Orenco Station is a new transit-oriented community of 1,800 homes, a town center, office, retail and nearby employment on 209 acres in the town of Hillsboro, west of Portland, Oregon. Extending out from the light rail and town center is a grid of walkable, tree-lined streets and parks, featuring cottages, condominiums and rowhomes in a broad range of sizes and prices..
The site of Orenco Station was designated a "Town Center" under Portland's 2040 regional plan, one of a number of Town Centers along a new light rail line. As the most ambitious and most successful such community to date, it has become a closely studied laboratory of new ideas in the battle against sprawl.
Portland and Oregon are well known for their innovations in regional growth management. Oregon's Urban Growth Boundary laws have been closely watched and copied around the United States. Portland's thriving mixed-use downtown is a celebrated comeback story, and its success in preserving farmland and open space is well known. But Portland's suburbs are something of a dirty local secret: in spite of the Urban Growth Boundary, they are sprawling, auto-dependent, and largely indistinguishable from other poorly functioning suburbs across America.
It wasn't always so. At the turn of the century, the west side's Washington County contained a small, walkable town called Orenco. A company town of the Oregon Nursery Company, Orenco featured a small downtown of shops and services, narrow, tree-lined streets with cozy bungalows, and an electric railway that connected the town to the big-city resources of nearby Portland.
During the Depression, the Oregon Nursery Company fell on hard times, and the town fell into decline. After World War II, walkable streetcar suburbs like Orenco gave way across the country to the familiar pattern of postwar sprawl. The light rail line was ripped out, replaced with government-subsidized roads and freeways. Walkable streets were replaced with spaghetti cul-de-sac neighborhoods and arterials, and mixed-use neighborhoods were replaced with single-use strip malls and office parks. Everything was accessible almost exclusively by car.
Today, as Americans search for more livable, walkable alternatives to sprawl, the old streetcar suburbs like Orenco are being rediscovered. Orenco Station is demonstrating that perhaps we need look no further than our own back yard for one of the most appealing, time-tested models of livability. At Orenco Station the old Orenco has been reborn, with high tech Internet wiring and other new bells and whistles, but with the same timeless neighborhood structure.
When funding for Westside MAX light rail was approved, Portland's METRO regional government committed to creating new residential developments along the line, to provide a greater density of light rail users in the new corridor. MAX was extended into the existing high tech industrial area of Hillsboro, and on into the center of the town of Hillsboro. The site of Orenco was a greenfield site along the line, between downtown Portland and downtown Hillsboro, and surrounded by thousands of high tech jobs but very little housing. Metro believed that it was critical to improve the mix of housing to jobs in this region between Portland and Hillsboro.
After light rail funding was approved and the Town Center designation was made, the developers of Orenco StationPacTrust and Costa Pacific Homescreated a team of architects, landscape architects, engineers, and experts in retail and homebuilding, and they all worked together with members of the local jurisdictions to plan the new Orenco Station. Nationally-known planners and community design experts were invited to a number of charrettes and consultation sessions.
Members of the design team carefully studied old Orenco, as well as other successful older neighborhoods in Portland and around the country. The structure of these places was studied to understand what made them successful. One of the key concepts the team identified was a sequence of open spacesa "string of pearls," as it has been calledlinking the pedestrian experience through vistas and visual monuments, creating a stronger sense of place. The historic architecture of the region was also echoed but not copied, establishing an emotional connection to the region's history, climate and terrain
Next the team sat down with City of Hillsboro planners, and together wrote a radically new zoning ordinance for the site. The ordinance allows for a number of significant innovations, including "skinny" (20 foot) streets, close maximum street setbacks (19 feet), side yard easements (allowing high privacy windows for one home while the adjacent home has full use of the side yard), "granny flat" accessory dwellings, live/work homes, and alley-loaded garages. In the Town Center, buildings are required to line the streets, with parking in the reara rule-breaking retail formula that has worked in practice surprisingly well. Mixed uses are allowed and in some cases even required.
Orenco Station's plan is organized around a pedestrian spine that extends north from the light rail through row homes to the Town Center, and beyond to a formal central park surrounded by a grid of walkable streets. The site is bisected by a major east-west arterial road, and the design team decided to exploit this troublesome challenge to support the town center businesses after only two years of construction. To date, all Town Center businesses have been successful.
The Town Center's retail users have been carefully developed to address the community's regular uses and needs, and include a cleaner, dentist, optician, florist, accountant, stockbroker, coffee house, wine shop, and three local restaurants. A new grocery opened in September 2001, along with three other new shops.
