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Oct 21

Keeping Forest Grove from Becoming Hillsboro (or Bethany)

Note: This post was originally written during my run for Forest Grove City Council during the 2014 General Election.

One of my biggest concerns about Forest Grove’s future is that we are currently on a trajectory of no return, toward bedroom community status.  I’ve used that phrase “bedroom community” quite a lot in this campaign–I probably said it about 5000 times when I met with one local reporter back in September.  It’s hit a nerve, and I’m glad that we are having this discussion as a community now.

Some residents have already raised the white flag of surrender–one I talked to while getting signatures for my petition to get on the ballot for city council remarked, “Forest Grove has always just been the college and nursing homes.  I don’t know what you expect to change.”  As a born-and-raised resident, I know that that’s not always been the case.  Any Forest Grove resident who cares about this city should bristle at that statement.  But if we continue down this road, and believe there’s nothing we can do to prevent developers–primarily from Lake Oswego–from using our city as a vehicle to profit off of skinny houses, then we will lose something special.  According to the Wikipedia article on Forest Grove, we already are “primarily a bedroom suburb of Portland”.  That said, we’re at a critical juncture in the life of our city, and we can still act to save it before it’s too late.  That’s a large part of the reason I’m running for Forest Grove City Council.

The rallying cry I’ve heard from many residents is that we “don’t want to become Hillsboro”.  This account of the latest Planning Commission meeting about the 204-unit Silverstone development underscores this point.  Hillsboro, while afflicted with heavy congestion and increasingly dense development, at least has jobs and retail.  If we don’t change course, we’re merely going to be taking in the congestion and density without jobs and retail, and that will have a very negative effect on our quality of life here.  In actuality, the likely scenario, if the current patterns continue, is that Forest Grove is going to look much more like Bethany.

I’ve already broken down some of the sobering statistics of Forest Grove compared to other cities in the region about our dismal commercial situation.  Our city has the “not-so-golden ratio” of 1 grocery store per 22,419 residents, 3 times the next highest ratio (1 grocery store per 7,196 residents in Beaverton).  There’s plenty of other basic retail needs that our city does not have.

  • Want to buy a computer in Forest Grove?  Sorry, you can’t.  That’s right, in a town of 22,419 residents, in the year 2014, in the midst of the Silicon Forest, there is no place to buy a computer.  Our last computer store in town, Woodchuck Computers, went out of business several years ago. If you want that new laptop, you’re going to have to drive to Hillsboro.
  • What about office supplies?  Our last office supply store, the locally-owned Horton’s, sadly closed down a few years back.  The only office supplies in town are on a couple aisles in Bi-Mart.  Right now, if I need to get some more of the 11×17 paper I use for my music scores (a relatively standard size in the paper world), I have to go to Office Depot–in Hillsboro.
  • How about clothing?  Forest Grove had a JC Penney as late as the 1990s, which occupied the space at Pacific and Douglas that now houses a Tuality Physical Therapy office.  There’s limited clothing at Bi-Mart, sportswear at Frye’s, and a couple small resale places in town, but if you’re looking to buy a suit, that’s a trip to–you guessed it–Hillsboro.

The idea that a city our size, in 2014, cannot support the types of businesses I’ve outlined above strikes me as absurd, and yet, somehow, we are completely lacking in those areas.  I believe that part of our ineffectiveness in attracting more commercial and industrial development stems with a number of long-term issues.  There’s the matter of our road network–it’s difficult to reach Forest Grove from other places in Washington County (and vice-versa), due to our tangled road network.  Comparably-sized cities like Newberg and McMinnville have the benefit of Highway 99W, and they are “on the way” to other destinations, whereas we lie at the end of perennially-congested Highway 8 and a bunch of circuitous rural roads, and haven’t really been “on the way” anywhere since Highway 6 was routed onto its current alignment in 1957.*  I’ve already discussed in the “not-so-golden ratio” post that Forest Grove’s planners in the 1990s inexplicably thought we had too much commercial zoning in the city.  Right now, Chapter 10, Article 3 of the city code only mentions two types of commercial zones outside the designated Town Center area, “Neighborhood Commercial” (NC) and “Community Commercial” (CC).  Other parts of the planning documentation mention the possibility of Commercial Planned Development (CPD).

