Recently planners from Hillsboro have met with AmberGlen and Tanasbourne property owners along with Trimet, the regional transit agency, to hash out the possibility of creating a Portland-esque neighborhood in the suburbs. Details and grand plans for an urban micro-city have been publicized over the years, but nothing except some generic renderings of condo towers and proposed zoning maps have come out of it so far. Previously, the land and business owners of the AmberGlen office park had expressed interest to the City of Hillsboro to redevelop their very suburban office-in-the-park landscape into a vibrant urban center much like Portland’s Pearl District. The only problem is that nothing urban exists now, and everything within several miles of the area is also very 1990’s suburbia. The land owners took notice of the nearby ‘new urbanist’ Orenco Station as an example of how to build urban suburbia, and the Streets at Tanasbourne retail development to the North of AmberGlen created a faux-urban main street as part of its overall design. Urban planners and critics loathe these disneyfication places as they are only urban by appearance with complete auto-dependency and asinine material and design element mash-ups.
Now Trimet has become involved with preliminary plans for a streetcar circulator as the mass transit component of the development. As a proponent of urbanization and mixed-use planning I applaud these efforts, however I feel that the developers are going to get a sweet deal from the public on this project and the outcome is going to more gated-community and less urban spectacle. Without tax giveaways we should be able to rezone the area, create an urban renewal style special taxing district to build new infrastructure, and let the private developers do the rest. The modern age of the 1% controlled public-private developments will more than likely prevail however, with potential city, county and state tax breaks and government backed loans offered up without voter approval. Developments like this one could be net-gains for everyone if done correctly, especially if the governing stakeholders use a value-capture system of taxing around infrastructure projects like governments do around the world (see Tokyo and Hong Kong).
What if instead of a streetcar circulator, the stakeholders invested in part of a new light rail extension off of the existing MAX system. If this were to happen then the transit component of the project could connect AmberGlen and Tanasbourne directly with downtown Portland, and thus become an end-of-the-line destination instead of a transfer at an intermittent stop. A double tracked 1/2-mile-long short line is all you would need to connect the proposed area with one or two stations, but the line could be a catalyst for a new North-South line throughout the Westside suburbs. Hillsboro is not just working on AmberGlen, another large development known as South Hillsboro, a newly added chunk of green farmland recently added to the Urban Growth Boundary, is poised to become a dense mixed-use destination as well. If a new light rail spur was created at AmberGlen, it could then head South along the BPA’s power line ROW to the proposed South Hillsboro area as either a double or single track (with pullouts) light rail line.
This concept could go even further as it could connect to the old Portland & Western rail ROW to the Northwest of AmberGlen and head North toward the unincorporated town of West Union with stops at Intel’s campus, Hillsboro Stadium (and McMenamins Roadhouse), and potentially at several large undeveloped parcels along the way. If I were a dreamer, I’d say that a complete light rail proposal in the area would end at PCC Rock Creek with the potential inclusion of the land in-between West Union and PCC added to the UGB and being value-captured to help pay for the rail line. I would prefer, of course, no new inclusions into the UGB, but if an expansion is necessary then I’d rather have it done where its sought after rather than out in Clackamas where the local population doesn’t even want it. This new ROW could also coexist with a new pedestrian/ bike path along its alignment to further connect the suburban area. A new North-South line doesn’t even have to go through AmberGlen if a streetcar is built there, as the Portland & Western ROW could connect directly to the BPA power line ROW and go through other undeveloped parcels for potential value-capturing. Either way, I hope that the Hillsboro planners think bigger and try to connect their assets rather than spread them out and make them auto-dependent.
On a similar note, with all of the negative media attention toward light rail lately in the Southern metro area, the recent call for an extension of the MAX Blue Line to Forest Grove last year has almost fallen on deaf ears. If there is a need and the political will now, we should embrace it, and concentrate our limited infrastructure funds where they would be welcome. A new extension through Cornelius to Forest Grove from the Hatfield Government Center in downtown Hillsboro along the ODOT owned rail ROW would open up quite a few old unused industrial properties as well as a large greenfield near Quince Street to new development. This extension could be on its own timetable, separate from the Blue Line, as to not over-serve the less populated area, or could be a single track shuttle service to allow enough room for the existing freight line to remain in service. The ROW is already owned by a government entity and is wide enough, like the North-South proposal, to include a dedicated pedestrian/ bike path which could eventually connect to other planned paths to the North and South of Forest Grove.
Both of these light rail proposals are just ideas, but they are big picture ideas, ideas that I think are currently lacking in suburban planning departments everywhere. If the land and business owners of AmberGlen want to become a destination, they should actually become a destination on the map. Streetcars have been proven to be great development tools, but have thus far been very disappointing as actual mass transit. Mass transit, walkability, and bikeability are all necessary for urban development in today’s world, and should be front and center in the ongoing discussions with the city. Also, big ideas cannot forget the details, as the small spaces, the human spaces, are often far more important than the larger vision. Regardless of the outcome, almost anything would be better than the soullessness of the current AmberGlen office park area.