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Editorial: Can Brooklyn Survive Its Outdated Zoning?

Planners at the City of Portland’s Bureu of Planning are hard at work on a much-needed update to the Central City Plan.  The plan was last updated in 1988, and much has changed since that time.  It seems that mixed-use development and urban revitalization has happened along just about every major commercial street in the city.  However, very little has changed in Brooklyn’s commercial districts.  The new Portland Plan just may be our chance to change that.

The Brooklyn Action Corps Board has been examining the issue of commercial development for several years now.  We have met with numerous property and business owners during that time, and what we have heard time and again is that our exisitng zoning plan is a mess.  We currently have single family homes zoned for commercial use.  We have commercial buildings where only residential uses are now allowed.  We have industrial properties where current owners can’t remodel or expand their operations because their are strict limits on the amount of space that can be used for “office purposes”.  We have “General Commercial” zones that require significant parking lots to be built in corridors with heavy transit use.  And most distressing of all, we have a rich fabric of historic buildings with very little protection from being torn down or remodeled beyond recognition.

The era of Brooklyn serving as a warehousing district is over.  The big guys left for the suburbs a long time ago.  Case in point, Fred Meyer moved its distribution center to Clackamas nearly thirty years ago.  Many smaller companies have followed them in the years since.  Warehousing is no longer dependent on the railroads, and proximity to the central city is now more of a hinderance than a help.  The medium sized manufacturing and light industrial companies that have continued to call Brooklyn home are also in decline.  Corporate mergers and the establishment of off shore production centers have picked these long time residents off one by one.

The future of Brooklyn’s commercial districts is up to us to decide.  Clearly, the presence of the Brooklyn Rail Yards will keep Brooklyn from becoming a trendy, overly hip and fashiopnable,  Pearl District type neighborhood.  Stable, high paying, blue-collar jobs have defined our past.  And they should define our future as well.

A comprehensive update of the area’s zoning maps would go a long ways towards encouraging economic redevelopment.  Brooklyn already has a mix of differing land uses, lets build upon that.  Let’s allow mixed use developments like those on Hawthorne and Division be built along Milwaukie Avenue.  Let’s rezone our historic commercial buildings so that they can be used for what they were built for.  Let’s protect affordable housing by making sure that our existing stock of single family homes can continue to be used to house families.  Let’s allow some condos and townhouses to be built along Milwaukie and SE 17th so that there is a greater variety of housing options available for those that want to buy into the neighborhood without having to spend $375,000 for a house.  And most importantly, let’s move forward with the generation old dream of a Brooklyn Historic District.

The Portland Plan will soon be asking area residents for their input on how Portland should evolve and grow over the next generation.  Let’s make sure that they don’t forget about Brooklyn this time around.  I will be an eager particiapant in the public involvement process, and I hope that you will be too.

Please check out the following web site for additional information: http://www.portlandonline.com/portlandplan/


Lance Lindahl, Chair of the Brooklyn Action Corps

2 Replies to “Editorial: Can Brooklyn Survive Its Outdated Zoning?”

  1. rnugent

    I read with great interest, Lance’s comments about the forthcoming review of the Portland Central City Plan. As a onetime resident who has maintained an attachment to Brooklyn, I thought I might provide a few comments from an outsider. I should add that in a recent visit to Portland, I spent 4 days in the neighborhood just to hang out, have a good time and observe the changes that have come and seem to be in the future of the neighborhood.

    First as to the preservation of some sort of the blue-collar origins and history of Brooklyn, all of you had better check the color of your shirts. The collars seem to be getting very white to me. During my stay in the neighborhood, I spent about an hour wandering around Brooklyn Park talking to families and individuals who had come to enjoy the outdoor movie. I met many professionals, particularly in service industries and IT. They all talked about their homes with great affection and about how they had bought into the neighborhood initially for price and then had turned around and put a lot of money into their homes. The era of the affordable house in Brooklyn for any family or set of individuals making less than $100,000 per year would seem to rapidly ending. This was reinforced by my quick inspection of the few places for sale (What Real Estate Slump?). The new duplex on Rhine was particularly impressive (great job of designing a new structure that fits the spirit and look of the neighborhood). However, the price tags would exclude many folks. Lance’s interest in preserving at least some lower priced housing would already seem to be gone. The only hope would be for more Condos or very unimaginative reuse of some of the existing space. It would require many complex partnerships between existing landowners, the city and developers. Here is a suggestion, what about those terrible old narrow houses on the west side of Franklin? Imagine a bunch of condominiums on that block. In addition, all efforts to tear down any of the newer, hugely ugly apartments and returning that space to single family, owner occupied use would be a vast improvement.

    The key to the future of Brooklyn would seem to be the coming changes in public transport and the necessary changes in energy use. From what I am reading off of the neighborhood news site, you may well have both a streetcar running down Milwaukie and a Max Rail line running through the neighborhood in a decade or so. Combine that with the compact nature of the neighborhood and its proximity to downtown and all most of the rest of Portland, you could well become a nearly car free neighborhood. Imagine riding up Milwaukie to the Lloyd center and down Milwaukie to the stores and restaurants of Bybee and Sellwood on wonderful electric trains. Eat your heart out Amsterdam! Also, imagine a new kind of all electric vehicles, designed just to run errands. You could live you whole life in Brooklyn and never start a gas-powered car.

    At random:
    The neighborhood is getting younger. Many children at the Park and from number of pregnant ladies there are a lot more on the way. Make Brooklyn School back into a neighborhood school?
    I stayed at the Brooklyn Center Suites. A great place to house an out of town guest for a few days while keeping them close.
    Get inside the Sacred Heat Church if you have never done so. The restoration is terrific.
    Cross the Ross Island Bridge (maybe on your bike on a nice day) and go up the hill as my mother always called it (she was the Medical Record Librarian at the then Uof O Medical School) to the Oregon
    Health Sciences Complex. Costs four dollars and it is a brief ride but such a magnificent view of Brooklyn as well as downtown Portland.
    I think the sole of Brooklyn has moved from the taverns to the True Brew.

    Well, the best of luck to all of you. Greatly enjoyed my visit and I appreciate all of the people who spent some time with me at movie night event. I will be back next year, and if things work out, would love to talk with many more of you.

    Ron Nugent

  2. Adam

    Ron, your comments are always great to read. You’re right, even residents (like myself) who have been here for less than 5 years have seen the change.

    Your insight is generally spot on. The zoning and development ideas you espouse may well be on their way with the coming rail projects. What will become of a redesigned 17th ave and the nearby environs will be critical to the emerging “new” face of Brooklyn. The irony is that it may look a lot more like the historic Brooklyn.

    One last point, the blue collar (socioeconomic, not manufacturing/labor necessarily) heart of Brooklyn will likely stay in place for some time. Over 50% of our properties are rental, that should keep roofs over working folks heads for a while.

    Keep the comments coming and maybe you can visit again for the Ice Cream Social.

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