NC zones have a 2,000 sq. ft. limit, unless a conditional use permit is acquired, and CC zones west of Oak Street have setback requirements and the provision of promoting “streetscapes that are consistent with the desired character”.  This could pose some additional difficulties to someone trying to develop commercial businesses at the north end of the city, where we stand the best chance of attracting that needed type of development, curbing our “retail leakage” to Hillsboro in the process. A proper grocery store–even a specialty one–is going to need proper parking, and that’s going to mean a larger setback.  Finally, I believe that some commercial developers might still think, as Haggen ultimately concluded, that we “don’t fit their market”.  I don’t think the city’s original desired goal for the Times Litho property–attracting New Seasons Market or the like–was really feasible in light of this.

And while we seem to be unable to attract the kinds of commercial development we need, and some aspects of the way the city has handled commercial zoning over the years may be hampering that, we seem to have become a doormat for residential developers.  Our inclusion in the boundaries of Metro has exacerbated the issues here.  The situation with the high-density residential developments at the east end of 26th Avenue is an example of what we should strenuously avoid going forward.  That development was clearly built without the proper roadway infrastructure to support it, and both the existing and new residents in that part of town are paying the price.  Residents who were recently brought into the city through island annexation are especially feeling the pain.

caseymeadows

“Skinny houses” in Casey Meadows subdivision, a high-density residential development built without proper roadway infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure created a mess for both existing residents and skinny house dwellers alike, on 26th Avenue.

One of the two developers involved in that area is also involved with the controversial Gales Creek Terrace development, located west of D Street and south of Pacific Avenue. Gales Creek Terrace is itself built on a questionable understanding of traffic patterns.  It relies on the promise of a new 19th Ave extension, built to arterial standards, that will connect to E Street at the existing Pacific/E intersection near the twin Tom McCall Upper Elementary Schools.  However, in order for this extension to be built fully, and fulfill the traffic needs of the development, it would need to cut across two properties owned by long-time city residents, who have no desire to sell, and the confusing 19th Ave/B Street intersection will become even worse in the meanwhile.  The developer’s appeal of the Planning Commission’s previous denial is about to go before the city council.

While some have argued that there’s nothing the city can legally do to curb Forest Grove’s “Bethanification”, there are some steps we can take.  One step would be to amend Chapter 10 of the city code, which covers development standards, to put stronger emphasis on infrastructure needs for residential planned developments and subdivisions.  Currently, the code only says that a traffic study “may be required”.

We also should look at expanding the types of commercial zones available within the city, and rezoning some of the overabundant residential land for commercial use, or perhaps amending the Community Commercial zone description.  The current zoning map shows almost all the new land annexed to the city in the northwestern corner being zoned residential.  While Haggen, the store that backed out of Forest Grove upon determining that our city didn’t fit their market profile, is no longer in position to expand, I believe that similar retail businesses–including the New Seasons that city leaders have longed for–would potentially be attracted to this area (it would be difficult to exclude Forest Gale Heights from a market study there, as Haggen did with their eastside site), and it would be a draw to residents throughout western Washington County.  Getting commercial business in this new area of the city–away from Highway 8–would, as a whole, cause businesses to look at the rest of the city as well.

Additionally, there is also the option of enacting a moratorium, that would temporarily suspend the development process.  Development moratoria are allowed under ORS 197.520.  The process of enacting such a moratorium does require the involvement of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, as well as public hearings.  There are also time limits on how long such a moratorium may last.  Deschutes County has previously enacted a moratorium on residential development, and Bend and Hood River have entertained moratoria recently.  While this is a more drastic option, with some of the things that have been happening with development here, and countywide, it is an option that I believe should be on the table, as long as the city pursues it with a careful eye toward the Oregon Revised Statutes.

If we want Forest Grove to continue to be a small town with a high quality of life, we need to make changes to our method of dealing with development, before we end up like Bethany.

-Alexander

*Before 1957, Oregon Highway 6 was actually routed along present-day Oregon Highway 8, and extended from Tillamook all the way to downtown Portland, passing through Forest Grove, rather than going through Banks.  And before 1939, it existed as part of the now-decommissioned Oregon Highway 2, which similarly existed as a coast-to-Portland route that went through Forest Grove.  Highway 2’s final alignment, before it was decommissioned, corresponded with modern-day US Highway 26.