A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Orenco Station

Neighborhood by Design

By Fred Gillette


It’s a very diverse crowd of youngsters, old timers and business-attired commuters hopping off the streetcar on this pleasant, sunny autumn afternoon.

What the dozen or so riders share is the common destination of Orenco Station, a “transit oriented”, planned neighborhood lying about 10 miles north-west of the center of Portland, Oregon. This attractively landscaped station stands in the midst of one of this nation’s more advanced examples of town planning.

As a student and advocate of community health and well being, I have visited a good number of places, checking out the successes or failures of a variety of neighborhood improvement projects. Numerous communities possess some of the elements of Ornenco Station. But, although I’ve heard they exist, I can count the number of fully realized, planned communities like this I’ve seen on one finger. Although there will be additional expansion, what now exists is fully functional. It has diverse housing, a variety of parks and recreation opportunities and a healthy retail town center providing local employment within walking distance for everyone. Also, centrally positioned, is the streetcar station which gives Orenconians access to greater Portland without having to pump any petrol.

Portland has been purposefully building its light rail system (MAX) while encouraging and supporting transit-oriented development near stations. This is not an easy sell in already existing communities where neighbors may have to be convinced that accepting higher density is now, somehow, a good thing. Many believe high density to be antithetical to their idealized views of neighborhood and community. How does my side yard, triple car garage and croquette course fit into this picture? Why should I have to listen to my neighbor’s music? Nor is the notion of readily available mass transit such an obvious selling point to many of us who have long been enamored of our autos.

There are those, however, who believe that the disadvantages of high density can be effectively dealt with. And when they have been, there arise numerous advantages…particularly when coupled with convenient mass transit. At Orenco Station, some Oregon urban planners have had the good fortune to be given a clean slate to experiment with related theories of community engineering. Or perhaps we should say, a cleaned slate. The land upon which Orenco Station resides was actually the site of an old company town of the Oregon Nursery Company. It even had a streetcar connection to Portland. Alas, the town fell upon hard times during the depression of the ‘30s. To complete its evolution into modern times, even the street car tracks were ripped up. Who needs those when you’ve got a freeway coming to town?

Fast forward to 1990s. Portland’s Westside light-rail was approved. In order to receive local light-rail funding, the encompassing community of Hillsboro would have to rezone the land around the proposed station site from commercial-only to mixed use. Holder of the station site, PacTrust, could have easily tied up the project in litigation. After all, they did make the investment with the intention of developing a commercial-only property. Instead, they decided to go against conventional suburban development wisdom and try for a kind of development that was truly in the spirit of the mass-transit -oriented vision. They brought Costa Pacific Homes into the project, a residential developer with local experience. Much collaboration with local and regional planners ensued. Most importantly, market researchers measured the interests and desires of potential members of the new community. Fifteen hundred respondents expressed concern for attaining such amenities as walkable streets, neighborhood shopping and meeting places, commuting options and living somewhere that exuded a true sense of community. Orenco Station was not to be a product of just some civic development theorists and bean counters. Most steps of the process involved heavy citizen input.
The result is a neighborhood with a great variety of housing types surrounding a town center. Communal greens provide refreshing vistas and promote interaction of neighbors. Paths allow easy, non-automotive travel. Shops are within walking distance from all the homes, condos and apartments and the streetcar station is in the center of it all.

In most terms, it seems the project has been a success. Sales have been high and homes command 25% higher sales prices than comparable properties in the region. Concerns expressed by traditional developers that smaller property sizes and alley-accessible garages would dissuade buyers turned out to be baseless. Buyers and renters seem receptive to design approaches that promote a sense of community and safety such as narrow streets, front porches, and houses placed relatively close to sidewalks.

So, has heaven, at last, been successfully replicated on Earth? Well, perhaps not totally. There are many home shoppers who find the 18 homes-per-acre density a bit high. Although privacy issues were consciously addressed in home design, there are those who feel they would still prefer having a neighbor 40 feet away to having one 20 feet away…particularly when there are exuberant familial exchanges or over-amped media assaults. Of course, living anywhere is always a combination of plusses and minuses. It does seem, that for a large number of people living at Orenco Station, that the plusses outnumber the minuses.

