New industrial jobs do not derive from land alone – unless that land is actually ready for development.
That's the message of a new inventory of the region's available large-lot industrial sites, the 25 acre-plus sites that development experts say many companies demand.
On its face, the study – an update of a 2011 inventory – contains some hopeful news: a total of eleven large industrial sites inside the regional urban growth boundary are closer to being ready for development now than they were then.
The report provides an important snapshot of the region's industrial land competitiveness as it climbs out of the worst recession in living memory, and points to work that needs to happen to make the region even more competitive.
Many communities in the region have large vacant industrial properties in their midst. Some have been vacant for a long time. Passing large real estate signs and weedy expanses in places like Troutdale, along Tualatin-Sherwood Road or north of Hillsboro and Forest Grove, residents often wonder what's holding these places back.
A big reason: being "available" is not the same thing as being ready for development. Of the 54 available large-lot industrial sites in the region, the study reports, only 14 could be ready for new development in six months or less.
Moving the needle
Helping more sites move the needle from "available" to "ready" will require some significant creativity, collaboration and public investment, study partners told the Metro Council at an Oct. 9 work session.
As the region seeks to attract and retain large employers, "readiness is a pretty serious competitive issue," Port of Portland special projects manager Keith Leavitt told Metro councilors.
"These sites are more than dots on the map," added Portland Business Alliance government relations manager Raihana Ansary. "Each site has its own story, with its own set of challenges and constraints."
Even so, seven barriers shoulder most of the blame for keeping large sites out of the "ready" column, the study reports:
- inadequate access to transportation networks
- necessary local and state actions like annexation and zoning
- required environmental mitigation
- missing infrastructure like water and sewers
- assembling multiple small parcels
- owners unwilling to sell or asking too high a price
- pre-existing pollution that must be cleaned up (brownfields)
Leavitt said that sites larger than 50 acres – which are in especially short supply – need special attention from policymakers. "The market won't do it for us," Leavitt said. "Without significant government intervention, [many of] these sites won't happen within a ten-year timeframe."
Programs at work
Metro is already doing a lot about readiness, deputy director of community development John Williams told Metro Council. Regional transportation funding allocations help build new road connections in places like Troutdale Reynolds Industrial Park and north Hillsboro. Metro-led community planning and development grants are funding industrial site assessments in Washington and Clackamas counties. And in the next legislative session, the Oregon Brownfields Coalition will propose strategies for encouraging cleanup and redevelopment of polluted sites throughout the state.
Port of Portland government relations manager Lise Glancy acknowledged that government action is helping. Of the 11 sites that are more ready for development now than they were three years ago, seven were upgraded thanks in part to government investment or action, she noted.
But the region needs new tools, she said, particularly to address the problem of fragmented sites and of keeping industrially-zoned brownfields in industrial use even after they are cleaned up. "Baby steps matter, but big steps are even better," Glancy said.
Metro councilors recognized the significance of the readiness issue. "[According to the study,] the challenge we face is not the land supply," said Councilor Shirley Craddick, whose district includes much of the east Metro region. "It's making the land we have ready to be developed."
Metro Council President Tom Hughes agreed that the study presents a challenge for the region, albeit a different one from deciding whether to expand the regional urban growth boundary. "We don't have enough large-lot sites that are [ready] for market," he said, reflecting on the study's findings. "We do have a lot of sites [inside the urban growth boundary], but we need to do other things to work on them."
Hughes said he was interested in looking for more ways Metro can leverage its dollars and even its properties to help. For instance, Metro could work with industrial developers to do restoration on its natural areas as mitigation for development elsewhere in the region.
Such a program would likely require some significant policy changes. But, Hughes said, it could be a "a win-win, in that it would benefit our properties at the same time as it would benefit the region by making more land available for development."
Business Oregon's Mike Williams said that looking at what's changed between the 2011 and 2014 inventories reveals that Metro has already helped make a lot of land inside the urban growth boundary ready for development.
"If there's one thing that comes out of these two studies, it's that Metro and its partners put a lot of work in and a lot of sites upgraded," Williams said. "I think it's going to serve this region's economy very well over the next few years."
But for the years beyond that, he added, even more work will be needed.
The updated inventory will be presented to the Metro Policy Advisory Committee on Oct. 22 and will be part of the materials the region uses to evaluate whether an urban growth boundary expansion is necessary in 2015.
Learn more about the 2015 growth management decision
Learn about Metro's work on industrial and employment areas