Many of Orenco Station's residents work in tech jobs nearby, work at home, or commute on light rail, but a growing number of residents work in the Town Center. Many Town Center business owners are also homeowners at Orenco Station. Janis Steinfeld, owner of August Gardens Floral and Gifts, has a daily commute that is literally a walk in the park. She is helped by Rex Lee, an employee who lives in a townhome next door. Jim Bocci, owner of Merchant of Venice Italian Café, lives down the street in a cottage on the park, as does Sabahat Rafiq, owner of Shalimar Gourmet Indian Cuisine. Terry Brown, an artist, has his gallery in the downstairs of his live/work townhome, and also works part-time at Merchant of Venice. His wife, Debra, operates her own business in the Town Center building next door.
Mixed-use urban centers inside the UGB are one key to the Growth Concept. Creating higher density centers of employment and housing and transit service with compact development, retail, cultural and recreational activities, in a walkable environment is intended to provide efficient access to goods and services, enhance multi-modal transportation and create vital, attractive neighborhoods and communities. The Growth Concept uses interrelated types of centers. The central city is the largest market area, the region's employment and cultural hub. Regional Centers serve large market areas outside the central city, connected to it by high -capacity transit and highways. Connected to each regional center, by road and transit, are smaller town centers with local shopping and employment opportunities within a local market area. Planning for all of these centers will seek a balance between jobs, housing and unique blends of urban amenities so that more transportation trips are likely to remain local and become more multi-modal.
In keeping with the jobs/housing balance in centers, a jobs/housing balance by regional sub-areas can and should also be a goal. This would account for the housing and employment outside centers, and direct policy to adjust for better jobs/housing ratios around the region.
Portland's MAX Light Rail Service
Orenco Station in the News
"Innovative development blends light rail access, small lots with 'community heartbeat'"
Automobiles are relegated to garages in back of the new homes at Orenco Station, and that's more than just a design consideration. In this pedestrian-friendly community north of Hillsboro, cars are not essential for most residents. The new Orenco light rail station is just a couple of blocks away along tree-lined streets. Once the project is completed, most all of the amenities residents need will be within walking distance, including coffee shops, sidewalk cafes and a major grocery store....
The 190-acre project is just the sort of project Metro envisioned for land along the new Westside light rail line, said Mike Burton, Metro's executive director. Despite high densities (about 18 units per acre), the homes are well-designed and offer a sense of privacy lacking in many homes on much larger lots, he said. The mix of apartments, townhomes and single-family homes, amenities such as parks and a swimming pool, the town center commercial area and an adjacent larger commercial development contribute to a sense of community, rather than being "just a bunch of houses," said Burton.
"It's a great project," said Burton. "I think they've achieved a heck of a goal...."
"Old fashioned community, newfangled transit"
The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But Orenco Station is getting a lot of attention for its innovations in urban planning and design.
"'It's just wonderful what they're doing there," says Peter Wilcox, an architect with the non-profit Portland Community Design and an expert on new urban design standards.
"'All the traditional rules of zoning and planning were thrown out the window," says Ken Grimes, chief architect for the project being developed by PacTrust, a Portland real estate development company....
"Arriving at the Station"
Orenco Station is the name of a stop on the Westside light rail line now being built from Portland to its western suburbs. It's also the name of an ambitious 190-acre development that attempts to entice Oregonians into buying houses on lots as small as 3,700 square feet that are within walking distance of the transit route...
Costa Pacific (the homebuilder partner) and the developer, Pacific Realty Assoc., have been pleased with the initial results. "We had 46 sales in the first four months, which is the highest absorption we've ever achieved for a new product in the Portland market," says Rudy Kadlub of Costa Pacific....
The neotraditional or New Urbanist planning concept is risky for a developer because it breaks from the suburban norm, Kadlub admits, but "the community is accepting it very well."
"Small Lots Attract High Tech Buyers Outside Portland "
Young buyers want access to a light rail line, shopping in a mini-downtown and a variety of choices in sports and recreation.
Based on research, Costa Pacific Homes wanted to build a community with the features its buyers wanted, while taking advantage of the built-in amenity, the light rail line.
Incorporating these ideas creates many points of interest when walking through Orenco Station, a concept that architect Lee Iverson calls creating a "string of pearls." The community offers many different features to draw the eye, including small and large parks, the light rail station and various businesses in a small downtown featuring restaurants, a post office, a specialty grocery store, a micro-brewery, and a coffee bar....
To create the pedestrian-oriented feeling in the community, the homes are closer to the street than usual. Surprisingly, a maximum distance is set regarding where a house is sited in relation to the sidewalk.... While the homes are close to the sidewalk, the buyer maintains privacy because of the elevated pads, slightly raising the homes above the sidewalk.... and their research has paid off. Costa Pacific Homes sold 95 single family homes and townhomes of the 391 planned since opening in October, 1997.
For more information, visit Orenco Station at www.OrencoStation.net.