Another Tale of Two Cities
By Richard H. Carson
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” So begins Charles Dickens’ epoch tale of two great rival European cities. Fast-forward two centuries later. Two American cities, that straddle the mighty Columbia River, find they are now rivals. To the south is Portland, Oregon and to the north is Vancouver, Washington. They are cities divided by good decisions and bad decisions made in the name of urban planning. One city thrives and the other one is almost bankrupt. And people are fleeing from one city to live in the other.
The city of Portland, once considered the Mecca of American urban planning, has degenerated into what the press now calls “Little Beirut.” Oregon pioneered state mandated land use planning in 1973. Portland started building its 44 miles of light rail starting in the 1980s and was on the cutting edge of transportation planning. And the city mothers and fathers embraced every new urban planning innovation that came their way. Comprehensive planning, growth management, new urbanism and smart growth each had their rainy day in the Portland.
But the urban prospect for Portland, Oregon these days is nothing but bleak. The poster child for progressive urban planning is reeling from the national media debacle of middle- and upper-income Portlanders fleeing across the state border, in this case the Columbia River, to the neighboring city of Vancouver, Washington. And the residents of Vancouver find themselves in the odd position of telling Portland, Oregon residents to “Visit, but please don’t stay.” The latter of course is the quote attributed to the late Governor Tom McCall of Oregon about the California in-migration of the 1960s. The regional newspaper for southwest Washington recently used the same quote to editorially admonish Portlanders to not move across the Columbia River. The editorial said, “The last thing we need is a bunch of Oregonians who have already fouled their own nest coming north across the Columbia River to foul ours.” A related story talked about the growing number of Oregonians turning in their driver’s licenses in southwest Washington. It said that Washington, “…is looking like a golden haven with funded schools, cheaper housing, attractive neighborhoods and no income tax.”
What went wrong?
Simply put, the prime motivator behind this migration is that Vancouver, Washington looks very attractive in comparison to Portland, Oregon. Why? Because Oregon’s great social experiment failed to measure up to political reality. The fact is that Oregon’s government infrastructure and services are deteriorating, and with it is going Oregon’s quality-of-life. Things in Oregon have gotten so bad that Washington Post national columnist, Neal Peirce, recently wrote an essay that asked, “Have you Oregonians gone daft?” There are also businesses moving across the river. The Portland area’s homebuilder association told its membership to stop building in the city because of unfair regulations. Stories, like the one about a pizza storeowner being charged $27,000 because he wanted to move across the street, have become the stuff of urban legends.
So what brought about this failure of governance in Portland, Oregon?
- In 1990 an Oregon ballot measure resulted in property tax limitations. It passed because the tax burden had reached new highs of over $30 per thousand of assessed value. The measure cut that in half to $15, which was close to the Washington property tax rate. So the taxes on a $200,000 home went from $6,000 to $3,000 a year.
- One ballot measure passed in Oregon in 2000 was the most draconian property compensation law the nation has ever seen. It passed in part because voters were getting tired of the state and local government’s high-handed property takings. But government officials persuaded the Oregon Supreme Court to invalidate the vote and that subterfuge angered even more voters.
- The voters turned down the last two attempts to increase taxes to expand the light rail system. So the city of Portland and the local transit authority found ways to build the last 11 miles without the voters having a vote. Again they circumvented the will of the voters.
- The defeat of a recent ballot measure was the last straw. The measure was put before the voters, in January 2003, as a last ditch attempt by the Oregon legislature to keep the state on economic life support. Its defeat meant even deeper cuts in a state already reeling from a recession. The state then announced it was laying off 100 state troopers; releasing some 3,300 criminal prisoners; and cutting social and medical services. People would start dying because of the lack of medical support.
- The financial crisis has resulted in Portland being listed by CNN as one of “America’s unsafest cities.” Portland had a crime rate in 2001 of 80 crimes per 1,000 people. Across the river the rate in Clark County is half that at 40 per 1,000.
- The schools have not faired any better. The Portland School District planned to cut 24 days off its school calendar, making it one of the shortest school years in the nation. Washington school district officials have Oregonians calling them and asking if they can live in Oregon and put their children in Washington schools. The answer, of course, is “no.”
- Then the public theater of the absurd was played out in the city of Portland. The city considered a proposition that allows a native-American gaming casino in the city limits, in exchange for them underwriting a new baseball stadium.
The New Eden?
The city of Vancouver is located in Clark County, Washington. The county is no stranger to growth. According to the 2000 Census, it was the fastest growing county in the state of Washington and in the bi-state Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area. According to Portland State University researchers, almost 500 people leave Oregon every month and move to Clark County. The Oregonian newspaper recently noted the “downward spiral that has driven middle- and upper- class students out of some urban districts, leaving schools overwhelmed with impoverished students.” A Portland area high-tech executive noted that “You see the business community get weaker and weaker because you can’t recruit employees.”
Part of the attraction is that parents believe the city of Vancouver and Clark County are family-oriented communities with good public schools. The county has one of the highest home ownership rates in the nation. If you move from Oregon to Washington, then you can get a 9 percent pay raise because Washington has no income tax. Washington does have a sales tax, but the truth is county residents are only about 15-minutes away from shopping in Oregon where there is no sales tax. The property taxes and homes cost slightly less in Clark County. Even the gas is cheaper in Washington because Oregon doesn’t allow its citizens to pump their own gas.
The city of Vancouver and Clark County also benefit from similar statewide planning legislation, the Growth Management Act, passed in 1990. Although it came 17 years after Oregon, the Washington version kept the positive aspects of Oregon’s efforts (i.e., urban growth boundaries, minimum urban densities, infill requirements) and ignored some of the more onerous ones. The latter includes the centralization of all land use authority to one Oregon state department with enormous administrative rule-making authority and a central land use court, both of which proscribe one-size-fits-all remedies.
But why would the citizens of Vancouver and Clark County not want Oregonians to move to their community? Part of the problem is that the county is tired of being a bedroom community to Portland. Some 60,000 county residents cross the Interstate-5 Bridge everyday to go to work in Oregon. Then Oregon has the gall to tax their income – even though they aren’t residents. Taxation without representation is as volatile an issue now at it was in 1776. The Clark County voters recently turned down a county charter because it included a provision for a local initiative process. The county residents have seen what the initiative process has done to their neighbors in Oregon.
There is also a very real concern about the quality-of-life in southwest Washington. The people of Vancouver have legitimate concerns about the character of these urban immigrants. After all, these people were complacent participants in the unraveling of their own social fabric. In the Oregon growth years, it was common to see bumper stickers that said, “Don’t Californicate Oregon.” So no one should be surprised if they start seeing new ones that say, “Don’t Oregonize Washington.”
Richard Carson is a writer and practicing planner in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, he moved from Oregon to Washington. He can be reached at email@example.com. A collection of his essays is on the web at www.carsonessays.org.