Friday, August 16, 2013

You Can’t Go Home Again – Part 2: Access Matters

In my last post, I began to list urbanist observations from a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest.  After spending a large chunk of my life in the Northwest, I found it insightful to return years later and to look at familiar places with different acuity.

My first two observations were about Highway 97 in Bend, Oregon.  For my next observation, I remain in Bend.

Observation #3: Missteps can have long-range implications – If there was a signature project of my time in Bend, it was a large residential/recreational project on the west edge of the city.  I’ve previously offered anecdotes about the project, including the sapping of urbanism from the project plan, the allocation of space to non-vehicular users of the roadways, and the opposition to having on-site employee housing.

But there was story that predated those.

The project that was eventually built was far smaller than had been originally proposed.  The initial plan included almost 1,700 acres of land.  I don’t recall the exact number of proposed residences, but it must have been 3,000 or more, along with several golf courses.  But the key element, at least to me, was a mixed-use town center.  The plan called for several stories of residential, including lodging, over streetfront retail.  It would have been an unusually walkable development for its era.

The plan was rolled out in 1989, at the dawn of the new urbanism movement, so was well ahead of its time.  It was also a key moment in my education as an urbanist.

Unfortunately, neither the Planning Commission nor fate were as willing to be educated.  The proposal became stalled at the Planning Commission, although several meetings were devoted to its consideration.  Then, in August 1990, a forest fire burned much of the site.

Although no lives were lost, more than fifty homes were burned elsewhere in Bend.  But of at least equal importance to me, the project and its mixed-use core were dead.  Financing wasn’t available for a project on a burned-over site.  Nor would buyers have lined up to be in the path of the next fire.  More than 15 years would pass before development was again considered.

In its place of the larger project, a smaller, although still sizable, project was proposed, tucked into a mostly unburned corner of the larger property.  The development activities for the smaller project consumed the next few years of my life.

But there was a key mistake in the layout of the smaller project.  It lay astride the obvious route from the city to the full site.  But its web of surface streets was intended solely for internal traffic.  It failed to provide good access between the city and the remainder of the site.

With my still underdeveloped sense of urbanism, I didn’t note the seriousness of this omission.  Nor did anyone else.  I was just happy to get the project approved and to move into the myriad tasks of subdivision and engineering design.

But I was smarter a few years later.  When the developer proposed extending the project to the south, into another portion of the site that had escaped the fire, I argued for a strong access road into the remainder of the site, including the half-forgotten mixed-use core.  The road I proposed wouldn’t have been a perfect solution, but would have been an improvement over the initial development plan.

The developer rejected my suggestion.  For reasons involving separate land ownerships and monetary incentives, he had no interest in the larger property, only the immediate expansion.  And he could see no reason to spend money on the future of the community if it didn’t provide a return to him.

A state-issued engineering license makes engineers responsible for public safety.  If a developer asks an engineer to design a bridge that would collapse under heavy loads or to size a sewer line that would overflow under high usage, the engineer has the legal obligation to refuse.

But that legal duty doesn’t extend to poor land-use decisions that may harm a community.  Even though fixing a bridge or a sewer line would be less expensive than fixing a bad land-use pattern, engineers are under no obligation to be whistle-blowers on land-use issues.  Indeed, raising the concern would likely violate a fiduciary responsibility to the developer.  It’s an unfortunate aspect of the law that often troubles me.

Thus, I was without recourse when the developer chose not to pursue a more robust access route into the remainder of the property.  I could have surreptitiously mentioned my concern to city staff.  Or I could have raised my voice at a public hearing.  But either would have been unprofessional and grounds for termination.

And so the expansion was built without the stronger access.

Years later, after my departure from Bend, a different developer acquired the remaining land.  For a number of reasons, presumably including the lack of good access into the city, dense development wasn’t possible.  Instead, the land was developed into ten-acre lots and rolling golf courses.

It’s a nicely done development.  If one must do ten-acre lots and golf courses, one could hardly do better.  The plan was solid and well executed, with careful and appropriate details.  But it’s not the highest and best use to which the land could have been put.

During my recent visit to Bend, I dined with an old friend.  Afterwards, she gave me a tour of the westside of Bend, including the ten-acre lot project.  She retains a role in Oregon land use and shared my chagrin over the result.  But her disappointment was muted, as she’d had several years to become accustomed to the land use.

My disappointment was more acute.  I knew the ten-acre lot project had been built, but it was hard to look out over the swale where the mixed-use core was to have been built without wondering what I could have done differently.  I hadn’t necessarily failed, but I’d failed to succeed.

In my next post, I’ll write about what happened in place of the mixed-use core noted above.  It’s another unhappy tale.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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