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The Washington Post Reports on Portland's Great Wall
from a Pro-Growth Perspective

A recent Washington Post article depicted Portland, Oregon's `Great Wall' as a failure. The Wall is described as a "radical step" that "planners" took in 1979 to draw a line around greater Portland and prohibit any development of the land beyond it.

As a remnant of the "environmentally conscious politics" of that region in the 1970s, the Wall has since caused home prices to "soar." As a result:

"[S]ome property rights advocates are raising their voices against planners complaining that they are too inflexible and are forcing people into a compressed lifestyle they didn't reckon with when they enthusiastically approached the concept of controlled growth." (William Claiborne, Washington Post).

One such advocate is Larry George, the only private citizen quoted in the article. George, the executive director of Oregonians in Action, claims "there is no question that our quality of life has deteriorated..." If George has his way, not only would the growth boundary be abolished, but so too would Metro, the elected regional government behind the Wall.

Once again the Post is questioning whether democratic institutions formed by a deeply involved electorate can be sustained. Without hiding their bias, the Post tells us the Wall is the work of "planners," and the word "radical" is employed to depict their conduct. The suggestion is that the "property rights advocates" are the ones in the majority. Yet, according to The Nation, which ran an article (10/13/97) on Portland's Wall as part of their ongoing "What Works" series, public support for the boundary remains high, at about 3-to-1 in favor.

In addition, the Wall was hardly a drastic step taken by a few bureaucrats. In 1979, Metro was established by Portland area voters to contain the kind of economically destructive sprawl that has plagued many parts of this country; e.g., Southern California, Towson. In fact, not only is Metro the result of democracy in action; but the Nation article indicates the Wall has been a great success for many reasons.

For one thing, since 1991 Portland has violated the clean-air guidelines for auto emissions just a few times. This is quite a contrast to the "environmentally conscious" 1979, when Portland violated it over 120 days a year.

In addition to cleaner air, sidewalks are bustling and neighborhoods are strengthening in Portland's downtown. Like any major city worth visiting, Portland is becoming a place where people can easily walk to grocery stores, drugstores, cafés, parks, child care centers and boutiques. According to Henry Richmond, the very accessible co-founder of the environmental group 1,000 Friends of Oregon:

"The [Wall] bounces investment back inward [to the downtown areas]. The older suburbs get more investment and so does the inner city. Europe's done this for a century. That's why its cities look the way they do (The Nation)."

Needless to say, the Washington Post failed to publish what Mr. Richmond, or anyone else at 1,000 Friends felt about the growth boundary. Nor could anyone be found to depict Portland's downtown as less than "deteriorating."

As for the "property rights advocates" who are seemingly reacting only to a worsening quality of life, a notable omission by the Post is that 1,000 Friends has rallied Oregon voters twice (1978, 1982) since the Wall's creation to counteract the attempts of home-builders and real estate interests to finance ballot referendums to repeal Oregon's land-use laws.

These highly organized and well-funded interests have fought the Wall since day one when they claimed it would choke the region's economic prosperity. (Today, Portland is booming.) Now, with the Post's help, they're getting their message out that home prices in the area are soaring. Maybe, but the Nation quotes affordable housing advocate Tasha Harmon as saying that the 60 percent rise in Portland's land prices since 1979 is less than many other fast-growing areas that don't have growth boundaries, like Salt Lake City (76%), Houston (79%), and Chattanooga (134%).

When Marylanders consider the "Smart Growth" legislation being proposed by the Glendening administration they should ask themselves if the nightmare depicted by the Post is for real.

Is it really a calamity that the median price of a single family home in Portland has risen from $64,000 in 1979, to $139,900 in 1996, particularly when it is in a thriving, bustling city with increasingly attractive neighborhoods and where the air is much cleaner than before? The reader is free to form his or her own opinions.

Scott Loughrey

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