Save the Pine Bush Sues Albany Common Council Over Illegal Office Complex
The Portland Plan – A Better Way To GrowBy Daniel Van Riper
Back in 1979, the City of Portland, Oregon and some nearby municipalities drew a line around their developed areas. They mandated that all new construction must take place inside this line and all undeveloped land outside must remain farmland, greenspace or preserve.
Twenty years later, planners Martin Hull and Marian Hull traveled all the way from Portland to Albany, New York to tell how successful the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) has been. Their presentation to seventy or so enthusiastic people at the June Save the Pine Bush dinner at First Presbyterian Church in Albany demonstrated that these planning initiatives have greatly slowed the spread of sprawl while allowing a healthy and affordable rate of growth for the Portland region.
Of course, it takes more than a line to manage growth and development in a bustling region containing 1.2 million people. “Planning,” said Martin, whose specialty is transportation, “takes a tremendous amount of effort by a lot of people.” Marian, who works for the regional government, made it clear that “our policy is not to stop growth but to manage it,” and to properly do that demands input into the process from every level and from all interested parties.
The Portland area is administered by a regional government known as the Metro Regional Services, or Metro for short, which was mandated by Oregon State Senate bill 100 in 1974. It comprises 24 cities and three counties (there are no towns in Oregon), and supports itself by fees from garbage collection and hauling. Most importantly, it is accountable to the voters every four years, with an executive officer, an auditor, and seven council members who represent districts.
Outside the UGB, development can be very difficult. Most of the land is zoned exclusively for farming, with modest building on transportation corridors and centers. Inside the boundary, a functional plan called the 2040 Growth Concept (for where they expect to be by that year), “a legally binding document” which works to protect and create mixed use neighborhoods, where housing, jobs, and services are convenient and affordable, and also to protect and develop industrial and other special use neighborhoods.
Public input is vital for this sort of planning to succeed. This did not happen overnight. It took the better part of 25 years to get people to participate regularly in the process, to “build a culture of participation.” Planners meet regularly with community advocacy groups and other citizens to find and identify local values and needs, while balancing the needs of small and large businesses. Easily understandable information about the planning process must be constantly provided so that the general public can participate effectively.
According to Martin, transportation planning, which is vital to the success of cities, should try to “move people, not vehicles.” The cheapest and easiest way to this is to improve the bus system, even creating special bus lanes on the roadways. Parking garages are built with retail space on the street level, which adds to downtown rather than detract as garages often do. Martin pointed out that “parking spaces add nothing to the economic life of downtown. They are wasted space. The city is for the people who live there, not for cars.”
How successful have these policies been? According to Marian, Portland has been growing economically at a steady rate without giving tax credits to lure large companies. A well-planned urban environment has proved an irresistible attraction for businesses. Housing prices have not risen any more than other comparably sized cities, while affordable housing has remained available. Most important, downtown Portland is lively and vital. “It’s easy to do your shopping downtown,” she said. Zoning has successfully encouraged commercial space on the street level with apartments on the second floors, which, according to the New Urbanists, is the best plan for city development.
Well, How About Here? By Daniel Van Riper
Can We Plan the Capital District?
Anything is possible, but right now the odds are stacked against progressive planning along the Portland model in our region. Here’s why:
1) Incompetent State The initiative in Portland began with the state, but here we are saddled with an absentee governor who is very good at photo ops, raising his salary and fantasizing at taxpayer expense that someone somewhere wants him to run for vice president. Leadership is a skill Pataki is clearly lacking. Meanwhile, the legislature hasn’t passed a budget on time in nearly two decades.
2) Backroom Shenanigans Local politicos are loathe to give up the private sweet deals they make with hit and run speculators. There is big money in sprawl, especially in the Pine Bush, and the widespread public perception that politicians regularly receive pay-offs from speculators is hard to disprove. Certainly that would explain the irrational behavior of the Mayor and Common Council of the City Albany, which continues to make dumb approvals in the Pine Bush, such as Drumlin Fields and Touhey, that will result in higher property taxes.
3) Public Freezeout Local power brokers consider voters and taxpayers to be little more than vermin that should be contained. Access to the system is granted only to slick paid lobbyists like Daniel Hershberg, who easily manipulate dim-witted common council members in Albany. Only if members of the public are willing to sue, as Save the Pine Bush does in Albany, or ready to riot, as folks almost did last summer in Guilderland, will the public find a way to participate.
4) Privatized Fascism Instead of new forms of democratic government, we are quietly being saddled with Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and similar ilk such as the Metroplex in Schenectady. These entities are given increasing amounts of planning power, but are controlled almost exclusively by large corporations and banks. Property owners and small businesses are sometimes given limited say, but most of the citizens and taxpayers are carefully excluded.
So what can we do? In Oregon, the State set up a system that encourages public participation. Since that is not likely to happen here, it is up to us, the taxpayers and voters, to get in the faces of the power elite and demand a big role in the decision making process. The widespread uprising last summer in Guilderland forced public officials, who were securely in the pockets of the Pyramid Corporation, to publicly break their allegiances to Pyramid and allow accountability in order to keep their jobs. This could happen in Albany and Colonie, where a constant stream of lawsuits by Save the Pine Bush and a few other public groups has been the only means by which citizens can positively work with the system. It takes constant vigilance, but we can fight city hall and win.
published July/August 1999 Newsletter
Last Updated 7/18/99
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