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Portland and parking lots: ‘For the love of cars’

Posted by on August 12th, 2010 at 11:41 am

“By the 1970s, less than thirty of the two hundred seventy… buildings downtown remained…When did Portland start to trade its most unique built feature for acres and acres of pay by the hour asphalt?”
— Dan Haneckow, historian

A recent post on local historian Dan Haneckow’s Cafe Unknown blog, delved into a sad part of Portland’s urban legacy — the demolition of downtown buildings to make room for surface parking lots. He writes, “By the 1970s, less than thirty of the two hundred seventy cast iron buildings downtown remained.”

But why? It wasn’t always just to make room for highways and onramps. Here’s what Haneckow thinks led to this practice:

“By then [1935] a cycle was in place. As more businesses left the old downtown, the time lag toward a downward adjustment in property taxes added to the expense of keeping a vacant building. Demolition removed the buildings from the tax rolls. The rewards of surface parking lots, initially seen as a low cost stop gap before new development, soon became apparent. Three quarters of a century later the first lots are still in place, as are the vast majority of those that followed.”

The Portland Mercury blog picked up Haneckow’s post and reporter Sarah Mirk added that “a whopping” 29% of Portland’s Old Town district is surface parking lots.

Here are two images showing the striking transition of a few downtown blocks from 1935 to 1968:


This morning I was at a meeting on the 24th floor of the ODS Tower at SW 2nd and Alder. When I looked to the north I spied one of the surface parking lots in Haneckow’s post. Ironically, the lone building that remains on the block has a billboard for a local car dealership painted on one side of it: The tagline reads, “For the love of cars.”

View of parking lot at SW Washington and 2nd that used to be full of buildings. The adjacent painted billboard is for a car dealership and the tagline reads, “For the love of cars.”

On a more positive note, the City of Portland recently buried a surface parking lot near Pioneer Courthouse Square (itself a former parking lot) to make room for Director Park. Also, the Portland Development Commission is getting closer to a deal to bring a popular Asian grocery store, Uwajimaya, to an existing parking lot in Old Town.

Hopefully, as fewer people choose to drive into downtown, we can continue to trade those surface parking lots for new businesses, parks, and other amenities that don’t come with such a high cost and that offer benefits everyone can enjoy.

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  • peejay August 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Help me out here, but wasn’t there a book published recently about the hidden cost of free parking? I’ve been meaning to read it, and it would be useful for others who care about the urban fabric.

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    • ABruin January 13, 2013 at 1:05 am

      Hi There is a LEGENDARY book called ‘High Cost of Free Parking’ by Donald Shoup, who is a world-leading parking expert in urban planning field. The book is used as a textbook in his parking class at UCLA.

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  • Bjorn August 12, 2010 at 11:57 am

    @peejay, I think you are referring to The High Cost of Free Parking, written by parking guru Donald Shoup it is well worth the time to read. It is also available from the fantastic Multnomah County Library.

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  • thefuture August 12, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    Speaking of parking downtown: is there a place that one can park a bike, change, put a pannier in a locker, and leave it for the day or just a few hours similar to a parking garage for cars? Biking downtown is difficult for work if you don’t have an office to change and leave things at. I’d pay a reasonable service for that. Shower not necessary, just needs to be secure.

    There was talk of that happening at the rose parade building on the waterfront but that fell through. Does this exist somewhere else?

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  • Michael M. August 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    @thefuture — Sounds like you’re talking about something like Bikestation, but we don’t have anything like that here.

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  • Chris August 12, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Some of the more spectacular buildings that DO remain are just North of Jonathan’s picture along SW 1st. I am always amazed how under-utilized this area and these buildings are. I walk or bike here almost every day and am always gauking at the buildings and their details. I hope stories like this make people appreciate what IS remaining. I think people do as evidenced by the recent UO and Mercy Corps projects.

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  • Alexis August 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Jarrett at Humantransit did a post on downtown parking in Portland a while back:


    FWIW, I really hate that ad that says “for the love of cars”.

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  • SkidMark August 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    When I drive into the Portland, the main reason I do so is because it costs less in gas and parking than the Tri-Met fares for me, my wife, and my stepdaughters.

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  • thefuture August 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    @Michael M. yes i would like one of those. I’d gladly pay an hourly fee for such a facility. Does not need to be too deluxe. Bike rack, locker, simple changing room. Secure.

    @Alexis I think you need one of these:

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  • J.R. (Business Manager) August 12, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Looks like that book (The High Cost of Free Parking) is currently on backorder through Powells.

    I just visited a facility in Tempe, Arizona called The Bicycle Cellar which is just what previous poster, thefuture asked about. Lockers, showers, rentals, storage, repairs, accessories all right on the lightrail line. Super cool and independently owned. Seems like with the volume of local shops in PDX, it’d be a great differentiator.

    As I sat on the bus in traffic yesterday, I was struck, not only by how much room single occupant vehicles take to park, but how much they disrupt a functional mass transit system. There is no way buses can run on time when SOVs are clogging up the works. The “love of cars” is a crack whore. She started out looking good but now…

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  • Steve B August 12, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    @SkidMark — great point! we have to innovate to make transit the better buy, the current system does not provide enough incentive for people not to drive.

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  • Dave August 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    I think it’s important to note that much of the problem wasn’t that surface parking lots were so profitable, so much as maintaining those old buildings was so unprofitable. In many cases you had property owners demolishing buildings because they couldn’t sell them, they couldn’t even give them away – they were seen as derelicts and liabilities nobody wanted. Better to knock them down and save on taxes and maintenance until the next wave of “urban renewal” came along and made the land valuable again. Putting a lot on top was just an easy way to milk a few bucks out of the land in the meantime.

