Smart Planning for Smart Growth
G.B. Arrington’s work on light rail and other transit projects influences how and where people live, work, and travel.
by Romel Hernandez
Aboard Portland’s MAX (short for Metropolitan Area Express), G.B. Arrington riffs on the past, present, and future of light rail. His guests–a delegation of Australian city planners, developers, and government ministers–listen attentively as he describes the city’s renowned light rail system. As the train rumbles west to the suburbs, he fields questions on many topics, from the type of car they’re riding in (a Bombardier-made “high-floor” car) to the antigraffiti film on the windows to the stain-resistant fabric on the seats.
For the past 10 years, Arrington (B.A. ‘72) has traveled the world as a vice president for international planning giant Parsons Brinckerhoff, consulting on projects from the swamps of Opa Locka, Florida, to the beaches of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
But Portland is where he first made his mark, and where he continues to make his home. Arrington spent more than two decades working at TriMet, the public transportation agency for Portland’s metropolitan area. He helped create and promote a vision for mass transit development that put the Portland region in the vanguard of urban transportation planning and development. That was why the Australians had come to Portland, and why Arrington made the perfect tour guide.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work all over the United States and all over the world in places where they want to be progressive and push the envelope,” he says, “and it’s been invigorating to have those opportunities.”
But no place is quite like Portland, which may not be perfect, he says, but “definitely holds its own.”
At TriMet, Arrington was charged with creating a vision for Portland, says Bob Stacey, a former director of the transit agency and executive director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land use and planning advocacy group.
“He was always making us think and talk about the stuff we were doing,” Stacey says. “Today, people single out Portland as an example to the nation. G.B. was a big part of that, planning it and helping make it happen.”
Arrington grew up in Silverton, a small town just east of Salem, where his father was mayor. Though their politics differed, he learned from his father about public service. “I grew up understanding you could make a difference.”
At Lewis & Clark, Arrington majored in political science and counted the legendary Donald Balmer, U.G. Dubach Professor Emeritus of Political Science, among his faculty mentors. He was a student activist during the heady years of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He served on the organizing committee for a student strike protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, during which students ended up occupying the Frank Manor House. A black-and-white photograph displayed on his office wall shows him and other young activists flanking Oregon Governor Tom McCall at a signing ceremony for the state law that lowered the voting age to 18.
After graduating, Arrington went to Scotland to earn a master’s degree in town and country planning at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He stayed in touch with Balmer and knew that Oregon was in the process of adopting some of the most progressive planning laws in the nation. Those laws ultimately led to Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary, designed to limit urban sprawl and protect farmlands. There were good jobs to be had for planners in Oregon, Balmer told him, and Arrington came home.
That tip turned out to be an understatement. When Arrington returned to Oregon in the mid-1970s, he found himself in the middle of what he calls a “harmonic convergence.” Portland was looking to revitalize its downtown core. The city also had recently claimed victory in its long battle against construction of the Mount Hood Freeway, which would have slashed through Portland’s eastside, and was exploring transportation alternatives. Key political figures such as U.S. Senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood and Portland Mayor Neil Goldschmidt (later U.S. transportation secretary and Oregon’s governor) were driving an ambitious civic agenda. Arrington worked at various times early in his career for both Packwood and Goldschmidt, and was also an adjunct faculty member at Lewis & Clark, teaching The Politics of Planning.
Arrington eventually landed at TriMet, where for the next 20-plus years he worked on a project that would become Portland’s famed MAX, a pioneering light rail system connecting Portland and its suburbs.
The Portland region was at a crossroads back in the 1970s. The area was going to grow–that was certain–but where and how? Transportation was going to be critical, but would the dollars go to highways or to mass transit?
“I was pretty much on the ground floor of a whole new thing,” Arrington says. He insists there was no “grand strategy” driving growth and planning at the time, but there was plenty of opportunity to do things in a new way.
“We were young and naïve, and we didn’t know you couldn’t do some of this stuff,” he says. “So we just went ahead and did it.”
MAX is widely considered a success today, but at the time, light rail was controversial. Many critics saw the project as a boondoggle, and an expensive one at that, with an initial price tag of over $200 million.
TriMet stayed the course. Arrington argued that the project was more than just a way to get commuters from one point to another. He saw light rail as an opportunity to influence how and where people would live, work, and travel. He pushed for what became known as “transit-oriented development,” backing the idea that transit could be a tool to shape land use and development. He worked collaboratively to create a regional vision and strategy in support of that philosophy.
After the first 15-mile MAX line to Gresham, east of Portland, opened in 1986, Arrington turned his attention to a more ambitious project–a light rail line that would reach out to Portland’s western suburbs. As TriMet’s director of strategic and long-range planning, Arrington jokes, he had no staff “but lots of responsibility.” After exploring various options for where to site the new MAX line, TriMet decided on an unconventional route.
Rather than putting the light rail line in obvious places–along the main highway to the western suburbs or through areas serviced by busy bus routes–Arrington advocated for an alternative that would put the line through an old Burlington Northern Railroad right-of-way. “There were 3,000 acres of vacant land immediately adjacent to the planned stations in Hillsboro, and we were going to use light rail to shape the future,” he says.
At the time, you could stand on the spot where the Orenco light rail station was going to be built and see nothing but open fields in every direction. Today, Orenco is a thriving community with townhomes, shops, and restaurants. The MAX, including the two new Interstate and Airport lines, plus the Portland Streetcar, have generated some $9 billion of transit-oriented development over the years.
Today, more than 100,000 people ride light rail every day in Portland, where commuters are twice as likely to use mass transit as those in other major cities. “We put a billion dollars at risk, and it paid off,” Arrington says.
During his time at TriMet, he also contributed to the Portland area’s Region 2040 Plan, still the framework for guiding growth in the metropolitan area from transportation to housing to parks.
“G.B. did a really terrific job to help focus institutions and the public on what was important and why these ideas mattered and were good for the region,” says Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning. “He is engaged and passionate, and he was always in the middle of the things that were happening.”
Arrington left TriMet in 1999 after the opening of the westside MAX to join Parsons Brinckerhoff, one of the world’s preeminent planning consultants. At PB, as the firm is known, he is the principal practice leader for the PlaceMaking group, promoting the “smart growth” values and ideas that have defined his career. In his office, he keeps the nametags from hundreds of international conferences and events he has attended over the years. At PB, he has been involved with projects in places from Yizheng, China, to the aforementioned Dubai and Australia, and closer to home in Tysons Corner, Virginia, a sprawling suburb of Washington, D.C., and in some of the most depressed neighborhoods of Baltimore.
However, Arrington’s main office is still in downtown Portland, and there is no other city where he would rather live and work.
Regarded as a respected elder statesman of the Portland planning scene, he continues to tout Portland’s accomplishments around the country and the world. As proud as he is of his city, he knows it is not quite perfect.
“In some ways, Portland is so good because other places are so bad,” he says. “Our strength here is how we do things on a broad scale, in big but still nuanced strokes.”
Today Portland is a vibrant metropolis, admired internationally for its dynamic transit system and its progressive approach to managing growth. The MAX system is continuing to grow and attract ridership. Arrington could certainly take some credit for that.
“Part of the appeal of this job is that you can change the future,” he says. “Not too many people get to work on a scale where they have the opportunity to do that.”
Throughout his career, Arrington has managed to balance idealism and pragmatism, taking care of the details while keeping his eye on the bigger picture. “G.B. was the guy,” says Bob Stacey, “who made it all make sense.”
Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.