Portland City Council will spend the next few weeks deliberating changes and additions to its Central City Plan, which outlines city growth plans and policies over the next 20 years. City Council will vote on the amendments March 7.
Among the items the plan tackles is development. Though, development has taken on different meanings for different populations in the city. The broader question as city commissioners finalize a plan is: How does Portland manage growth in a way that benefits everyone?
"There's a feeling from some members in the community — community advocates and union advocates as well — that the city needs to do more work on establishing mechanisms for public benefits that come out of large-scale developments," said Claire Adamsick, senior policy adviser for Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz. "Essentially, the city lacks policies that attain mutual private and public benefit from development projects."
A recent report from the Portland Business Alliance found the Portland metro area is growing in population and employment, but that housing development is not keeping pace. Housing affordability, according to the report, remains the city's biggest challenge and continues to threaten growth. Many have blamed it for the city's growing homelessness population.
Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Parks and Recreation, is proposing a change to the Central City Plan that she says could help balance the scale between development needs and public benefits. She’s found an unlikely ally to do so: open spaces.
The idea, however, is not to build on open spaces. Instead, Fritz wants to expand the reach of an existing tool that allows developers to transfer unused potential from one development to another.
Buildings in the city center have size limits — a maximum square footage known as Floor Area Ratio (FAR). FAR works a lot like building blocks; the more you have, the more you can build. For developers, building more takes money, but it also means more potential revenue.
Developers can gain additional FAR in two ways: first, by contributing community benefits, most notably by building affordable housing units or paying into an affordable housing fund. If developers want more FAR, they can then get what is known as "transfer FAR." Developments in residential, commercial and employment zones can get transfer FAR by buying it in a transfer from one development to another.
Open space zones, however, are currently not allowed to take part in transfers, and an unknown amount of building potential — and money — is essentially sitting unused. Under Fritz’s proposal, open space zones would enter the FAR transfer market, a small amendment that Fritz says will increase building potential in downtown Portland.
“Knowing that the whole Central City Plan process is designed to put density where it’s appropriate, to make use of current infrastructure like light rail and the parks that we have downtown, and support people both living and working in proximity and where they can get to the central city on transit, it’s got multiple benefits to encouraging development in the central city.”
Money from FAR transfers from open spaces downtown could also theoretically mean money for the parks. Fritz says FAR transfers can be used to tack on community benefits that could address concerns over the cost of growth in Portland. She says her office is working with community groups to determine how to strike that balance.
For example, Fritz says FAR transfers from open spaces will ensure those spaces are preserved. When a development gives up its FAR, it gives up its ability to develop further.
“Once you’ve sold the development potential, you can’t then turn around and develop the space that you’ve sold it from,” Fritz said. “So to me, it’s another way of making sure our park property remain an open space.”
Despite the pressing need for more housing, developers have long said there aren’t enough incentives to build in Portland, a complaint Fritz says she’s aware of.
To compound this, developers add there’s a growing gap between the cost of construction and what the average renter can afford.
“The sooner we build new housing, the sooner it will depreciate in value, and the sooner it will become more affordable,” said Eric Cress, founder of the company Urban Development Partners.
“It’s like the old Chinese proverb: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second-best time to plant a tree is now. The same holds true with the city's housing infrastructure,” he said.
It’s unclear just how much development potential is sitting in open parks and spaces. But supporters of the Fritz amendment say any addition to development potential could help make a dent in alleviating the city’s housing shortage.
“I think we are some suffering some serious growing pains in our city, and I don’t think it’s unique to Portland,” says Felisa Hagins, political director of Service Employees International Local 49.
"The question about heights, the question about size — all of those are very intertwined into the fundamental question about what's the future of our city?"
Hagins says the union wants to see Portland continue to grow. But she’s also keeping an eye out for vulnerable populations who are often left behind by that growth.
Hagins says the SEIU sees Fritz's plan as an opportunity to gain benefits for the service employees who would work in the buildings being developed.
For example, SEIU wants to make it so that developers can gain additional FAR by guaranteeing that the people who work in the buildings as janitors or security guards make 40 percent of median family income.
“Our union isn’t anti-development. We want to see our city continue to grow and be more successful, we want to see more commercial office space,” Hagins said. “But it is that question of how do you have both those things intertwined?”