Fans of “The Simpsons” might remember that classic fourth-season episode, “Marge versus the Monorail,” in which a smooth-talking stranger convinces the animated folks of Springfield to build an electric monorail. The cartoon huckster absconds with the town’s money moments before the shoddy contraption goes haywire, to hilarious results.
I thought of the episode when I heard some folks in Charlottesville wanted to build an electric streetcar.
A group of Charlottesville leaders have embarked on a mission to build a streetcar line on W. Main Street, between the Downtown Mall and UVA, maybe up Emmet Street to the Barracks Road Shopping Center. It won’t happen for years, if at all, but two weeks ago, a local group called the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation got the ball rolling by rounding up city and county politicians, planners and real estate developers, to fly them to the Eden of progressive urban planning (and the hometown of “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening)—Portland, Oregon.
ACCT thought the group would be impressed not only by the country’s best example of a modern streetcar, a $60 million system covering a two-mile, L-shaped loop through west Portland, but also the pricey new high-rise condos springing up along the streetcar line, about $1.5 billion worth and counting. The streetcar’s true believers say the same potential for such dense, lucrative real estate development exists in Charlottesville, but first it needs a streetcar to make it grow.
A sleek, 21st-century electric streetcar on W. Main Street, the experts say, will be so irresistibly cool that the hip and affluent will be willing to buy a condominium there instead of a suburban home elsewhere.
The promise of style and wealth at the end of a streetcar line echos the salesman’s monorail pitch in “The Simpsons.” Voiced by the late Phil Hartman, he plays the crowd with a quip that his idea is probably too fancy, too progressive for Springfield. In fact, it might work better somewhere else, like nearby Shelbyville.
“We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville!” bellows Springfield’s Mayor Quimby. “Tell us your idea, and we’ll vote for it!”
Charlottesville, too, has a not-so-secret image of itself as a town on the move, but it won’t be so easily sold on a multi-million project that may—or may not—attract the development payoff. To see if Portland’s streetcar is really as cool as ACCT says, and if its success can be duplicated in Charlottesville, C-VILLE tagged along on their brief field trip to the Left Coast.
After spending three days riding streetcars in Portland, and Tacoma, Washington, we can truthfully report that they are, in fact, cool. So cool, in fact, that in coming months the streetcar’s true believers will begin laying the political and financial foundation for ultramodern transit here in Charlottesville. The quality of their groundwork may determine whether our version of ultramodern transit becomes part of a national model or a cartoonish boondoggle.
The path toward a streetcar began last October, when then-Mayor Maurice Cox organized a “transportation summit” that brought planning experts to diagnose Charlottesville’s traffic woes and recommend solutions.
Two of the experts, Robert Cervero and Robert Dunphy, hailed from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit think tank promoting “responsible leadership in the use of land to enhance the total environment,” according to the ULI website. The summit also included Ignacio Bunster-Ossa—an architect with WRT, the Philadelphia firm to whom Cox kicked down millions of dollars worth of work while he was on City Council—and G.B. Arrington, who helped craft Portland’s innovative land-use policies.
“What we have learned,” Bunster-Ossa said at the summit last year, “is that there isn’t a single grand idea that can provide this vision in the future, but rather a number of small and calculated smart moves.”
The moves include coaxing developers to build upscale condominiums and apartment buildings on W. Main, similar to the Belmont Lofts or Norcross Station that have sprung up south of the Downtown Mall. City Hall’s role, the experts said, is making W. Main attractive to people who have the means and desire to pay $250,000 for a 1,400-square-foot condo. Specifically, this means building wide, shady sidewalks, encouraging diverse residential and retail options and, finally, alternatives to the automobile.
That’s where the streetcar comes in. In Portland, streetcar enthusiasts say the line was instrumental in convincing developers to build high-rise condominiums in what was once an abandoned rail yard. Now, the streetcar is an integral part of the developers’ marketing pitch to sell their condos as part of a stylish urban lifestyle.
Rick Gustafson, one of Portland’s true believers, is a former Oregon state delegate, a former regional planning official and currently CEO of Portland Streetcar, Inc., the nonprofit company that operates Portland’s streetcar system.
“The streetcar is part of a strategy,” Gustafson says. “The streetcar plays a role in somebody deciding to invest here, and we think the streetcar helped spur the sales. The streetcar is a major incentive to convince people to be a part of these projects.”
Cox believes the same thing can happen on W. Main Street.
“I’m absolutely convinced that a streetcar is the next big thing,” says Cox.
Earlier this year, Cox helped ACCT secure a $100,000 grant from the Blue Moon Fund—formerly the W. Alton Jones Foundation—to send a delegation of Charlottesville and Albemarle leaders to Portland, hoping they would share his enthusiasm and, when they returned, begin spreading the good news around the city.
