Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon


The link between metro Portland and San Francisco is a seriously complicated relationship.

We have a lot in common — an appreciation for the land and a West Coast way of life — but it’s no secret that Californians’ northern migration is part of what’s pushing Portland’s growth. (We’re seeing this discussed in a lot of places, not the least of which is this podcast, The Intersection, produced by David Boyer in San Francisco.)

But are there things we can learn from how the Bay Area has handled its own explosive growth?

Our columnist in residence, Randy Gragg, directs the John Yeon Center for Architecture and the Landscape. This week he suggested we talk with Gil Kelley about Portland and San Francisco’s parallel tracks. Kelley is director of citywide planning for the city of San Francisco. He also served for nine years as Portland planning director under Mayor Vera Katz, guiding the Pearl District’s ascent, setting the stage for Oregon Health & Science University’s expansion into South Waterfront and codifying the planning goal that Portland’s neighborhoods should serve basic needs within a 20 minute walk.

Gil Kelley, a former Portland planning director, syas one of Portland's greatest strengths is a history of moving forward with intention.

Gil Kelley, a former Portland planning director, syas one of Portland’s greatest strengths is a history of moving forward with intention.

Courtesy of the city of San Francisco

Here are a few highlights from the conversation:

On the magnitude of the planning challenges facing the Bay Area and Portland

“The economic growth in San Francisco and the Bay Area in general is just spectacular. It’s like nothing I’ve seen here in the U.S. before. I think that’s due in part to the digital revolution for which the Bay is the epicenter. I read that it’s a $19 trillion dollar economy that we are only in the beginning stages of. We tracked [the years] 1980–2014, a 35-year period. Portland, over that span, grew at a population rate of 2 percent, whereas for SF it was only 0.8 percent. So Portland has gained population at twice the rate of its sister cities.”

On what Portland might expect in coming years based on San Francisco’s experience

“Some of that ‘sort’ or ‘churn’ is people moving to places in the region that are affordable. Some are moving entirely out of the region. But for the most part, it’s tech workers and higher-income individuals moving into San Francisco and moderate- and middle-income people, especially with families, moving out with this new flush of economic activity, which is great on the one hand, but comes with some real concerns in terms of the diversity of the pop over time. I would ask Portlanders to consider: How do you maintain that economic diversity in a city that will increasingly experience this affordability gap?”

On what measures Portland should consider to deal with growth

“Portland certainly has to get more aggressive than it has been on the housing market. Portland has to ramp up its production of housing in general and affordable housing in particular. San Francisco, despite [taking] fairly ambitious measures, is still running behind. I would suggest Portland look at things it hasn’t looked at before: inclusionary zoning, linkage fees with new economic development is another thing we do in San Francisco —  new office developments pay some amount into a housing fund to build moderate and low income housing. The city here passed a bond measure recently $300 million bond to underwrite a number of 100 percent affordable housing projects. That sounds like a lot but won’t go far. San Francisco has also pledged to set aside $1 billion over a decade [for affordable housing measures].”

On whether Portland has a leg up, in some respects

“I would say Portland’s advantage is it has a very strong tradition of planning. The Bay Area doesn’t; it only adopted its first regional plan, with very little enforcement teeth in it, three years ago. Portland’s planning history, beginning with the downtown plan and later the comprehensive plan, the central city plan, as well as a whole string of planning efforts in between, have really put Portland in a position that it knows where it wants to go and has policy consensus around some of the basic land use and transport questions. And there is a capacity for Portland to accommodate growth. The closer questions are how does it deal with some of these potential inequities as this growth occurs.”

On whether the Portland Development Commission is on the right track to shape growth

“It’s a little hard to know what track PDC is on right now I think the acquisition of the Post Office site is a very positive play, and leadership at PDC is good. What’s lacking is a clear vision of what the mission of PDC ought to be. We know its resource base is shrinking and part of what needs to be done is augment the traditional tax increment financing mechanism that it has relied on in the past; it’s less favorable to PDC than it was before. The other and perhaps more important question is “Who are they?” Are they the cities’ economic development agency? Does that really belong in the mayor’s office? What can PDC do? How does that match with really being the city’s real estate development entity? They need to be very engaged not just in attracting business but in helping build the infrastructure for these new companies that will be looking for a home in Portland.”

On what Portlanders should be looking for in their next mayor

“I am hopeful that sounding the clarion call about this economic wave that is coming — San Francisco is just a few years ahead of Portland. And if Portland wants to get ahead of the wave and embrace the upsides but attend also to its downsides, the new mayor really needs to be a champion for good planning again. We have risen to the occasion at a number of critical moments in our history, including late ‘60s to mid-‘70s, and another period in the ‘80s when we doubled down on transportation investments. But we can’t just live on the fumes of those past efforts. There is no substitute for a mayor as champion of good planning.”

Click play on the audio player at the top of the article to hear Kelley’s thoughts on central city hot-spots, how Portland’s form of government influences planning culture and how to strengthen neighborhoods east of 82nd without giving way to gentrification.

Funding provided for columnist-in-residence Randy Gragg by Janet M. & Van Evera Bailey Fund of The Oregon Community Foundation and the Architecture Foundation of Oregon.