    To put it another way, the problem wasn’t cars downtown needing to park, it was cars in the suburbs driving the flight from the inner cities.

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  • Dave August 12, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Which now that I read the original post, is what he was saying all along… d’oh.

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  • Ryan Good August 12, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    J.R., #9 said “As I sat on the bus in traffic yesterday, I was struck, not only by how much room single occupant vehicles take to park, but how much they disrupt a functional mass transit system. There is no way buses can run on time when SOVs are clogging up the works.”

    At home I have the old BTA Room to Breathe poster on the wall- where they showed people in their cars, then in the same location they would be in their cars but on foldning metal chairs, then all on bikes, then all on bikes close together. I guess most everyone has seen it or something like it- at least most everyone reading this. But every time I have people over it gets conversations going because it’s just such an effective visual communication of how much space is wasted by SOVs. I don’t know if they’re still available, but if they are I’d like to have one in my office to get conversations going with my coworkers.

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  • are August 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    re comment 10, or we could impose something resembling the true cost of car driving on motorists.

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  • freeman August 12, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Bike Central downtown was the place with lockers when it was on 2nd @ Taylor back in ’97…they had lockers (no showers) – also a ‘satelitte’ location in the Govenor Hotel in the gym area for showers…It was a fee/membership set-up not a whole lotta people even knew about then. Run co-op stylee, last time i checked in with Dean (co-owner) he was down on Front Ave. with in house ‘commuter’ facilities no longer available.

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  • KWW August 12, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    This has less to do with cars than with the tax code and is a complicated subject.

    For instance, in Philadelphia, the tax code allowed for property taxes to be revenue based, not based on location.

    This would save the buildings, but don’t assume it would save the city.

    For a 25 year stretch one Philly slumlord, Samuel A. Rappaport at one point owned more buildings downtown than anyone else. Problem was, most of those buildings were shells and he would not fix them up, preferring to wait until the City or a developer would want the real estate, and they would pay through the nose.

    So the buildings sat vacant for decades. Only after Rappaport died did those buildings get sold and the city began to recover.

    Point being, don’t assume if the buildings were still in downtown Portland that the blight wouldn’t of occurred.

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  • poncho August 12, 2010 at 10:28 pm

    Isn’t something like the bikestation supposed to go in that new office building, First & Main?

    This bikestation would benefit more than just cyclists but also pedestrians and transit riders. People traveling by train and bus could use them for their luggage when then have a long layover to explore the city. Bus and train stations used to have lockers for luggage but security concerns have gotten them removed.

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  • middle of the road guy August 12, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Can someone please list the benefits of free parking, since the cost have been mentioned. I mean, we should be objective.

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  • carless in pdx August 12, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    So I was just cruising by PSU today along 5th avenue, and the former PSU bike center, which was closed when they moved to their new digs, has a huge pile of fancy-looking bike racks next to the sidewalk, fenced in with a rent-a-chainlink-fence. There must be ~50+ of them. The bikeracks look kind of like the ones on the front of a trimet bus, although there are 3 of them welded together, with what looks like grooves for the wheels.

    I’m assuming they are going to mount these vertically?

    Anyone know anymore details?

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  • Oliver August 13, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Benefits of free parking:
    Marginal increase in traffic for shop owners.
    Increased Convienience for car drivers, esp car commuters (as one expects them to take up any additional free parking and not move during course of workday)
    Increased revenue for:
    Auto Manufacturers
    Tire Companies
    Oil Companies
    (and their political beneficiaries.)
    Mfg’s of auto “clean air” technology ie catalytic converters and the industries that extract the minerals used to construct them.
    Increase in employment in areas where these industries operate.
    + Revenue for medical, insurance and legal industry that results from increase in vmt.

    Lots of money in the car business.

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  • beth h August 13, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    @ #7 and # 10:

    When corporate/government interests stop subsidizing ownership of cars so that drivers are compelled to pay the true costs of owning and fueling a car — and when the money saved is used to subsidize and improve public transit and facilities for walkers and bikers — then the world we live in will be very different.

    Unfortunately, it will also take generations or longer for that to happen.
    Remember that dinosaurs took a very long time to die out. Corporate leaders and the governments their money props up won’t go away quietly.

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  • Paul Tay August 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Down wit parkin’ lots! Shoupinistas united shall nevaaaaah be divided!

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  • Paul Tay August 13, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    RE: “So I was just cruising by PSU today along 5th avenue, and the former PSU bike center, which was closed when they moved to their new digs, has a huge pile of fancy-looking bike racks next to the sidewalk, fenced in with a rent-a-chainlink-fence. There must be ~50+ of them. The bikeracks look kind of like the ones on the front of a trimet bus, although there are 3 of them welded together, with what looks like grooves for the wheels.”

    I waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanna steal yo’ bike racks! Bike rack burglar….on da prowl….dum da da dum! Yo, PSU, better make good use of ’em, or dem fancy racks gonna git totally JACKED!

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  • Opus the Poet August 14, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    The problem with making cars pay their “true costs” is that then drivers will be even more adamant about bicycles not paying for the roads like “cars” do. I see an even better way to asses the fees, have a tax for “Bicycle endangerment” because of the cars making the roads unsafe for bicycles. The problem with the streets for riding bicycles isn’t the streets, it’s with the cars (actually their drivers) that make the streets unsafe for bicycles. If the tax is specifically named so that people understand their cars are the problem that bicycle infrastructure is created to solve, then maybe people will stop driving cars (so much) and segregated bicycle infrastructure won’t be required.

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