Travels with Charlie
Former Portland City Commissioner Charlie Hales, whose motto is "An expensive streetcar for every subsidized condo tower," is apparently jetting around selling trolleys to the unwashed masses of the Northeast. (They already have the apartment buildings.) A correspondent in Providence, R.I. wrote us last night with this:
You seemed very interested about my evening, so I will give you the description that you have asked for.
Tonight, I attended an event hosted by Growth Smart RI. For your readers who do not know, I have spent the last two years being displaced from my beloved Chicago and have been living in the Northeast. I must begin by dispelling many rumors that we (west coasters, and frankly, the rest of the country) have about the Northeast.
I DO NOT THINK THE NORTHEAST LIBERAL EXISTS. Dude. A northeast liberal is like sasquatch. They may be seen in grainy pictures, but outside of that, I have only found puritans here.
But you have no interest in that... do you?
No. You want something more. I spent my evening at a rather fancy event. It took place in Providence's new Renaissance Hotel. Now, this building had begun construction in 1929 as a building for the Masons. However, the stock market crash halted all construction on the project and it had sat as an empty shell for nearly 80 years. I think that building fairly well describes Providence. A once thriving mill town that no longer has a purpose, and yet is searching for one, and searching desperately. How do we bring business into RI? How do we make RI a 21st century livable city? How do we foster proper development? These are all questions that are being asked by a group in RI called Grow Smart RI.
Now please don't get me wrong, these are all very valid questions. These are all good questions for every city in the country. Especially, those old urban centers that have been in a sharp decline.
But, tonight, they brought in a Gentleman from Portland, Charlie Hales.
They brought him in to speak about the success of the TriMet system (although he never mentioned it by name), specifically, to discuss Light Rail and the incredible positive impact that it has had on the City of Portland.
First, let us compare the City of Providence vs. the City of Portland:
Providence 20.5 sq. miles (no, I did not forget a zero)
Portland 145.4 sq. miles
Basic math will give us this:
Providence population per square mile 8627
Portland population per square mile 3869
That last number is why Portland is to some considered an urban sprawl, not a dense livable City as most will describe it. For reference, Phoenix Arizona, to all considered the worst of the "sprawl" has a population per square mile of 2865, less than Portland, but both significantly less dense than many traditional cities.
Charlie was introduced to the audience by the mayor of Providence, David Cicilline. Mayor Cicilline introduced the Transit 2020 plan to the audience. An initiative on how to improve the public transit in the state: http://www.transit2020.com/2020E-Report.pdf
Check the link. Recognize any pictures?
Now, imagine a town like Providence, with almost 20% of the entire City of Portland, and what our public transit system looks like. Well, here in Providence, we really don't have a Providence public transit system; instead, we have a Rhode Island Transit System. Rhode Island being only 1200 sq. miles in size is only the size of Multnomah County, but with a little less than twice the population of Multnomah County.
I have only ridden the RIPTA system once. I have found it faster to walk anywhere in this city than to take one of the buses. And from my time in Chicago, I have been a HUGE fan of public transportation. (Chicago, 234 sq. miles, 2.12 million people, 9000+ people per square mile, similar density to Providence.)
Essentially, RIPTA is worthless. Although the system does serve more people than TriMet, it takes me fewer places.
Charlie began his PowerPoint lecture with a brief, locally geared introduction to Portland. He described connections between the Northeast and Portland, specifically in the namesake relating some story about how Portland's name was chosen on a coin toss, narrowly defeating Boston. Now that I have read the Wikipedia entry on Portland, he pretty much read the first paragraph of the "History" section.
Charlie then showed the crowd many pictures. He showed pictures of Portland in the early 1900s. He showed a picture of Portland in the '60s, and pictures of the city today. Now, if you were to compare these pictures of Portland to those of Providence, the growth they depict would be in reverse. Providence was far more prominent and affluent in the early 1900s than now; Portland, the opposite.
However, what I found stunning was that Charlie Hales seemed to relate this wonderful growth of Portland as "The Livable City" to be directly related to public transit, and specifically, to Light Rail. He showed one graphic that represented the growth of neighborhoods within one block of Light Rail, 2 blocks, 3 blocks, etc., to show the stunning development that can happen along these public transit lines. He also used the Pearl District as an example of neighborhood growth in Portland. Now, he did not specifically point out that this neighborhood was directly related to the onset of the Light Rail system, but I do believe he inferred strong coincidence.
Now, in my opinion, the Pearl District is built for those yuppies who work downtown, and can afford such luxury residences. They are frankly close enough to downtown that many of them could, or should, walk to work. I don't see how public transit should have any impact on the growth of this area. It is simply location location location.
Mr Hales did discuss the Pearl District for some time, showing quite a few before and after shots. When I left Oregon in 1991, central Portland was a place that I went to go to places like The City Nightclub and to fancy art galleries. It was not a place to live. Now, it most certainly is.
Having lived outside of Portland for 15 years now, I do find it very difficult to tell people where I am from. I always have to use "I am from Portland" as the general, because no one would understand "I am from Oregon City." To an Oregonian, of course, these are incredibly different places.
And most of these people I meet say, "Oh! Portland! I want to move there!" This is not a bad thing. In business terms, Portland has a great buzz about it. And truthfully, the Portland of 15 years ago no longer exists! There are some things, sure, but Portland is no longer that city that our mother tells us to lock the doors in the Plymouth Valorie station wagon with the vinyl seats when we get into town.
Many of these Northeast cities hit a really bad decline once the mills went under, and they could not find a way to crawl out of it. Portland found a way to crawl out from under any impact the spotted owl may have had on the economy and still grow significantly over the last 15 years.Very interesting indeed.
Mr. Hales did make some reference to this growth. He described how the people of our generation have moved back into the urban areas, shunning the suburbs. This is true not just in Portland, but in Chicago and many other cities. Our generation got very tired and bored with the suburbs and decided that the urban living was far more appropriate and exciting. The one issue that I have seen that many of these cities have had to address is how to improve their school system to retain these yuppies once they have kids so they do not feel compelled to move back into the 'burbs simply for an improved education system. Chicago worked really hard to address this one issue, and has had some success with it.
Mr. Hales expressed that our generation WANTS to live in the city. We WANT public transit to be able to get to and from home/work/play. And it is the responsibility for the transit authorities and cities to provide this. And, I agree with that. I would love a great public transit system in RI, but instead, I walk to work, I walk to play, because it is easier.
Well, that's all on that.
Hope that gave you something you want.