Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Key to Great Development: Private Money

Much like our own Central Delaware Waterfront, Portland's (the anti-Philly in every way) South Waterfront neighborhood was little more than surface parking and vacant lots before this century's building boom. Just as in Philadelphia, developers dreamed of remaking this barren waterfront into a new and dynamic neighborhood, a new city complimenting the traditional city core, complete with its own skyline.

Portland's South Waterfront neighborhood under construction, as seen from Marquam Hill.

The difference, of course, is it happened in Portland. While the city gets a lot of praise for its innovative civic projects, economically the Northwest's second city doesn't start with much more or less than we do. It's probably true that their tax revenue is better managed and that corruption in Portland's City Hall wouldn't require its own book, or volume of books, like it would in Philadelphia. But beyond the bureaucracy that leads to poor city planning, the most ironic element that led to the successful development of South Waterfront was the same thing that led to our Central Delaware's demise.


Developers will always look at profitability first. They do that here and they do that in Oregon. When the waterfront was first eyed as the locale for Trump Tower, Bridgeman's View, and Sugarhouse Casino, the first thing any of the developers thought was "what's the best return on my investment?" And thus we saw renderings for gated developments with limited, if any, public waterfront access.

A pedestrian and bike bridge will carry pedestrians over the busy I-5 corridor to SW Portland's South Waterfront neighborhood. Increased and properly managed tax revenue from successful private ventures like South Waterfront affords idealists a realistic vision.

The difference between Portlanders and Philadelphians is that the residents of South Waterfront's neighboring properties engaged in a productive dialogue with developers. But Fishtown and Northern Liberties residents (arguably neighbors to begin with) called for Trump to head back to New York and for Sugarhouse to take a hike, then had the nerve to ask for the city to pay for a free waterfront park on land that has sat idle for over half a century.

Increased tax revenue generated by publicly supported private projects like South Waterfront can pay for public transportation expansions like trolleys and light rails.

The projects that comprise South Waterfront sit back from the river allowing public access to the entire Willamette River. High rise apartment buildings are surrounded with scaled green spaces and residents are carried downtown by trolleys and bike lanes. A bridge is currently under construction that will specifically carry pedestrians and bikers over the I-5. A proposed car-free bridge will carry light rails, pedestrians, and bikes over the river. South Waterfront is even home to an aerial tram, which carries commuters to OHSU's campus on Marquam Hill from South Waterfront. Although largely impractical in flat Northeast cities, it is representative of the luxuries afforded by a city that simply works.

The successfully managed public transportation system, TriMet, is currently developing the nation's first, major car-free bridge, Caruthers Bridge, spanning the Willamette River to accommodate light rail, bike, and foot.

Instead of booing the potential Central Delaware's new city out of town, neighboring residents could have asked developers for the bonuses we will never see from the city. Sugarhouse could have been asked to provide a light rail connecting Central Delaware to Penns Landing in return for community support. The developers behind Trump Tower and Bridgeman's View could have been asked to connect Central Delaware to the Ben Franklin Bridge with publicly accessible parks, and in return lauded the projects with neighborly enthusiasm.

A vision of a successfully redeveloped Central Delaware neighborhood, including high rise apartments and adjoining public space along the river.

Instead, those so determined to "save" their neighborhood from what they were certain were corporate pariahs bent on destroying a waterfront that didn't even exist, chased away the only people with the cash to save the waterfront that no one realized they wanted until the developers showed them it was there.

A familiar sight along Philadelphia's Central Delaware seen at Callowhill, and without private development along the river, likely to remain the scene here for decades.

Next time one of these NIMBY hipsters starts praising Portland - the poster child for successful urban planning - remind them what they did to our potential Central Delaware, where we currently have no park, no trolleys, and no life. In what's commonly pegged "A City of Neighborhoods", Philadelphia's NIMBYs are anything but neighborly.

In a unique success story, Portland's South Waterfront continues to grow in spite of our nation's current economy.

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