Preserving the American Dream Conference a Great Success

Published June 1, 2004

On April 16, about 70 participants in the 2004 Preserving the American Dream Conference toured Portland and visited nine high-density housing sites. These ranged from a small group of “skinny houses”–single-family homes 15 feet wide on 25×100-foot lots–to giant transit-oriented developments.

In many cases, the transit-oriented developments could more realistically be called transit-oriented disasters. Tour leaders John Charles and Michael Barton, of the Cascade Policy Institute, showed that one development, Beaverton Creek, was supposed to have ground-floor shops with three stories of apartments above. But with limited parking for shoppers, only three of the shops were ever rented. Two have since gone out of business or moved, leaving just one hair salon surrounded by dozens of vacant shops.

Another development, Beaverton Round, was left vacant for years after the original developer went bankrupt because no one would risk money financing a development with inadequate parking. The development is now open, but only after a new developer convinced the city to allow it to include hundreds of additional parking spaces.

At many stops, Portland activist Jim Karlock ( produced city records showing the tax abatements received by various properties. “This townhome recently sold for more than $1.5 million,” he said of a downtown property, “and the owner pays only $150 a year in taxes.” Karlock has documented more than $80 million in tax exemptions and other subsidies in Portland alone … and that doesn’t count many improvements made by the city to support development.

“Many people told me how beautiful Portland was,” said Owen McShane, who came to the conference from New Zealand, “and I wondered if smart growth had anything to do with that. Now I see that these smart-growth developments are often ugly and shoddy, not to mention dysfunctional.”

Alternative Visions

Friday evening some 100 people heard a set of alternative visions provided by U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, no-growth advocate Andy Kerr, and free-market advocate John Charles. Blumenauer argued we subsidize the auto industry, so we need to subsidize transit as well. Curiously, he seemed to believe gas taxes paid by highway users were “subsidies” when spent on roads. If true, then transit fares paid by transit users are also subsidies to transit.

Kerr argued such automobile “subsidies” promote growth, and he believes such growth is bad for Oregon and elsewhere. While he was not willing to support all free-market ideas, he could agree with Charles that such subsidies should be eliminated.

The real highlight of the conference came with three presentations Saturday morning. First, South Carolina Representative Joe Neal updated conference participants on how smart-growth advocates are regulating rural black landowners and taking away much of the value of their land.

Second, Kansas City Councilwoman Saundra McFadden-Weaver told the audience that light rail was “ice cream and cake,” and that cities should concentrate on providing meat and potatoes before worrying about dessert.

Third, Steven Town, a policeman and architectural liaison in the West Yorkshire, England, Police Department, showed how New Urban “smart growth” in England has resulted in higher crime. New Urbanist demands for mixed uses, maximizing common areas and minimizing private space, and grid street patterns (as opposed to cul de sacs) led to burglary and other crime rates that were three to seven times the national average in Britain. Town added burglaries virtually ended when common areas were made private and other corrections were made.

More than thirty other presentations followed on Saturday and Sunday, providing much more information about the failings of smart growth and alternative solutions to urban problems. Among them:

  • Tom Rubin showed how rail advocates sometimes distort the numbers to make them seem favorable to rail transit. For example, they focus on “people past a point” when comparing rail to highway numbers, when in reality the highways usually do far more work because they are faster.
  • Robert Behnke described a low-capacity transit system that could take people nearly door to door at much faster speeds than large buses or rail. The system allowed people to call for a transit vehicle and get a response within four minutes. Behnke said the system was tried in San Jose several years ago, but abandoned after six months because it had more riders than planners had anticipated!
  • Sam Kazman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute ( played a series of television commercials to show how efforts that focused on the benefits of autos, homeownership, and other aspects of the American dream are more persuasive than efforts that were defensive about the potential costs of those activities.
  • Peter Samuel of Toll Roads News ( showed that, when roads become congested, traffic slows down and road capacities actually decline. The congestion won’t end until traffic volumes decline below the new, lower capacity, so it can take hours for congestion to go away. The solution, he said, is to charge tolls that vary by the amount of traffic so that traffic volumes never exceed capacity.

Randal O’Toole is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute ( and author of The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths. His email address is [email protected].