Ultra-urban transit system follows funding to industrial district
Portland Streetcar was conceived as an ultra-urban transit system, linking the densest inner city neighborhoods to downtown and spurring greater development along its route.
But Portland Streetcar Inc. is looking to extend the line to Montgomery Park via the “back route” north of Interstate 405 and Northwest Vaughn Street, an area almost devoid of housing and pocked with underutilized industrial land.
“It’s an idea that’s emerging,” said PSI Executive Director Dan Bower, cautioning that “this is fairly early thinking” and construction could be five or 10 years away. Still, it’s at the top of the list as the most likely next expansion.
“It would be a change to extend it into areas that do not allow residential development,” said Steve Kountz, senior economic planner with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Going the industrial route is unconventional, but Bower and his board see opportunities in this transition area.
“It’s a new recipe for us,” he affirmed, “but not one we’re afraid of.”
A welcoming committee has already formed. Industrial property owners, led by ESCO Corp. and the owners of Montgomery Park, are pursuing the possibility of forming a local improvement district to tax themselves and other landowners along the route.
Bower said the extension to Montgomery Park could cost $80 million, up to half of which might be funded by the federal government, and the consent of local property owners is essential to making the budget work.
Earlier expansion plans favored the Conway area just south of the industrial district, but mixed-use redevelopment there has advanced without the streetcar’s help, so the incentive for developers to underwrite that route may have passed, Bower said.
“We won’t build a line where there is no need or potential for economic growth,” he said.
Public opposition can also be a factor. A preliminary map showing the line running along the 2400 block of Northwest Raleigh Street triggered determined opposition from homeowners who did not consider streetcar service a benefit to them and certainly didn’t want to form a Local Improvement District to pay for it.
“Frankly, we got a mixed response there,” Bower said charitably.
On the other hand, the northern route has more than 45 acres of land ready for redevelopment between Northwest Vaughn and Nicolai, according to PSI.
The Bill Naito Co., owner of Montgomery Park, an 18-acre office complex where 3,000 people work, has long-range plans for major housing development, starting with replacing its largest surfacing parking lot west of the main building with an apartment building.
ESCO Corp., headquartered two blocks east of Montgomery Park on Northwest Vaughn Street, has closed its main foundry and is rezoning most of its 15 acres of heavy industrial land to a general employment zone allowing a wide array of commercial uses.
The New York Building, a six-story flex-industrial structure at Northwest 22nd and York built four years ago, has brought jobs to a formerly sluggish area. An Amazon fulfillment center rents two floors, generating activity day and night. There are plans to erect a duplicate building on the adjacent block.
Continuance of this trend is what Portland Streetcar is banking on. It’s not only about creating commuting options for industrial area workers.
Bower said it has “more to do with connectivity, of Northwest blending into downtown” and creating a fabric less dominated by autos.
Diane McMahon, CEO of Bill Naito Co., called a streetcar alignment north of Vaughn Street “the next logical step” for an area transitioning toward greater diversity of uses and a growing workforce.
Portland Streetcar’s direction confounds earlier assumptions held by the area’s neighborhood and business associations.
Greg Madden, president of the Northwest Industrial Business Association, has seen his mission as keeping non-industrial activity from encroaching on the industrial sanctuary. He finds the new orientation perplexing.
“We’re giving up the iron curtain for a train line into town,” Madden said. “I’m not sure what that means.”
The 2003 Northwest District Plan includes a tentative streetcar alignment on Northwest Thurman Street.
Nevertheless, Northwest District Association Transportation Committee Chair Jeanne Harrison is on board with the new plans.
“I have supported a northerly streetcar extension in the neighborhood,” Harrison wrote in an email to the NW Examiner. “The scenarios we looked at in the past did not anticipate a change in zoning and new development plans for ESCO and Montgomery Park. It makes sense to serve Montgomery Park and ESCO with public transit to reduce commuting trips through our neighborhood.
However, NWDA Planning Committee member Steve Pinger has served on streetcar expansion advisory bodies since 2009, and he calls the whole-hearted pursuit of the northern route “pretty absurd.”
While the northern route may have validity, he said, reversing years of policy without a comprehensive planning process is problematic.
Pinger has reminded Bower that NWDA took a position in 2009 favoring streetcar service along the district’s primary commercial corridors, and its recommendations are not addressed in current plans.
NWDA expected “consistency with the goals and objectives of the Northwest District Plan, the reinforcement of the ‘main street’ designations of Northwest 21st, 23rd and Thurman streets and at least equal prioritization of service to existing destinations with service to potential future development areas.”
he tension between serving existing versus potential populations raises a question in his mind: “Is [the streetcar] a development tool or a component of the transportation system?”
Although it can serve both functions, Pinger called it “backwards” to extend lines into underdeveloped areas without consideration of broader land-use and transportation policy goals.
In a series of emails between Pinger and Bower between 2014 and 2017, the streetcar executive did not address the planning issue head on.
“For me, the big picture is that Northwest wants a streetcar and is willing to work for it,” Bower wrote in 2017, “and we can then take some steps to hash out the alignments.”
At that time, Bower also described the northern route as “an alignment that is gaining momentum.”