Pamplin Media Group – Charles: Washington Square regional plan doomed to ugly crystal ball
John A. Charles Jr. is President and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
Tigard City Council is in the process of adopting a new land use plan for the 827-acre area known as the Washington Square Regional Center. Once adopted, it will replace an existing plan approved in 1999.
If you didn’t know there was a “regional plan” for the Washington Square neighborhood, there’s a good reason: it was never implemented. The 1999 plan was based on the mythical concept of “transit-oriented development” and featured architectural renderings of 20-story towers at the mall, improved transit service, and bicycle and pedestrian bridges crossing the mall. ‘highway 217.
None of this had to do with reality, so it didn’t happen. The proposed new plan makes the same mistakes.
The whole concept of a regional center was invented by Metro planners when they drafted Conceptual Plan 2040, which was adopted in 1995. This plan was intended to ensure that the Portland area “would grow, not »Over a 45-year period, with transport investments focused on public transport, cycling and walking. The implementation was based on a cascade of large and small “centers”. At the top of the food chain were eight regional hubs, followed by dozens of smaller city centers and station communities clustered around light rail stops.
The eight regional centers are: Gateway, Downtown Hillsboro, Tanasbourne / AmberGlen, Downtown Beaverton, Washington Square, Downtown Oregon City, Downtown Gresham, and Downtown Clackamas. According to Metro, these neighborhoods are characterized by two- to four-story buildings served by high-quality public transport.
Although Metro held dozens of hearings on the 2040 concept and claimed to be gathering public input, planners never really cared what citizens thought. The overriding political objectives were: (1) to get people out of their cars; and (2) move most families from single-family homes to apartments located near transit lines.
As you might expect, it failed, and it failed spectacularly in Washington Square. The 1999 plan called for high-density development in Metzger’s unincorporated neighborhoods, which then were – and still are – characterized by single-family homes. The people who live in these houses have always been unhappy with being suppressed from existence by the planners.
The regional plan also assumed that too much of the mall’s land was wasted on parking and would have to be redeveloped into high-rise buildings. But people who shop at the mall think parking is important, and there has never been a viable plan to pay for dream rides.
When TriMet was planning the WES commuter train line, which opened in 2009, there was a lot of excitement about having a stop in Washington Square. But Hall Boulevard WES station is so far from Washington Square that it doesn’t matter. And since WES only runs in the mornings and afternoons, and not at all on weekends, it has never been plausible that the train will change travel behavior in this neighborhood.
Between 1995 and 2021, Metro, TriMet and the City of Portland conspired to waste billions of dollars in taxes building streetcars and streetcars in support of regional hubs, but the use of public transportation was not never became important. It was particularly low in the regional centers. TriMet’s ridership peaked in 2012 and declined steadily thereafter. Once the pandemic hit, transit ridership fell by more than half and did not recover.
The new Washington Square regional plan under consideration reduces the vision for high-rise towers, but still embraces the failing principles of “transit-oriented development.” The main objective is to increase the number of housing units, everywhere. But again, the plan ignores consumer preferences and market reality. The area is car oriented and includes low rise buildings because that is what most people want.
The reason land use plans tend to fail is that it’s impossible to know what is the best use for each piece of land. This can only be determined by the dynamic process of the market. We would all be better off if Tigard and other towns started repealing their zoning codes for “area plans” and simply allowed land to be developed based on what the market would support.