February 21, 2008 News » Cover Story

Portland, Ore.: Green, green grass 


In the process of creating the Imagine Downtown plan, Colorado Springs leaders took a keen look at other cities. Cities that have made downtown development work. Cities of which we're a little jealous.

One of those cities is Portland, Ore., considered a "model city" by people in the know. So what does Portland have that we don't?

Uh ... a lot. For example, the now-chic Pearl District. Of course, that area on the edge of downtown used to be a collection of decaying warehouses. And transformation took awhile.

Lew Bowers, senior development manager for the Portland Development Commission, says his city's downtown renewal has been going on for more than three decades. Here are three points everyone there has learned:

You need a lot of political support. If you don't have it, renewal can come and go as politicians leave office. Or it can fall victim to the roller-coaster real estate market.

You have to heavily subsidize the developers who take the first big risks. That might be developing five or six blocks in a blighted area. Or expanding transportation options. Or putting in a big anchor store in a depressed retail district. Once the risk-taker gets settled, Bowers says, you won't need as many subsidies to get people to build around it. But you have to help the guy sticking his neck out otherwise he won't do it. And frankly, why would he? Even with big subsidies, Bowers says, pioneering developers rarely make big bucks off their first risky downtown project.

Connect the dots. Once people start developing your downtown, you must provide good public transportation between the growth areas. That's what an urban lifestyle is all about.

"There's a lot of it that just has to do with the real estate market," he says.

The trick, Bowers says, is to put the right tools in place, and from what he's heard about Colorado Springs, it sounds like we're on the right track.

J. Adrian Stanley

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