what awaits Charlotte if we continue down the current path: “The word ‘sub’ is disappearing from ‘suburban.’ This huge push for infill is turning us into something far more urban, and it’s going to be the kiss of death if it’s not handled correctly.”