Don't Be Dense

Portland's apartment fights are headed for the suburbs. Next stop: West Linn.

West Linn is Portland's second-wealthiest suburb, trailing only nearby Lake Oswego in income per capita. But its downtown looks forlorn compared to the thriving main street of working-class Oregon City, on the far bluff across the Willamette.

"Right now, it's sort of a wasteland," says Bob Kirkendall, an architect who lives with his wife, Peggy, less than a mile from West Linn's waterfront.

West Linn has big hopes for the site. Metro, the regional government, gave the city $220,000 to create a master plan for its downtown and the nearby Bolton neighborhood.

West Linn agreed to turn those areas into a "town center"—meaning the housing density in some of those areas could double to 20 residents per acre. (Metro recommends 40 people per acre.)

Metro, which is about as popular as Ebola in much of Clackamas County, can't impose such density on cities without their agreement. And Metro officials say they are not putting any pressure on West Linn to do anything different from what city officials already want.

But there's growing opposition to West Linn's plans from residents who worry that Metro's planning agenda will turn their leafy bedroom communities into condo bunkers like those that now tower over many Portland neighborhoods.

"All we heard is that the city got the grant," Peggy Kirkendall says. "And we said, 'How nice.' Until we read it."

City officials say Metro has enforced no density requirements on the project, and the plan won't wreck existing neighborhoods.

"We want to make it so that when you come into West Linn, you know you've arrived somewhere," says West Linn community development director Chris Kerr. "There's always going to be NIMBYism, and there's always going to be an anti-growth component."

The squabble at first might not seem significant outside this suburb of 25,992 residents. But it represents the latest dispute with the power Metro wields when the cities ringing Portland decide whether to join in the region's growth.

Arguments over density have been increasing in Forest Grove in Washington County and Wilsonville and Damascus in Clackamas County. In recent years, debates over density and planning have roiled the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners and the Lake Oswego City Council, with races for both becoming test votes over support for Metro.

"Suburban cities define their own futures in our region," says Metro spokesman Jim Middaugh. "The places that don't want taller buildings don't have to have them. The focus really needs to be on how we welcome 600,000 new residents and protect our quality of life. The alternative is sprawl."

The problem is, Portland is making space for new residents, often by building upward. The suburbs aren't keeping pace with new housing, and planners say they need to do so without putting more pressure on the urban growth boundary, Metro's line against development's spread into open land.

An October report by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis found that the Portland area needs to build 12,000 new housing units a year to keep pace with the rising population. Last year, developers built 11,500 units—and most of those were part of Portland's apartment boom, not in the suburbs.

Metro has said the suburbs need to start absorbing much of this housing growth. Its blueprint is called the "2040 Growth Concept," which labels certain areas—including the center of West Linn—"town centers," with higher densities of shopping, townhouses and apartments.

In April 2013, West Linn applied for a $220,000 Metro planning grant, volunteering in its application that the "area is designated as a Metro town center" and "the City Council supports the Metro Council's established regional development goals and outcomes."

The concept produced with Metro's money shows a market square surrounded by six-story condo buildings, a terraced park above an underground parking garage, and an 80-room hotel overlooking Willamette Falls. The city doesn't yet have a developer.

West Linn city officials are moving toward a Dec. 15 vote to approve the plan. "People always complain that West Linn doesn't have a town center," says City Councilor Jody Carson. "Where's our downtown? Well, here it is. We're creating that."

Debate over the plan has been raging in the pages of the West Linn Tidings. A neighborhood association has called for a delay. Peggy Kirkendall has formed a new citizens' group, West Linn Neighbors, to protest the plan.

"There's a real pattern, especially in the western part of the United States, where we take perfectly livable places and grow them to death," says David Dodds, a former West Linn mayor. "If you like the character of where you live, then you're likely to not want to see it changed to something else. Otherwise you wouldn't have moved there to begin with."

Kerr, the West Linn planner, says skepticism will fade. "That's the knee-jerk reaction: 'Over my dead body, I don't want any more density,'" he says. "We're really talking about reinvigorating this area into something we can all appreciate.”