The Big Squeeze

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"Commercial on the ground floor and residential above is a historical prototype that was very successful here, and there's no reason it couldn't happen again," says Ittelson.

Denver hasn't been at the forefront in pushing for these kind of mixed-use projects, however. "Other cities have done a lot more than we have," she says, pointing to places as disparate as Seattle and Salt Lake City that have been trying to guide new construction toward transit corridors. So convincing the locals that it's possible may be a stretch.

"It's hard for people to imagine living in a place where they don't have to use their cars. They can't imagine living in a neighborhood where they can walk to get coffee or bread."

It's easy for John Fregonese to imagine, however. Portland, where he worked as a top planner, has become a secular Lourdes for government officials who regularly journey there looking for miracles that will free their communities from auto congestion and sprawl.

In the 1970s, Oregon enacted a law that mandated growth boundaries around all of its major cities, including Portland. The law also created an elected regional board to oversee growth in the Portland area. That board has pushed higher-density housing and commercial development and channeled transportation funds into Portland's light-rail system rather than into new highways. In one of its biggest planning gambles, Portland is now encouraging dense development along light-rail lines, hoping to get commuters out of their cars and onto mass transit.

It seems to be working, says Fregonese, who adds that "transit ridership has increased four times faster than population here, and congestion levels have stayed fairly constant."

At one time, Portland was similar to Denver in that almost all the new housing went to the suburbs, but that has changed. "In the percentage of new housing units in the Portland area, the city of Portland went from 8 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 1999," says Fregonese. In addition, Oregon now requires cities to build multi-family housing in addition to single-family homes. The result is a diversity of housing types. "We have a lot more townhouses and homes on small lots," says Fregonese. "We're seeing townhouses and other multi-family products make up 15 to 20 percent of the housing market. Before the [land-use] law, it was 2 percent."

But not everyone thinks Portland's experiment has been a success.

"Portland is the mecca of growth control, that we can plan our way into utopia," says Jon Caldara, a former RTD boardmember who is now president of the conservative Independence Institute in Golden. "It's been an outrageous failure." A paper published by the institute calls Portland "the Potemkin village of the Northwest," a reference to the fake villages made up of happy peasants that were used to impress Russia's Catherine the Great.

John Charles, an analyst with the Cascade Policy Institute in Portland, echoes these thoughts, and he's especially critical of the push for high-density development along Portland's light-rail line. "It's all based on government subsidies," he says, noting that Portland has used tax abatements, low-income housing credits and other means to encourage development near the line. By one estimate, $2 billion has been invested in projects along Portland's light-rail line.

Charles insists that traffic congestion in Portland has increased in large part because of the new-urbanist planning philosophy. "If you artificially densify a region, most of those people will have cars and use them," he says, "so you'll worsen congestion." He even suggests that many planners secretly want more congestion to force people out of their cars and onto the rail system. "The mindset is, cars are bad and people who drive are bad; therefore they must be punished."

While not everyone supports Oregon's planning laws, they've proven politically popular. Voters have killed several efforts to gut the laws, and most of Portland's elected officials support the growth boundary and the push for more density. Fregonese says that's because Portland has protected its existing neighborhoods, directing development into rundown commercial areas and former industrial zones that other cities would simply write off. "The key is doing infill and finding the places where density fits," he says. "I can't think of any neighborhood in Portland that's been completely changed. Single-family neighborhoods are pretty stable by their nature."

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers