Archive for October, 2009


What is the Speed of Citizen Involvement?

October 31, 2009

Since I first got involved in my neighborhood association in the mid-’90s, the speed of communications related to citizen involvement has changed quite a bit, and we now have a range of ‘velocities’:

  1. The speed of the neighborhood newsletter – Monthly, often with long lead times. For example, there was some challenge getting this month’s Portland Plan workshops into neighborhood newsletters.
  2. The speed of e-mail – Staff often sends notice of meetings to interested parties by e-mail, but still has to notify a few people who have not embraced computers by postal mail.
  3. The speed of Twitter (or an RSS feed) – Effectively instantaneous. I wasĀ  a little chagrined to learn that an exchange I had with Mayor Adams during the hearing on the Climate Action Plan had been Tweeted and Re-tweeted! (No, believe it or not, I don’t tweet – at least not yet.)

I caused a little bit of a stir with some activists a week or so ago when I posted topics for an upcoming meeting. I wasn’t posting anything that wasn’t already online on the bureau site, but it was buried deep inside Portland Online in a PDF file, while it was much more prominent here. Activists were griping that I was ‘breaking’ the news here and they hadn’t been notified by staff even though that had requested to be on the interested parties list. In fact the staff e-mail notice (and postal mail notice to a few people) went out that week, so the difference in ‘velocity’ is really the only thing that created the stir.

My question, readers, is how do we manage citizen involvement effectively for City planning efforts when we have this wide range of velocities for communication? How do we use each medium to its maximum benefit without disenfranchising some people?

I’m looking forward to your thoughts.


Why 1.1 Bike Parking Spaces?

October 28, 2009

As part of the RICAP 5 process, we recommended that City Council change the minimum bike parking ratio for multi-dwelling units (apartments and condos) from 0.25 spaces per unit to 1.1 spaces per unit.

How did we get there?

The original 0.25 ratio predates the original 1996 Bicycle Master Plan. That plan recommended updating it to 1.0, but that effort failed to gain approval in the late ’90s. As we all know, cycling has taken off dramatically since that time.

During the 1st hearing on the RICAP package, we got testimony that some central city condos were seeing demand for bike parking of up to 1.8 bikes per unit and we asked staff to research the issue.

PBOT staff came back with a recommendation of 1.5 spaces per unit and we tentatively agreed to it at the last meeting, but it was clear that the Commission had some reservations based on a couple of things:

  1. The magnitude of the change from the prior standard (RICAP is supposed to be the home to relatively minor changes to the zoning code)
  2. Developer John Carroll (who developed The Gregory in the Pearl and the Elliot Tower downtown) testified in favor of increasing the ratio but balked somewhat at the 1.5 number.

At tonight’s meeting it was suggested that we scale this back to 1.0. I suggested a compromise at 1.1 on the basis of the following math (developed by PBOT):

An average of 1.64 people per unit x 69% of Portlanders owning bicycles = 1.12 bikes/unit.

The more aggressive 1.5 number additionally factors in a percentage of folks who own more than one bike. My support for the lower number has several rationales:

  • John Carroll did an additional assessment of his existing buildings and communicated to me that he thought he could fit additional bike parking to get to about 1.0 without adding to the building floorplate
  • From a sustainability and affordability point of view, I was reluctant to create a minimum standard that might increase building size and cost (and through size, environmental impact)
  • I was concerned that with a jump all the way to 1.5 we might see developers doing things with unintended consequences to meet the standard
  • I’m not sure we automatically want to accommodate multiple bikes/person in multi-dwelling units (just as I wouldn’t want to a minimum standard to accommodate multiple cars per person). Living compactly involves some trade-offs!
  • With anything beyond 1.1, I’d want to start thinking about trade-offs with reducing auto parking, and that was beyond the scope of this process

So with 1.1 accommodating one bike for everyone who owned a bike, I thought we were at a good compromise point.

There may well be areas of the City or other specific circumstances where more parking might be desirable. But I don’ t think we can get there without some additional research and RICAP is not intended to be the umbrella for significant policy investigation.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing preventing a developer from creating MORE than the minimum number of spaces (indeed, there are even some incentives). Let the market speak!


Meeting Summary 10/27/09

October 28, 2009

Here’s the quick run-down from tonight’s meeting:

1) We heard about 3 hours of testimony on the Bicycle Master Plan, most of it supportive, but most of it also with some suggestions for how to improve the plan. I’ll try to do a post later in the week with more thoughts on this item. The public hearing was held open for written comment only until our Nov 10th meeting so we could incorporate additional comment in the record (the formal public comment period for the plan goes until Nov 8th).

2) The Portland Plan Update was pushed out until the next December 8th meeting because of the extensive discussion on the Bicycle Master Plan.

3) The RICAP 5 package was completed and forwarded to City Council. The final package is based on the staff memo of 9/30 (PDF file) with the following changes:

  • Bike parking ratio for multi-dwelling development is set to 1.1 spaces/unit (more on that in a separate post).
  • Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) standards set somewhat more liberally (I’m afraid I don’t recall the exact number, I think it might be the lesser of 800 sq. ft. or 75% of the main dwelling).
  • Restriction on front facing garages on skinny houses removed (along with the balancing parking pad alternative) with a recommendation to City Council that this be studied in a deeper process during the zoning changes that will result from the Portland plan. Fundamentally we only heard from one constituency during this debate (the infill developers, who strongly opposed the change). We need a process that can dig deeper into the policy issues than RICAP can, and need to hear from a broader set of constituents.

Finally, the Portland Plan

October 26, 2009

Update: 10/26/09

Apparently my enthusiasm below led some people to believe we were going to start making Portland Plan decisions tomorrow night. Let me clarify, tomorrow is only a briefing on the process. The first decision process, around adopting findings about existing conditions, begins with the workshops outlined below. To quote Winston Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Original Post: 10/23/09

At Tuesday’s meeting, we’ll get an update on the Portland Plan process, and that’s exciting, because the Portland Plan was the single biggest thing that motivated me to join the Planning Commission. And now we’re really getting started.

That perspective is a little bit unfair, because a lot of work has been done by both citizens and staff to get us to this point. But I think it’s also accurate, because this is the point at which we actually start making some decisions. The background data has been gathered and the current state reports are largely written. So what happens now?

The first point that I’d like to emphasize is that the Portland Plan is NOT just an update to the Comprehensive Plan. We WILL update the Comp Plan, but that is only one result of the Portland Plan, and it’s not even the first one.

The first result is a strategic plan for the City and this will be delivered roughly in the Summer of 2010. Let me be clear, this is NOT a spatial planning exercise. It encompasses nine different areas:

  • Environmental Health
  • Economic Vitality
  • Neighborhoods and Housing
  • Community Design
  • Connections and Access
  • Human Health
  • Educational Opportunity
  • Civic Life
  • Arts and Culture

These obviously go a long way beyond a traditional land use plan. Only once the strategic plan has been developed will we move on to the spatial planning exercises that will include updates to both the Comprehensive Plan and the Central City Plan, along with other implementation plans.

So what happens next?

A key ingredient to both the strategic plan (aka the “Concept Plan”) and the Comp Plan is agreement on the existing conditions, which will eventually be adopted by City Council. A new round of public workshops will review this data and solicit additional citizen input on challenges that should be addressed by the Portland Plan. I hope you will all join us for at least one of these workshops, beginning on November 17th. Here’s the full list:

Fall 2009 Workshops

Fall 2009 Workshops

For all the gory details on the workshops, please check out the Portland Plan web site: (a good thing to bookmark).

I’ll post more about the process after we get briefed on Tuesday, but for now, let’s get started!


Coming Up on October 27th

October 18, 2009


6pm – Bicycle Master Plan Public Hearing

The public comment draft of the “The Portland Bicycle Plan for 2030” has been out since Oct. 5th and this is the first formal public hearing in the process, although there have been many, many open houses and community meetings leading up to this point.

[Full disclosure – I am a member of the Steering Committee for this plan and served on several working groups that developed specific sections of the plan.]

8pm – Portland Plan Update

No testimony – Staff will give an update on the process for the Portland Plan. I’ll be doing a post soon about my thoughts on the Portland Plan process and upcoming community meetings.

8:30pm – RICAP 5

Worksession (the public hearing was closed after the last meeting, which was in fact an extension of the prior public hearing). There are two remaining issues likely to get discussion:

  • The bicycle parking ratio – There was some consensus at the last meeting toward the 1.5 spaces/unit, but there are also some questions and I anticipate further discussion. You can find some discussion of this topic on the BikePortland blog.
  • Garages on skinny houses in some specific zones – Lots of testimony by developers last time about how important it is to retain the garage option, but also some apparent lack of common understanding about exactly how many lots around the City this change applies to. Staff will be presenting maps to help clarify the reach of the amendment.

I think it’s very likely that we will complete our recommendation to City Council on RICAP 5 at this meeting.


Hello: Why a Planning Commissioner Blog?

October 16, 2009

Because public policy can be complicated and three minutes at a hearing is a pretty limited opportunity to engage in a substantive conversation.

Just figuring out what the Planning Commission is doing can be a daunting challenge, even before you attempt to influence the decisions. It’s not uncommon to have a staff report of over a hundred pages on a topic. Not that staff reports aren’t useful (we have some of the most talented planning staff around). But finding the key issues in that 100 page report may not be easy.

My goal with this blog is to make the process more accessible to citizens. This will be a learning experience, but I think I’ll be able to do this in several ways:

  • Highlight upcoming topics
  • Give my view on what the key issues are on a given topic
  • Provide a forum for discussion on these topics, including asking provocative questions when helpful

If nothing else, at least there will be an RSS feed that will include upcoming agenda items and links to key documents.

My experience is that public policy is almost always a set of trade-offs. There are multiple “goods” to be weighed and balanced. If you come here looking for a preview of where I think the balance point is, or how I’m going to vote, you’re going to be disappointed. But I do hope to provide thoughts and questions about what factors are being weighed in the balance.

I want to be absolutely clear on one point: I don’t claim to be speaking for anyone other than myself. On this blog, I do not represent the Planning Commission, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability or the City of Portland. These will be the perspectives of one individual Planning Commissioner.

An overriding goal here will be to keep the conversation civil. I’ve had some experience doing this at Portland Transport, where with help I’ve been managing an online policy conversation for four years. I’ve adapted many of the same rules to use here. Your cooperation with these rules is appreciated.

So with a little trepidation, here we go…

Please feel free to comment on this post and tell me what would make this site useful for YOU!


Chris Smith