Why the Pearl District in Portland is the Best Walkable Neighborhood Created in Decades
Last week Common Edge recirculated in its newsletter Alex Marshall’s 2017 essay, “Why Can’t We Create Brand New Walkable Communities?” The essay stirred up considerable debate online. Since Marshall used a dual review of my book (Within Walking Distance) and Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis as the jumping-off point for his larger argument about walkable neighborhoods, I think it’s important to address aspects of his piece.
As I see it, there are two misunderstandings that Marshall has about my book. First, he categorizes the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon—the subject of a substantial chapter in Within Walking Distance—as an “old” place. I agree with him that the Pearl is partly a collection of old buildings (converted to new purposes). Warehouses from decades ago have been renovated for use by artists, advertising agencies, and others. A former brewery has been embedded in a sophisticated mixed-use complex. Other old buildings now house the famous Powell’s bookstore and other functions.
But that’s only one part of the story—and in some ways the less important part. I regard the Pearl as the best large, walkable neighborhood created in the core of any American city in recent decades. Until the 1990s, much of the district was a gigantic railyard. On that rail land, the Portland Development Commission, a local developer (Hoyt Street Properties), and others set out to create a new neighborhood consistent with New Urbanist ideals.
Over a two-year span, the city agency and the developer negotiated a complicated agreement that stipulated what sorts of buildings would be constructed, how the street network would be laid out, and what uses would be accommodated. The agreement spelled out what the city would do to help the new community come into being and what Hoyt Street Properties would do in return.
The agreement led to construction of three handsome city parks, each with a different character and different use. It led to installation of the Portland Streetcar—a line that connected residents of the district to the rest of the downtown and eventually to other areas east of the Willamette River. Within a quarter-mile of the Streetcar line, 23 million square feet of development, including nearly 18,000 residential units, came into being between 1998 and 2015.
Because of the vision hammered out by Hoyt and the city, the railyard was replotted predominantly as 200-by-200-foot blocks—a network much more intimate than that of most cities. Homer Williams, who led Hoyt Street Properties, called the 200-by-200-foot grid “Portland’s secret sauce,” the thing that makes for “better human scale, more corners, dueling restaurants on the corners.” Because of the small blocks and the predominantly one-way, two-lane streets, with lots of stop signs to slow the traffic, the Pearl is eminently walkable and safe. The Pearl is now a district containing 120 blocks, approximately 7,000 residents, and a large complement of stores, offices, entertainment, and recreation.
A key element of that agreement was a commitment to creating housing that would be affordable at the start and would remain affordable in the long run. Though Hoyt in the past several years has fallen somewhat short of the affordability goal, the agreement is the reason why roughly one of every five housing units in the Pearl remains affordable for people of modest means. By American urban standards, this is a remarkable accomplishment.
I could go on, but my point is clear: The Pearl District is a very successful, walkable, and mostly new neighborhood.
The other misunderstanding I sense in Marshall’s commentary has to do with whether, in his words, there is “any new subdivision, neighborhood, or city district that functions as a fully walkable environment,” or nearly as well as the places Americans built a century or more ago. What I would say is that I can name quite a few walkable places that have been built in the past 30 years: Seaside and Rosemary Beach on the Florida Panhandle; Baldwin Park in Orlando; Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Maryland; Fairview Village and Orenco Station in the Portland suburbs; Highlands’ Garden Village in Denver; Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado; South Main in Buena Vista, Colorado; and Storrs Town Center in Connecticut. Other candidates include Daybreak in South Jordan, Utah; Providence in Huntsville, Alabama; and HOPE VI projects such as Martin Luther King Village in Philadelphia and Hunters View in San Francisco.
Maybe Marshall was thrown off by the fact that most of the communities I focus on in Within Walking Distance are indeed old places rather than new communities (the subject of much of my writing in New Urban News/Better Cities & Towns). By focusing much of my book on old places, I didn’t mean to imply that the attempt to build new communities had failed. On the contrary, what I was trying to do was keep up with an encouraging recent trend: the revival of old places that possess at least some of the ingredients for walkability.
I open the book with a long chapter on Greater Center City Philadelphia. Economically, Philly has not been a world-beater in many decades. The metro area is not booming like New York, Boston, Washington, Seattle, the Bay Area, and other global cities. Yet in Philadelphia’s core there have been significant improvements in neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties, Fishtown, Passyunk Square, and Graduate Hospital. I tried to show why this revival is taking place, how new residents form bonds with the people already living there, and how the new energy can strengthen old business corridors, upgrade public schools, and avoid insensitive hyperdevelopment (such as the poorly conceived Plaza at Schmidt’s project in Northern Liberties).
I subscribe to sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s belief in the importance of “third places,” so I wrote a chapter on how neighbors in the East Rock section of New Haven, Connecticut, went about creating a series of gathering places in front of shops; in my view, these patios or plazas have made the neighborhood more sociable and better informed. When the alder representing the neighborhood hangs out at a coffee house on a regular basis, people are more likely to know about local decision making and get involved in it.
I wanted to show how a small town can keep its business district intact and useful, so I wrote a chapter about Brattleboro, Vermont, where local hardware stores outlasted Home Depot and where the local food co-op erected its new store downtown and combined it with new apartments or people of limited income.
I wanted to show that walkable communities are useful not just for middle- and upper-middle-income residents but also for working-class ethnic and immigrant populations, so I presented the story of Little Village, a Mexican-American neighborhood on the Southwest Side of Chicago. Finally, I thought it would be useful to show what one person with the right abilities could achieve by working at rebuilding a 10-block neighborhood decade after decade. That’s the story of Dan Camp’s Cotton District in Starkville, Mississippi.
Though much remains to be done, I think it’s fair to say that walkable communities are on the rise.
Featured image: the fountain and wading pool in Jamison Square, one of three parks created in the Pearl District. Unless otherwise noted, all photos by the author.