Portland, Ore., has a well-deserved reputation among urbanists for its sound design sensibilities, from pedestrian-friendly sidewalks to tasteful public squares to a downtown waterfront park that was once an overpass. One less-reported aspect of this aesthetic is its charming retail hubs.
Rather than concentrating all of its retail into a few corridors, as most cities do via strip malls, Portland has allowed it throughout its residential areas, particularly in its Eastside neighborhoods across the Willamette River from downtown. Some hubs are just a few blocks long and offer niche retail, while others are longer and include more practical features like grocery stores.
Take Sellwood-Moreland, where I lived recently. The neighborhood, at under two square miles, has about 12,000 residents and a half-dozen of these retail hubs, most just a few blocks apart from each other. The strip that I lived near, at the corner of 13th Avenue and Bidwell Street, was so diverse that I forewent countless car trips. It had a library, a bar, a convenience store, a coffee shop, various restaurants and even several food carts, which are common citywide.
These hubs reflect Portland’s history, says Tom Armstrong, a staffer for the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Sellwood-Moreland and other Eastside neighborhoods, such as Irvington and Mt. Tabor, began as streetcar suburbs, later to be annexed by the city. This meant they each developed their own Main Street-style, pre-automobile retail centers, featuring narrow streets and apartments above storefronts.
The hubs remain thanks to what the city did — and did not — do. While Portland has its own ugly urban renewal history, many of these historic areas were spared in the post-World War II decades. Portland also did not insist as much as other cities did on separating its uses into residential and commercial. Starting in the 1980s, there were conscious efforts to protect and bolster these hubs in the city’s comprehensive plan. There are 23 of these so-called neighborhood centers mentioned in the current plan, along with a formal strategy to allow housing and amenities around them. Meanwhile, the zoning map also allows for dozens of additional autonomous retail spots that are either within or near these centers.
The result is that Portland, despite still being largely single-family residential in nature, has a much stronger retail presence than most U.S. cities with similar designs and histories. Walkability scores for its Eastside neighborhoods are generally in the 80s and 90s. At street level, this gives the city a spontaneous quality. One can meander through a quiet residential area and suddenly stumble upon a bakery or a micropub.
Perhaps more important, it has paid off for the city, showing the value of mixed uses. In other places, this kind of retail-residential mix has been hard to implement — often because it’s a target of NIMBY resistance. But these urban-style amenties have made median home listing prices in Portland’s Eastside neighborhoods some of the highest metrowide. “They’re very popular places,” says Armstrong, “and we keep seeing redevelopment and new investment in those places.”
As I discovered, they’re convenient, placing Portlandians near charming, historic retail streets that provide whatever they could want.
[This article was originally printed in Governing Magazine.]