Portland Tram

Rail-Volution 2010 Recap Part One

I am not much of a conference attendee. Preferring to immerse myself in books and lectures, conferences have seemed to me to be more about preaching to the converted, venues for vendors to hawk there wares, and a plethora of examples of how not to use PowerPoint; all coming at the expense of being a really useful way to become educated on a topic. Sloganeering and well rehearsed positions abound, unfortunately at the expense seeing a provocateur or hearing contrarian thinking. That being said, however, conference tours are usually a highlight, and, should one be fortunate enough, attending a presentation with an impassioned malcontent can add spice to otherwise banal fare. I must admit, however, that after attending Rail-Volution 2010 in Portland last week, my cynicism has abated; or, perhaps I am gaining a critical eye and am better at divining what the  larger lessons are.

The sessions I attended seemed to be predominantly peopled by land use and transportation planners, transit agency staff and directors, and transit advocates – architects (and urban designers) - were in the minority. Regardless of background, all attendees shared a passion for transit and transit oriented development (TOD), with presentations sharing strategies on how to best plan, design, and finance transit to increase our quality of life, be that reducing CO2 emissions or lessening our reliance on the automobile and its negative impacts on the public realm. To achieve these goals, the sessions approached transit from a compelling number of perspectives, including public health and safety, the role grant writing effects route planning, and just which parameters really should define a transit overlay district. Although most of the positions taken were safe, the sum total of them (the gestalt, as it were) represents progress in urban policy. More of this in future post, for today I wish to focus on first of two field sessions I attended.

The first of two field sessions I attended was a tour of the emerging South Waterfront/North Macadam District (it goes by either name), just southeast of Portland’s downtown. Zoned the same as the city’s central business district, this neighborhood is an example of how a city’s direct investment in transit was instrumental in developing an entirely new neighborhood, one where only vacant industrial land existed until less than 10 years ago. Built on former steel and ship building sites (a small barge building operation still exists), this brown-field is the area where Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) will (and has) expand their current land-locked campus. OHSU is the anchor for the re-development of over two dozen acres, and the school’s decision to expand in this area is attributable to the city’s building and financing of two forms of transit: an aerial tram connecting the new campus to the existing (located on Marquam Hill, about a mile west and 500 feet up), as well as a new streetcar line, connecting the OHSU campus to Portland State University and downtown. The city, university, and developers entered into an agreement that bound each party to a scope of work. Essentially, the city paid for the transit improvements, and private developers paid for a good portion of the development of the streets and the new buildings (which, in addition to OHSU include mainly luxury housing). Each party’s commitment was essential for this area to be developed, with the most crucial being the construction of an 80 person aerial tram. Beyond its aesthetic triumphs and novelty, the tram delivers a highly efficient form of transit, for instead of a 15 to 30 minute commute time that a bus would have entailed (Marquam Hill is too steep for rail), connections between the OHSU South Waterfront and Marquam Hill campuses is only three minutes for doctors, patients, students, and staff. Of almost equal importance in creating the backbone for the emerging neighborhood with the tram, was the extension of the city’s streetcar line, which provides a clear and direct connection through a maze of streets and changing topography from South Waterfront to Portland State University and downtown. Unlike connecting to Marquam Hill, a bus line may have worked made the connection, but a bus would not have had the same deliberative action and financial, aesthetic, and operational commitment rail transit provides in order for this nascent neighborhood to develop.

Given the state of our economy, assessment as to the success of South Waterfront needs to be made in the future. Portland, as is the case nationwide, is in an economic slump that has curtailed the previously rapid pace of development at South Waterfront. Still, the transit aspects are impressive -- if not down right exciting (nail biting?) -- and robust applause to all party's involved in creating South Waterfront's vision is in order. Taking derelict land, and reviving it with groundbreaking (air-breaking) transit solutions, will doubtlessly reap huge dividends for many years to come.

Next: Developing Trends in Transit Oriented Development, FTA Financing, and Low Income Housing

For Further Information on South Waterfront:                    http://www.pdc.us/ura/sowa_n-macadam.asp http://www.southwaterfront.com http://www.ohsu.edu/xd/about/facts/history.cfm