Most of us, however, do not have the opportunity to live in a town planned for optimization of our quality of life. Most of our neighborhoods and towns are an amalgam of often-haphazard plans and happenstances. Planning that did exist often was under the control of people who didn’t necessarily understand (or care) what kinds of urban design maximized neighborliness or sense of community. Not that they were necessarily uncaring people; they were simply most often motivated by immediate short term concerns that motivate most of us. We take the starting point that has been given us and make the best we can of it. So what, beyond envy, might we get from looking at this particular community when it does not represent a practical reality for the vast majority of us?

The advantage to be gained from looking closely at Orenco Station is our apparent ability to skip ahead through time and see where some of our planning ideals might take us. Rather than examining only the results of some tentative steps in this direction, we can see what living in the fully realized, nearly idealized version would be like. We can see if these ideals really produce the results we would hope for. We may then be even better equipped to judge if it is worth the trouble and expense to proceed in these directions. If we find that narrower streets really do better promote community and provide greater safety, we can look at retrofit solutions to achieve the same ends in existing neighborhoods, such as decreasing the number of lanes or installing traffic calming devices. If having mini parks can promote more neighborly exchanges and not just provide meeting places for undesirables, perhaps we can carve more such spaces into existing neighborhoods. If convenient, efficient mass transit can really be used and appreciated, perhaps we will approach existing transit improvement with more vigor. If life can be tolerable with greater density, perhaps we can allow it and reap some benefits. The neighborhood coffee shop that would whither in a conventional suburb or low-density neighborhood may prosper and become a kind of community center with strollers parked outside in a higher density neighborhood. The occasional annoyance of a proximate neighbor may be balanced by an increased positive sense of community and neighborliness …a feeling difficult to attain in most quiet suburbs. And so on.


A 2002 study comparing Orenceo Station to two other more traditional nearby communities provides some objective data, allowing us to go a bit beyond social theorizing. Bruce Podobnik, sociology professor at Lewis and Clark College led research which sought to address questions of the effectiveness of the social planning behind Orenco Station. The main questions addressed were: has the project been successful in fostering a sense of community? What are the reactions to living in a relatively high-density community? And has the proximity to mass transit fostered a decreased reliance on the automobile? Podobnik concludes that this design and actualization has indeed fostered a higher level of community cohesion and “neighborliness” than found in similar communities. Residents also feel comfortable with the level of density. The reliance on the automobile, however, does not seem significantly diminished in Orenco, although there is a reported increased use of mass transit. The author notes that there may be some effects of self-selection in the study. That is, Orenco Station has residents who chose to live there because of their desires for a greater sense of community and had already accepted the increase in density. What seems irrefutable, however, is confirmation that the design of the community has enhanced the likelihood of this predisposition toward neighborliness and community to be fulfilled.

The complete research report can be viewed at: www.lclark.edu/~podobnik/orenco02.pdf

Certainly more research is quite warranted and likely forthcoming. Perhaps there can be some measurements made of sense of allegiance to community and more detailed assessments of comparative quality of life. My personal observations do reveal some problems in paradise, some of which may be especially difficult to successfully address. The most striking is the four lane thoroughfare that bisects the neighborhood. Through noise and motion it is not only a stark sensual contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, it stands as a kind of boundary between the north and south ends. To keep the large volume of traffic moving, there is often a long wait for a pedestrian wishing to cross the boulevard.


A person strolling across the otherwise bucolic neighborhood thus encounters this noisy, noxious barrier of fast-moving traffic. Of course there are good reasons for not disrupting or re-routing a popular thoroughfare. But its effects are, nevertheless, jarring and in stark contrast to the objectives of a cohesive neighborhood otherwise engineered to foster pedestrian comfort and geographic intimacy. The other major difficulty is the uphill battle to build communities that are less automobile reliant. Research supports that developing better transport access in your own neighborhood is not necessarily sufficient. If the trip to work still takes 2 or 3 times as long using public transportation, most people will largely, and unsurprisingly, opt for the car. The hope is that, further development of mass transit routes will make leaving the car behind an ever-more practical and pleasant option. Perhaps we may also someday find that we can accomplish more than we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine without leaving our neighborhood…but that’s a topic for another time.


Despite a few reservations, I believe that Orenco Station does stand as an excellent example of where our dreams of improved community life may take us. It is certainly worthy of our close scrutiny…now, and into the future. Should you plan to visit Portland, do go visit the Rose Garden and other lovely local parks as well as the Pittock Mansion and the Chinese Gardens and the Saturday Market and the thriving arts neighborhood and the beautiful, functional downtown. Also, please consider hopping the trolley to visit a real Tomorrow Land.


 

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