“Go by Streetcar”
The Portland excursion included two groups [see sidebar, page 19]. Local architects Gary Okerlund and Todd Gordon of Okerlund and Associates led the tour. On our first day, as the group strolled from the hotel to the streetcar line, everyone was gazing up at the tall buildings and the blue sky—the last time we would see it on our trip.
“This really is a beautiful city,” said Okerlund, who became closely familiar with Portland while growing up in Seattle.
While the concepts known as “new urbanism” and “smart growth” have no shortage of critics, it’s hard to deny their success in Portland.
The first thing you notice about Portland’s downtown, the Central City, is the 15’-wide sidewalks, and the short blocks—about three-fourths the length of what you find in New York City or Washington, D.C. Leafy trees, sculptures, benches and outdoor cafes line the streets. Buses cruise along in wide lanes that prohibit cars.
Portland’s downtown streets illustrate the “small and calculated” moves that Bunster-Ossa proposed during Charlottesville’s transportation summit to create a pedestrian-friendly environment. Stand on any corner in Portland and look up and down the blocks in all four directions—everything you see invites you to walk and explore.
Because the city controls the size and shape of buildings, you can always see the sky, and daylight streams down to the sidewalks, through the canopy of trees. Every block offers places to congregate and rest, shop windows to peek through and the feeling of safety that comes from seeing other people on the street. And if you don’t find what you’re looking for, the short blocks mean you will soon come to another intersection, with three new pathways to choose among.
Portland’s streetcar runs a two-mile loop between the Good Samaritan Hospital at one end and Portland State University at the other. Along the way it passes ultra-modern condominiums situated along streets like Flanders, Lovejoy and Montgomery—names that have since been immortalized in “The Simpsons.”
The streetcar stops 32 times along its route. LED displays in each shelter tell you when the next car will arrive. The streetcar is so silent, running on electricity delivered by overhead lines, it can almost sneak up on you. The cars are sleek and brightly colored. The station is slightly raised so passengers don’t need to step up when they board the streetcar through the wide, sliding doors. The cars have large windows and a place to hang bicycles. Riders can choose to sit or stand and grip poles or hanging straps.
The streetcar’s intersection with bus and light rail routes, plus the bicycle hangers, impressed Charlottesville Mayor David Brown. “It lets people integrate different modes of transportation,” he says. He says he was pleasantly surprised that the overhead wires powering the streetcar were not as ugly and intrusive as he expected.
On the first afternoon of our visit, a blue streetcar pulled up to the stop. The Charlottesville group piled on and immediately identified themselves as tourists by gathering around the electronic fare box near the streetcar door, and trying to figure out how to feed it dollar bills.
Locals, it seems, rarely pay for their ride. About half of the streetcar line is free, and in the rest of the line, enforcement is lax.
“I’ve ridden for a year-and-a-half, and I’ve never seen them check for fares,” says 21-year-old Christina Keef, a student at Portland State University. She seemed like a veteran rider, casually leaning against the wall, reading a book while Charlottesville’s rookie riders swayed and grabbed for the leather straps that hang from the ceiling as the streetcar took off.
Keef, who lives along the streetcar route and rides it to school, says she purchased an annual pass for $75. Gustafson says the streetcar collects about $90,000 a year in fares “on the honor system.”
Fred Leeson, a reporter who covers transit for Portland’s local newspaper, The Oregonian, says the streetcar “works pretty well.” Keef agrees. “I like it, but it needs to be expanded,” she says. “It doesn’t go where I need to go for work.”
Critics of the streetcar system say that Portland could have spent the nearly $60 million on a better bus system that would do just as good a job at moving people.
“It’s just a goofy little tourist thing,” says John Charles, an environmental policy analyst for the Cascade Institute, a leading critic of smart growth initiatives.
“For $30 million a mile, Portland could have bought buses like Mick Jagger tours on,” says Charles. “They could be powered by solar energy, serve coffee, and the city still would have saved money. Rubber-tire buses could do the job cheaper, faster and better.”
Perhaps that’s true. But streetcar advocates say that, frankly, many people think buses are for losers. Those people will choose to ride a streetcar, however, because it has a more open, stylish feel. “It’s like the difference between taking the bus to New York and taking the train,” says Mayor Brown. “It just feels different.”
As further evidence, Todd Gordon of Okerlund and Associates points to Tacoma, which recently built a streetcar along a route formerly traversed by conventional buses. When the streetcar was introduced in Tacoma, ridership on the route tripled.
Indeed, the streetcar is a key feature in the marketing literature for Portland’s Hoyt Street Properties, the premier developer of condominiums along the streetcar line in the newly renovated Pearl District. In fact, Homer Williams, a partner in Hoyt Street Properties, was one of Portland’s first proponents of a streetcar. At a time when the city desperately wanted to increase density downtown, Williams agreed to build condominiums that were taller and denser than market forces justified—if the city agreed to build a streetcar.
