Monday, September 15, 2008

Habitat Heresy?

When I first heard the grumbling around Colwood National Golf Course being rezoned as industrial space from it's current state as an ailing golf course I had the same reaction as others: Do we really want more displacement of open space into industrial lands, especially in NE Portland, which has a legacy of industrial lands degrading natural areas and gobbling up park space in a notoriously underserved neighborhood? As a neighbor and environmental advocate - I was torn as well between removing something unnecessary (the golf course) and being proactive - not single-minded in the solution. It, like everything, is not a black and white issue.

This was more poignant, particularly in fresh on the heels of our winning entry for Integrating Habitats as people were reacting positively to the ideas - but also searching for actually, realistic opportunities. This is where I thought, what a great opportunity for the City and Metro to combine forces to make something in balance with economics and nature - truly the point of integrating habitats. The topic has definitely heated up in recent months as well.

:: Habitat? - image via
Colwood National Golf Course

Today, Randy Gragg has taken up the question in a blog post on Portland Spaces... asking the million dollar question - 'Can we have both?' Via the article: "Here’s a great opportunity for a lot of contemporary theorizing to hit the road with some real solutions. Consider Metro’s recent Integrating Habitats competition or the Reed College exhibition Suddenly based on the German urban theorist Thomas Sievert’s supposedly “astonishing” assertion that ’’the shaping of the landscape where we live can no longer be achieved by the traditional resources of town planning, urban design, and architecture. New ways must be explored, which are as yet unclear..." Why not here, now?"

:: This could / could this be Industrial Development - image via L+U

Why not here and now indeed...! So how does one tip-toe in this minefield of interest groups and come up with a viable solution for everyone. On one hand, support of the proposed zone change will encourage the ire of a large community groups - including Keep Colwood Green and ecological groups, including the Audubon Society of Portland. On the other, there is a continual dialogue of ('anti-business' advocates) in allowing for economic development - particularly in zones that are appropriate for such development. Throw in some additional Port of Portland land for a future runway - and it's complicated... We aren't going to come up with all the answers - but perhaps a dialogue is in order:

:: Is the golf course evenutally going to go? Absolutely.
:: Does something have to happen with the land? Uh, yep.
:: Are there issues with industrial development being proposed? Most likely.
:: Is it practical for this area to become just a large open space reserve? Probably not.
:: Is it necessary for it to become wall-to-wall barren industrial land? Absolutely not.
:: Will the project interject much needed open space and parkland in an area that needs it whichever development? Yes.

There IS a potential compromise that can improve habitat, allow for development, and provide a model for habitat-friendly development. A golf course for the most part is not interjecting a large amount of habitat into an area - and is also notorious for destroying water quality by use of herbicides and pesticides - and it's adjacency to the Columbia Slough makes any sort of management very much problematic. I don't believe Colwood is at all one of those modern examples of sustainable golf course management that reuse water, limit chemicals, and provide plantings that increase habitat... i.e. lawn is not really great habitat.

Most people's experience of the golf course is the cut-through shortcut to the Airport from the west side on Alderwood Road. As you can see in the location map, and aerial photo, the project is in close proximity to the Columbia River and the Portland Airport, and immediately located next to the Columbia Slough, which has constantly been threatened and degraded - and is on the mend due to the diligent and passionate work of many of the groups fighting to preserve the open space today...

:: Location - image via Colwood National Golf Course

Looking at the aerial photo it definitely looks like a pretty typical golf course, and is surrounded by Industrial land. You can see the split channel of the degraded Columbia Slough channel and ponds. You can also see the bottom section of the airport runways just peeking into the frame to the top, and Columbia Boulevard and the soon-to-be-redeveloped Cully Park from an existing landfill - which will bring some of that much needed parkland.

:: Site - image via Google Earth

Great habitat? Not really. The plantings adjacent to the Slough are improved, but only provide a thin sliver and patch of habitat that probably improves water quality and provides small habitat areas. There isn't very much canopy - which is pretty indicative of most golf-course developments. But it is definitely better than the surrounding areas as you pan out and see the barren surroundings. Do we need more of the same development in the areas... definitely not:

:: Context - image via Google Earth

Alas, is Randy right? Is this one of our opportunities to split the difference and improve habitat, provide economic development, and expand the conversation about Integration of building and wildlife? Is this the forum for this discussion. Sounds like a good opportunity to me - for, at the very least, a dialogue.

I think the biggest issue is not necessarily the loss of open space (with the removal/transformation of the golf course) and any subsequent development (the owners do actually own the property, and said they'd be willing to sell it for market value if someone were to step up and pay that price).

Most of the reluctance is due to the significant zone change from OS to industrial land, which will set a very bad precedent for other issues where development is requested at the expense of open space. I know we are working within an existing framework of zoning and development potential, but how about a new compromise zoning district, (lets call it IH zoning for Integrating Habitat) that sets strict limits on what can be built, while remaining viable for some form of development. In addition, let's set some of that money aside for more expansive habitat restoration and protection of the habitated degradation on existing Industrial Property.

I live down in the area adjacent to this development, and travel through the area often via bike, or on the way to PDX, Home Despot, and IKEA... so my parting thoughts.

1. Would I like it all to be Industrial development similar to the blight that exists in surrounding zones? No, but it's doubtful it will happen, as progressive planning, impassioned citizens, and reality make for if not best, at least not the worst of things to happen here.

2. Would I also be happy to see a new model of planning, development, and protection that allowed for all of these multiple uses, and improved habitat along the entire Slough? Definitely, but I doubt people will be able to see beyond their passion to even discuss, much less allow this.

3. Would I be happy if the development is prohibited and the whole area is slated for open space? Sure, but feel it may be a missed opportunity, albeit a very favorable result if you ask me. (as opposed to say, the Columbia River Crossing. :)

It's going happen one way or the other. As we grow (a lot) we will constantly be confronted by these choices that continually arise... all of which way tells a lot about Portland and it's future...

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