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Orenco Station - Hillsboro, Oregon

by Michael Mehaffy

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..

Orenco Station Town Center. Photo courtesy PacTrust.

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.

Community History

Orenco Station logoPortland 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.

The original Orenco Station, 1910.
Photo courtesy Washington County Historical Society.

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.

Project History

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.

A "Craftsman" bungalow. Photo courtesy PacTrustAfter light rail funding was approved and the Town Center designation was made, the developers of Orenco Station—PacTrust and Costa Pacific Homes—created 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 spaces—a "string of pearls," as it has been called—linking 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

"Downtown" street scene. Photo courtesy PacTrustNext 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 rear—a rule-breaking retail formula that has worked in practice surprisingly well. Mixed uses are allowed and in some cases even required.

Neighborhood Structure

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.

Live/work townhomes. Photo courtesy PacTrust.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 Centers

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. Pavilion looking past park toward homes. Photo courtesy PacTrust.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

  • Trains generally run every ten minutes.
  • Existing service runs from downtown Hillsboro to downtown Portland and on to downtown Gresham; a new line to the Portland International Airport opened in September.
  • In 2000, MAX carried an average of 65,100 daily trips and 21.2 million rides.
  • Between 1990 and 1999, Tri-Met ridership grew 24 percent faster than vehicle miles traveled and 59 percent faster than its population growth. During the same period, Tri-Met ridership itself grew 51 percent. Portland is one of the few regions in the country where MAX light rail. Photo courtesy PacTrust.transit ridership is growing faster than vehicle miles traveled.
  • The extension of MAX to the Westside in 1998, coupled with improved bus service, led to a 46 percent increase in transit service bringing a 147 percent jump in transit use in the corridor. Westside MAX averaged 25,100 daily rides in fiscal year 2000. Just 19 months after it opened, the line surpassed 2005 projections of 25,200 average daily rides.

Orenco Station in the News

"Innovative development blends light rail access, small lots with 'community heartbeat'"
The Oregonian, January 4, 1998

A row of homes at Orenco Station. Photo courtesy PacTrust.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...."

Orenco Station homes. Photo courtesy PacTrust."Old fashioned community, newfangled transit"
Eugene Register-Guard, July 19, 1998

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"
Builder Magazine, July 1998

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...

Park with children playing. Photo courtesy PacTrust.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 "
Professional Builder Magazine, September 1998

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.

Orenco Station typical "cottage" home. Photo courtesy PacTrust.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.


Michael Mehaffy is a project manager and urban designer based in Portland, Oregon, serving as project manager for Orenco Station since 1997. He did graduate work in architecture at UC-Berkeley, where he studied and worked with A Pattern Language author Christopher Alexander. He has been active in Livable Oregon, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and other organizations working for a sustainable and livable built environment.
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Just the Facts.

Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon

  • 209 acres
  • Located on Portland's Westside MAX Light Rail
  • Town Center, including grocery, retail, office, and residences—70,000 square feet retail, 30,000 square feet office, 40,000 square feet loft, 28 live/work townhomes, extended stay hotel
  • Crossroads at Orenco Station—49-acre retail development with 150,000 square feet retail, including grocery, drug store, banks, and sporting goods store
  • 1,834 residences, including cottages and rowhomes on alleys, "granny flat" accessory dwellings, lofts above retail, live/work townhomes, condominiums, and apartments
  • Planning initiated 1994, construction began 1997, full buildout expected 2003
  • Unique Station Community Residential Village zoning code
  • Winner of 1998 Oregon Governor's Livability Award, 1998 NAHB Best Masterplanned Community in America Award, 1999 AIA/ULI/FTA/STPP Transit Communities Livable Design Award, 1999 Ahwahnee Award, and others
  • Developed by Pacific Realty Associates, L.P. and Costa Pacific Homes
  • Designed by Owner/Consultant Team including Alpha Engineering, Fletcher Farr Ayotte and Iverson Associates, and Walker Mac


Home Features

As a neighbor to many high tech businesses, Orenco Station's homes have a number of state-of-the-art features. All homes have energy-efficient gas furnaces and double-pane windows; most have passive solar orientations. Many homes and buildings are constructed with "Hardi-Panel," a cement siding board with long life and durability, and a sustainable alternative to cedar siding. All homes have Cat 5 telephone/Internet wiring, as well as dedicated computer nooks and home office spaces ideal for telecommuting. Some homes are wired for "smart home" systems that monitor energy use through the Internet.


METRO 2040 Growth Concept
Source: METRO Website

The Metro 2040 Growth Concept states the preferred form of regional growth and development adopted in the Region 2040 planning process including the 2040 Growth Concept map. This concept is adopted for the long-term growth management of the region including a general approach to approximately where and how much the Urban Growth Boundary should be ultimately expanded, what ranges of density are estimated to accommodate projected growth within the boundary and which areas should be protected as open space. More information.




Orenco Station

Metro (Portland Regional Governance/Services)

Tri-Met (Max Light Rail)

City of Hillsboro, Oregon

Washington County, Oregon

State of Oregon



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