“Condominium sales had been low,” says Portland Streetcar CEO Gustafson. “Portland had not been a good place to invest in condominiums. It was very definitely a risk [for Williams],” he says.
Portland agreed to Williams’ conditions. Property and business owners formed a nonprofit company, Portland Streetcar, Inc., to build and operate the streetcar system.
Charlottesville’s Mayor Brown, who attended chiropractor school in Portland between 1978 and 1982, marveled at the transformation in The Pearl, where gleaming new condominiums, with a modern design that alludes to the area’s industrial origins, dominate the skyline.
“It used to be real seedy down there,” says Brown. “I wish we could have had more local developers on this trip, to see the kind of architecture they’re doing out there.”
The only Charlottesville developer who made the trip was Frank Stoner, vice president of Stonehaus Development. His firm has already been a pioneer of modern architecture in Charlottesville, with projects like the Belmont Lofts. Stoner snapped lots of pictures of the Pearl’s sleek, powerful buildings.
In Charlottesville, however, the conventional wisdom is that people with money want big houses with big yards. Stoner says it will be difficult convincing local developers to take the risks inherent in building luxury condos.
“On an emotional level, I love the whole idea,” says Stoner. “It speaks to the idea of what Charlottesville wants to be.
“But this type of development is not easy money,” he says. “The return won’t be there on the first project. The hope is that you can establish some momentum. Once it got going in Portland, it probably exceeded their expectations.”
Welcome to Ecotopia
While Portland and Charlottesville share some similar sensibilities, the differences between the two cities go far beyond Portland’s rainy winters and plethora of strip clubs. Oregon’s statewide political scene so differs from Virginia that making Portland’s smart-growth ideas take root here will require more than just faith and enthusiasm—it will take financial wizardry and a political will of steel.
Portland, population 540, 000, has a reputation as an “ecotopia” 40 years in the making. According to Ethan Seitzer, who researches Portland’s urban evolution at Portland State University, by the mid-1960s people in Oregon were starting to get fed up with the big highways and sprawling suburbs they perceived to be destroying their neighborhoods.
At that time, Jane Jacobs published the classic, some would say subversive, planning tome, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. People who had spent the past decade protesting the Vietnam War began directing their activism toward the development of their own city.
The backlash against highways and suburban sprawl convinced Oregon’s legislature to mandate a pair of controversial growth-control measures, both of which still stand out nationally as radical steps to preserve farmland and city neighborhoods.
The first is an urban growth boundary—a ring around the Portland area, which comprises 24 cities and three counties, outside which no new development is allowed. Any builder wanting to work in Portland must either find vacant land inside the boundary or redevelop land that’s already in use.
Oregon legislators also required Portland to adopt a planning organization that would have authority over the cities and counties inside Portland’s growth boundary. The planning group, which came to be called Metro, had an elected leadership and a staff of planners. Metro built Portland’s light rail system and required that new development be built adjacent to the train lines to encourage the public’s use of transit. The Charlottesville equivalent of Metro would be if our regional Metropolitan Planning Organization could force its will on—rather than just advocate to—local governments.
While Portland’s Metro was approved by popular referendum, it was not universally lauded.
“Portland isn’t any different than any other city in terms of how repulsed existing residents are about increasing density,” says Rick Gustafson, who became Metro’s first executive director in 1979. He says Portland had the same argument many cities (including Charlottesville) have about growth, the debate between people who advocate growth at all costs and trumpet private property rights as the highest good, and those who favor slowing and ultimately stopping growth to preserve the quality of life for those lucky (and rich) enough to make it inside before the gate closes.
Oregon’s land use laws forced people to adopt a third perspective, Gustafson says, a consideration of the “regional form” of Portland.
“We had to find a way to integrate different types of housing,” he says. “It fostered innovation and creativity. It created a whole different type of living environment, this idea of communal life. You gave up your personal space, but you upgraded your quality of life.”
To control housing prices, Portland offers lucrative tax breaks for developers to adopt rent controls. Gustafson says this has actually created a glut of affordable housing. For example he says he owns an apartment building with 96 units, half of which are priced so that someone earning 60 percent of Portland’s median income will spend about 30 percent of their monthly earning on rent. All 48 of his market-rate units are full, while his affordable units are only 80 percent full.
In Oregon, as in Virginia, growth controls are continually under assault from conservative think tanks like the Cascade Policy Institute and the National Center for Policy Analysis, as well as political action committees formed by the Homebuilder’s Association, auto dealers and real estate agents. The difference is that in Oregon, the public’s demand for smart growth outweighs the political clout of homebuilders and auto dealers.
