City Planning Update: One Down

The State requires the City to adopt and update a comprehensive land use plan for a 25 year future period.  Multiple plans are embedded within this process, including transportation plans,  district plans, and Portland’s Central City Plan.  The City is in the midst of updates to both the Central City and Comprehensive (city-wide) Plans.  Portions of Eliot are in the Central City and are covered by that Plan update, as has been described in this column for the past two years.  The Central City update is proceeding in four stages corresponding to different quadrants of the central city.  Eliot is in the Northeast Quadrant, which is the first part of the central city plan to be updated.  That update is now complete after two years of meetings, in which Eliot was well represented.  The final plan will go to City Council for review and approval in October, with the other central city quadrants to follow.

The NE Quadrant Plan has two components: a transportation Facility Plan, and the Quadrant (land use) Plan.  Developing a transportation and land use plan jointly was a first for both the City and the State, which wants to expand I-5 between I-84 and I-405 and needs support from the City to do so.  In turn, the City needs public support.  The NE Quadrant plan process integrated these two requirements, which allowed Portland residents to shape the freeway expansion project in exchange for State support for modifications of the surface streets around the Broadway/Weidler intersection in ways that satisfy residents.  The consensus of opinion among citizen advisors was that the process was good.  Despite significant differences in interests among advisors, mainly truckers versus residents, there was broad support for the final plans.

The final Facility Plan selected the least disruptive freeway expansion plan (other than “no build”) from among over 100 proposals.  It allows for widening the freeway to allow for longer ramps from Broadway/Weidler, which allows for an additional travel lane in each direction.  This is expected to reduce both congestion and traffic accidents that slow traffic in this section of I-5.  Freeway widening will require replacement of overpasses at Broadway, Weidler, Vancouver, and Williams.  The Flint overpass will not be replaced and it will terminate where it connects to Tillamook.  It will be replaced by an overpass that extends Hancock between Williams and Vancouver over the freeway to Dixon.  In addition, two “caps” covering portions of the freeway are planned at the new Hancock overcrossing and at Williams.  The latter will be used to expand Williams to accommodate a new traffic pattern to speed vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians through the intersections of Broadway/Weidler/Vancouver/Williams, known as “the box,” one of the most accident prone areas in Portland, especially for bikes.  The Hancock overpass is expected to improve bike and pedestrian safety by providing an alternative route to the Broadway Bridge and removal of the 5-point intersection with Flint and Wheeler at Broadway where serious bike accidents have occurred. Eliot led opposition to the Hancock overpass for two reasons.  First, it could become a Broadway bypass route significantly increasing traffic on residential streets.  Although we were unable to eliminate the option, the plan requires the City to “prevent” that from happening.  Our second reason is that it may be a decade or longer before it is built during which time bike safety and pedestrian access will continue to be denied.  Instead, we proposed the current Flint overpass terminate with a connection to Dixon, at least in the interim.

A large minority of advisors questioned the costs and benefits of freeway expansion, nevertheless wide majority adopted the proposed plan.  Many of the opponents did so to ensure funding for bike and pedestrian improvements that the City says it cannot afford, but federal freeway funds will pay for.  Eliot sided with the majority, after expressing reservations about the freeway proposal, because a transportation plan supported by the City and State is necessary to secure funding for any transportation improvements, including interim ones.  To that end, Eliot has been working with bike and pedestrian advocates, our neighbors west of I-5, the City and State to identify measures that can be taken immediately and in the interim.  One of the first of these was the closure of the right turn off Broadway to Wheeler, which has been the source of some serious vehicle/bike accidents.  Other proposed actions include a pedestrian signal at Wheeler and the Flint/Dixon connector.  These actions may not have been possible without Eliot support of the Facility Plan.

In contrast to the Facility Plan, the Land Use plan was not particularly controversial, and Eliot’s proposals were largely adopted.  The most significant of those allow for more flexible uses of industrial land in Lower Albina, expansion of commercial uses along Russell in Lower Albina, rezoning of some of the lots between Williams and I-5 to allow current commercial uses to continue, and rezoning of the School District’s property to facilitate future re-use and/or sale (the Blanchard Building and other school properties across I-5 as well as Tubman).  Rezoning west of I-5 in Eliot and the Rose Quarter exposed a split between Eliot and Irvington over allowed building heights.  Irvington wanted to keep buildings low or prohibit them altogether to preserve the view of the river, whereas the rest of the advisors wanted to allow more dense development to capitalize on the new streetcar investment.  The final vote was for taller buildings but with conditions to preserve river views and public access.

Development along Broadway/Weidler brought Eliot and Irvington together.  Irvington wanted, and achieved, lower building heights along Broadway to preserve the historic character of adjacent residences.  They also supported restricting building heights in Eliot.  Accordingly, buildings along Broadway between I-5 and NE 3rd were reduced to 70 feet from 100.  Allowed heights were increased between NE 3rd and Grand to 125 feet from 100, but the heights between Grand and NE 7th were reduced to the same 125 feet from 175.  This reduction was to prevent new buildings from overshadowing the recently dedicated MLK Gateway at the MLK/Grand merge.  The hope is that these changes to zoning and height limits will encourage new investment in the area sooner, rather than later, now that the streetcar loop is open.

One possible result has been a change in a development proposal for the Broadway Furniture block from a small 2-story bank with drive through and a parking lot to a full-block, six-story mixed use building with underground parking.  Although this site is not in Eliot per se, our Land Use Committee supported the proposal in design hearings in the hope it will stimulate additional development of the vacant and underdeveloped land between Broadway and Weidler.  Although a 125 foot height seems tall, this zoning only allows part of the building to be that tall, the rest much be shorter due to a provision that limits total floor area, called a floor area ratio (FAR).  FAR forces developers to trade off height for building mass.   The six-story building proposed illustrates this trade off. The proposed building will be six stories on Broadway with a shorter notch on the southwest.  That is as tall as the building can be within the available floor area, which prevents it from soaring 10 stories.  Much taller (or more massive) buildings are allowed south of Weidler.

The new plan envisions a very different development pattern in the Rose Quarter and Lloyd District.  The area around the Convention Center (intersections of Holladay and MLK/Grand) will allow towers as tall as 460 feet to attract high end hotels and condos that prefer tall buildings.  The area surrounding this high rise district will be allowed to top out at 325 feet, again, to attract office, condo, and mixed use development.  Residential zoning in the area was also revised to shift it to the edges of the District.

In summary, the NE Quadrant Plan envisions significant development in the Rose Quarter and Lloyd District between now and 2035, which will pressure Eliot to change.  The Board and Land Use Committee has attempted to protect Eliot from significant change since the Albina Plan was adopted in 1993.  In our view, the alternative is the destruction of both the historic and residential character of Eliot.  Until Eliot neighbors tell us otherwise, we will stay on that course.