Portland’s Northwest 23rd Avenue No Model for Others

Published February 1, 2004

Why can’t everywhere be like Disney World? So goes the question asked by many a child after a fulfilling day of joy at the world’s leading amusement park.

A similar question is raised by many an urbanist after a visit to one of the holiest shrines in the planning Nirvana of Portland, Oregon. They come home believing their job is to turn the entire urban area into a copy of Portland’s Northwest 23rd Avenue.

Northwest 23rd Avenue is one of the many “chic” spots to be found in the nation’s cities. In Portland, it fulfills the role of Harbor Place in Baltimore, North Michigan Avenue in Chicago, LaClede’s Landing in St. Louis, and LoDo in Denver. Northwest 23rd is lined with fashionable restaurants and boutiques and is an eminently walkable place. To hear Portland’s urban theologians put it, you’d think this is the future for the entire urban area.

It is not.

A Magnet, Not a Community

Northwest 23rd, and neighborhoods like it all across the country, are in fact not neighborhoods at all. They are magnets that draw people from all over the urban area for particular purposes.

They are what La Cienega Boulevard was to Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was called “restaurant row.” They are what Arrowhead Stadium is to Kansas City on Sundays when the professional football Chiefs play at home. One can no more imagine a Portland made up of Northwest 23rds than a Kansas City made up of Arrowhead Stadiums or a Cleveland with wall-to-wall Rock and Roll Halls of Fame and Museums.

For all its walkability, Northwest 23rd has some of the highest automobile densities in the nation. Parking is a real problem here, and most of the out-of-neighborhood visitors who support the intense business activity come by car. Of course, with a new streetcar line having recently been opened, we will doubtless soon be hearing that Northwest 23rd developed in response. Fortunately, many of us who have been there took pictures before the cutesy transit line arrived.

The urban planners who see Northwest 23rd as a model talk about “fine grain” planning, suggesting they alone know how to design a balance of jobs and residences that make a community walkable. But the walkability of Northwest 23rd is not a planner’s design–it was a market design.

Moreover, the walkability of Northwest 23rd is like the walkability of the local enclosed shopping mall or Wal-Mart supercenter. These are the ultimate in pedestrian-oriented designs–people walk a lot in them. But those walkers get there by car. So do the visitors to Northwest 23rd.

To have the walkability of which planners dream, without automobile access being necessary, requires population densities far higher than most planners are willing to admit. Walkability, except in small enclaves, is simply not possible at Portland densities or even the higher densities one finds in Phoenix, Denver, or Los Angeles.

There is no doubt Northwest 23rd Avenue is a nice place to visit. It may even be a nice place to live. But there are not enough people in Portland to support an entire urban area made up of Northwest 23rd Avenues.

Wendell Cox is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. His email address is [email protected].