“There’s no question that Portland is very liberal, and there is a mentality in favor of public planning,” says Gustafson. In Oregon, as in Virginia, the Homebuilder’s Association is a top political donor that opposes smart growth. Gustafson says Portland’s leaders decided it was in their city’s best interest essentially to ignore the association’s cries for less regulation.
“More builders in Portland now are not members of the Homebuilder’s Association,” Gustafson says. “Traditional homebuilder types chose not to build in Portland.”
Charlottesville might like to adopt a similar stance toward conventional homebuilding. The question is, will we be able to get the same kind of support from Virginia’s General Assembly?
After the delegation met with Gustafson on one of those days in Portland where the rain doesn’t exactly fall from the sky as much as it seems to seep up from the earth, former City Councilor Meredith Richards summarized Charlottesville’s chances of getting a load of help from the Commonwealth— “It will be damn hard,” she said.
Could it happen here?
Now that the delegation has returned to Charlottesville, they’re trying to revivify the enthusiasm from the trip.
Most of the delegation seems to agree on one point—impressive as Portland’s success appears, Oregon’s political climate and Portland itself are so different from Charlottesville that the strategy cannot be simply transplanted to Virginia.
“It would have to evolve differently in our setting,” says planner and architecture professor Ken Schwartz. “But I came away very encouraged.”
Schwartz and others say there are two big lessons that Charlottesville can learn from Portland. One is that land use and transportation can be coordinated to create lucrative real estate developments that the free market alone might not otherwise produce.
On W. Main, for example, Schwartz points out that better transit would mean developers would have to include less parking in their projects, which means they could use the extra space for more residential units, which would, in turn, increase profit.
Furthermore, Frank Stoner says he was encouraged by Portland’s example of how public-private partnerships can encourage better development. The tax credits that Portland gives to developers and consumers who invest in condominiums “is a huge incentive,” Stoner says.
When private business create a nonprofit company to partner with the government, says Schwartz, “it gives elected officials a mandate” to pursue innovation that politicians alone might not have the courage to undertake.
Yet no one in the delegation believes a streetcar will happen anytime soon in Charlottesville. Portland’s streetcar was funded from a wide array of sources, including increased parking fees, bonds, extra taxes that businesses agreed to bear and government grants. Before Charlottesville wades into such a complex process, transit experts say a slow-but-steady approach is needed.
Councilor Kevin Lynch and ACCT president Susan Pleiss says the logical first step is reforming the bus system. Lynch has long advocated a “backbone and feeder” system, with more buses running up and down W. Main Street. Lynch also advocates borrowing some of the streetcar’s technology—such as displays that tell waiting passengers when the next bus will arrive, and equipment that allows drivers to turn red lights green.
“Now is not the time to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on a streetcar,” says Pleiss. “It’s important for a wide variety of people to know that the vision is out there, and what it would mean for Charlottesville to have something like this.”
Pleiss says that while streetcars and high-rise condominiums on W. Main may be 10 years away, it’s good for locals to know what is possible. That way, she says, as the City and County move forward on reforming transit, we don’t do something so expensive that it would put a streetcar out of reach for the future. “We don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot,” she says.
Ultimately, though, changing the environment of W. Main will come down to money. It will be tough for the City to finance such innovation all alone, says Albemarle planner Juandiego Wade. “But if we’re talking about taxing the County, we’re going to have to work on getting their buy-in.”
Still, Wade says, “I don’t see any critical barriers. If there’s a will, it can happen.”
Former Mayor Cox agrees. He says the City should add “layers” of improvement to W. Main, beginning with pedestrian amenities, then adding better transit and high-density development. While it took Portland 20 years to produce the streetcar, the ever-optimistic Cox predicts Charlottesville can do it in half that time.
“You’re seeing the beginning of the movement that will push Charlottesville to do something different,” he says.Who’s on board
Want to know more about a streetcar in Charlottesville?
Here’s a list of the people who took the field trip to Portland
Gary Okerlund, Todd Gordon – architects at Okerlund and Associates
John Borgmeyer—C-VILLE reporter
Karen Firehock—City planning commissioner
Kevin Lynch—City councilor
Susan Pleiss—ACCT president
Meredith Richards—former City councilor, statewide rail and transit advocate
Kenneth Schwartz—UVA professor of architecture
Frank Stoner—real estate developer
Juandiego Wade—County transportation planner
William Watterson—City transit manager
Alia Anderson—ACCT staff
David Brown—City mayor
Wayne Cilimberg—County director of planning
Maurice Cox—former City councilor
William Lucy—UVA professor of urban planning
Judith Mueller—City director of public works
Rob Schilling—City councilor
Michael Smith—student intern
Rebecca White—UVA director of transportation