The Hayhurst Neighborhood Association (HNA) hosted Portland’s Planning & Development Manager, Kurt Kruger, for an information session Monday night about the possible residential development of the 51-acre Alpenrose Dairy site in SW Portland. The hybrid zoom/in-person meeting was attended by about 20 people who were mainly concerned about the large development’s effect on area transportation.
As we’ve been reporting, the upcoming development could spur significant improvements to nearby streets, or the additional traffic could just make things worse.
Kruger began by pointing out that Portland has not had a development of this size in “easily over a decade” and this is the first big development to come forward since the “Middle Housing” zoning changes which allow multiple units on a parcel.
He kept his presentation informal, and welcomed questions throughout. This worked well because the attendees were quite knowledgeable and the meeting moved along at a high level of understanding. They brought up all the issues associated with a development this size and asked about traffic impacts on all the site’s frontages, as well as intersections in the larger area.
I’ll focus on SW Shattuck Road, partly to whittle down the complexity of an enormous development, but also because Shattuck illustrates one of the core difficulties with building active transportation facilities in southwest Portland.
Early in the conversation, questioners homed in on improvements to Shattuck Rd, which is one of the streets the dairy fronts, and which, by code, the developer is required to bring up to city standards. Here’s one exchange:
Question: What does “fixing Shattuck” look like?
Kruger: Almost every street is planned to have a typical sidewalk, planting strip, street trees, street lights, fire hydrants. In addition some streets are planned to have separated or widened bike facilities. Shattuck is one of those roadways where we would want to have a bike facility.
In a perfect world, we would be widening Shattuck on their side of the road, putting in a bike facility, put in a curb, collect the stormwater, and put in a planting strip, street trees, street lighting. And then a separated sidewalk. That’s the standard.
There is a big “but.” Southwest is different. And it is not always easy to get the standard City of Portland—what works on the eastside—here on the westside. And so this is often where we get into an interim conversation with applicants to right-size the improvement to fit the environmental conditions that we have here.
So if we’re working around big trees, steep hillsides, retaining walls—it’s possible we could be looking at a mixed-use path. So a widened, shared bike/pedestrian improvement on one side of Shattuck, versus that standard curb-separated sidewalk and bicycle facility.
So I don’t have any answers, but those are the iterations we would go through.
What didn’t get said
Requiring the standard frontage improvements along most of Shattuck is not possible because it lacks a formal stormwater conveyance system. Water from the road eventually makes its way into Fanno Creek. Without a stormwater treatment facility (like the rain gardens off of SW Capitol Hwy) the creek can’t handle the increased stormwater run-off from bike and pedestrian improvements.
What I was listening for, but didn’t hear, was that the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) would be providing stormwater facilities along Shattuck Rd. It doesn’t appear that will be happening, and without BES stepping in PBOT’s frontage requirements will be limited to what can be done under the existing conditions along the road. This typically means, as Kruger suggested, a widened road or shoulder, usually without a curb, similar to what was built on SW Gibbs Street.
As Kruger later explained, his “interim conversation” is the Public Works Alternative Review, in which permitting bureaus determine what will be required of the developer. The public will want to keep an eye on what the PWAR requires, will a multi-use path be protected, or somehow separated from the road?
Portland builds its sidewalks and bike lanes piecemeal, one frontage at a time. In areas of town which are already built out, and which have already resolved their stormwater issues, this doesn’t matter so much.
The problem for the southwest is that you can’t build an entire stormwater system property by property—pipes need to connect. Lacking formal stormwater conveyance, the region densifies without making progress on its sidewalk and bike networks, and this perpetuates the area’s dependence on cars. This poses a particular hazard for residents in subsidized housing for whom owning a car may be a financial burden.
In the over half a century since the City of Portland annexed southwest, it has never come to terms with the area’s inadequate infrastructure. And even today the city doesn’t seem to have any intention of resolving the issue. So southwest muddles along with a drains-to-streams stormwater system appropriate for an early-20th century agrarian economy, even as the city tries to solve a 21st-century housing crisis.
A possible solution
Kruger, perhaps because of his role, spent the bulk of the meeting talking about the developer, and what the city would possibly require of them. Toward the end of the evening, however, one questioner tried to shift the focus, “What would the city feel its responsibility is, separate from the applicant?” Kruger might not have understood the point of that question, as he pivoted back to discussing the “safety for all modes” language in code, and what the city could require of the developer. His quick shift back to the applicant’s obligations is in itself telling.
“Would the city support going to our congressional delegation to elevate this project, because that is what it is going to take. What is your political sense of that?” asked another attendee.
“I am reluctant to say too much right now because we are truly trying to come to grips with PBOT’s fiscal cliff,” Kruger replied. He also mentioned that the southwest does not compete well with other areas of the city for capital projects because the stormwater issues and terrain make building in the southwest expensive compared to flatter neighborhoods on the eastside. The city can get more bang for its buck in other parts of town.
He concluded, “I can’t touch the federal delegation and congressional dollars, it’s just not my bailiwick, and I would be really over my skiis inappropriately if I were to take a guess at that.”
As someone working within the bureaucracy, that is probably the prudent answer. But our city government is on the cusp of becoming more representative, and $100 to 200 million in state or federal money could provide the stormwater facilities needed to put in place the spine of pedestrian and bike networks in southwest.
Portland’s new permitting group
Two weeks ago, the city council unanimously approved consolidating the permitting process into one entity. This is a big deal, and is the first action to come out of last winter’s permitting survey of development stakeholders (the one that reported bike parking being seen as burdensome). The new entity will have a director who will have authority to “resolve conflicts, make decisions regarding development review and permitting services to the community, and personnel decisions.”
Last January, Kurt Kruger began working in a newly created position overseeing staff from four of the seven city permitting bureaus—Water, Urban Forestry, Transportation and Environmental Services. Prior to that, he was the manager of PBOT’s Development Review section. He seems well-positioned to ascend into the directorship of the consolidated permitting group that city council just created.