In a professional planning career spanning over 40 years, most of it in Portland, Oregon, John has made professional and leadership contributions to the City, the region and throughout the state during three decades of unprecedented growth and change. John’s major accomplishments can be described as:
John has made significant contributions to the planning, design and development of Portland’s Central City districts, and has helped make Portland, particularly the Central City, a model for urban compact mixed-use development, high quality pedestrian environments, green building and infrastructure, multi-modal transportation systems, affordable housing and great urban design.
John has advanced the art and science of design review and the importance of urban design in Portland and other cities, through development of form-based implementation tools and policies. He has also contributed to the quality of life of the City by serving for eleven years on the Portland Design Commission and other urban design boards.
In 1995, Metro, the Portland area Regional Government, adopted the 2040 Growth Concept to guide development over the coming decades. The growth Concept identified more than three dozen centers across the region as the focus for redevelopment, multi-modal transportation and concentrations of homes and jobs.
In Regional Centers and TOD Districts throughout the Portland Metro Area, John’s contributions have helped implement the 2040 Growth Concept by integrated multi-modal transportation systems with high-density pedestrian oriented development.
John’s interest in and commitment to downtowns and neighborhood centers extend to smaller cities and towns throughout the Northwest. He has prepared a number of downtown revitalization plans, has helped implement revitalization efforts by forming urban renewal districts to finance needed improvements, and has served as a long-term board member for the Oregon Downtown Development Association and Livable Oregon.
Portland has adopted an urban design vision for the Central City that emphasizes livable, walkable, urban districts that focus on the Willamette River. The compact human scale of central Portland’s 200’ X 200’ blocks helps create an environment where the pedestrian is a priority, and the City’s historical design emphasis on the quality of the public realm rather than private spaces and iconic architecture, has resulted in an urban design fabric that is admired both nationally and internationally.
Portland is also a model for innovative multi-modal transportation planning designed to serve existing districts and stimulate high density pedestrian oriented development. Investments in light rail and streetcar have supported economic vitality, reduced reliance on the automobile and are integral to Portland’s character and image as a people friendly, livable, vibrant place. Portland is also a leader in all aspects of sustainability, particularly during the last decade for its efforts to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, investments in green infrastructure, and for the large number of LEED certified buildings constructed here.
John’s contributions to the creation of four new central city districts are described below. He served as project manager and principal planner for major planning efforts for the last few largely undeveloped areas in or adjacent to the Central City. There of these neighborhoods, the Pearl District, NW Slabtown District and South Waterfront District, are well into development and have seen significant public investments in parks, greenways, streetcar, aerial tram and green infrastructure. Private developments in the South Waterfront District alone have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment and have created over 2,500 housing units and a 500,000 square feet medical facility. New development has secured one platinum, 5 gold and 1 silver LEED ratings, and the first central area phas achieved a LEED-ND gold rating. John’s current assignment is to develop a Master Development Plan for an 18 acre area surrounding the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; improving the riverfront along a quarter mile frontage, maximizing development at LRT and streetcar station areas, and creating a sustainable district that furthers the aspirations of the Museum.
John has also had a significant role in establishing urban design policy for the entire Central cCty and applying that policy as a long-term member of the Portland Design Commission where he served six years a chair. Under his leadership the Design Commission developed design guidelines for a number of design districts, and applied these guidelines as the quasi-judicial decision maker for numerous public and private development projects.
OMSI Master Development Plan, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Portland, Oregon (2016-Present)
OMSI commissioned a design team headed by Snohetta Architects with Spencer Consultants as the lead urban design/planner, to create a development plan for its 18 acre campus located along the Willamette River. The campus is the heart of an emerging innovation district where scientists, makers, artisans, engineers and inventors from diverse backgrounds and cultures live, work and play.
The urban design framework is based on 5 principles:
The Plan identifies themes and design elements that unify the district and create a campus environment focused on OMSI. Design elements include streets, sidewalks and pedestrian accessways; street furnishing and landscaping; the Willamette Riverfront and associated open spaces; storm water management features; smaller public spaces and squares; and building massing and design for 2M SF of development. A parking strategy anticipating automated parking, higher use of driverless vehicles, and future transition of parking decks to active uses is integral to the plan.
Con-way Properties EcoDistrict Master Development Plan, Con-way International, Portland, Oregon (2007-2013)
Con-way owns approximately 20 acres in the northern portion of NW Portland adjacent to the Pearl District. The company currently has over 1,000 employees at this location and controls 20 acres, 15 of which are surface parking or underdeveloped. John lead a master development plan team charged with preparing an EcoDistrict plan for the area.
A framework concept for EcoDistricts is currently being developed for the Portland Metro area, and the Con-way master plan is an early pilot project. An EcoDistrict is a neighborhood that generates all its energy from on-site renewable, collects and recycles rainwater and waste, and prioritizes pedestrian, bike and transit access. It combines mixed use, mixed income development; neighborhood scale parks, schools, community centers; and services, and enhanced IT infrastructure. Principles from LEED-ND, New Urbanism and Smart Growth are incorporated into EcoDistricts.
Major issues are to accommodate structured parking for employees; create place-making urban design, parks and open space elements; provide for a wide range of housing types suitable for all income levels; and extend transit service, notably streetcar, into the area. Efforts to develop public/private partnerships with the city, create a new urban renewal district, accommodate higher densities and building heights than are currently allowed, establish district-wide sustainability excellence, and extend the Portland Streetcar are major plan elements. John has helped assess the feasibility of a district-wide energy facility which could provide power, heating and cooling to this and adjacent central city districts.
Hoyt Yards Master Development Plan. Hoyt Street Properties, Portland, Oregon (2005-2007)
Development of Hoyt Street Properties’ 34 acres in Portland’s Pearl District has been taking place over the past decade with nine separate projects totaling approximately 2,000 housing units and over 90,000 square feet of retail uses. Two public parks and Portland Streetcar now serve the district.
John was asked to develop a master plan for the remaining Hoyt Street Properties’ holdings totaling 13 city blocks. The plan addresses block by block building uses, massing, street-level design, streetscape and open space. District-wide principles for architectural character and place making elements are designed to give this district a unique character. Relationships to a new city park, Naito Parkway and redevelopment of Centennial Mills and the riverfront are included.
An urban design framework plan and implementation strategies were also developed. The development program calls for 1,700 residential units of which 280 will meet affordability criteria, 450,000 square feet of retail and employment uses and 265,000 square feet of hospitality and recreation uses.
An important element of the Hoyt Yards Plan was the extension of the neighborhood park system through the site to the Willamette riverfront. John helped negotiate land sales, dedications and right-of-way transfers so that a previously conceived neighborhood park could be significantly expanded. The park is currently in the master plan stage, and full entitlements have been adopted by the City.
North Macadam (South Waterfront) Development Framework Plan, Portland Development Commission, Portland, Oregon (1998-2001)
The North Macadam area was a largely vacant brownfield site along the Willamette River just south of Downtown Portland. John was asked by the development agency to formulate a technical and public planning process designed to create a framework plan and implementation strategy for a 21st Century urban neighborhood. His role was as project manager for the North Macadam Development Framework Plan, a 130 acre mixed-use development project where he acted as the client representative to a large consulting team. He managed a high level policy and technical review effort involving developers, property owners, neighborhood and city leaders, and regional partners.
The framework plan provides for 10,000 jobs, 3,000-5,000 housing units, riverfront park and extensive auto, pedestrian and transit improvements. John managed a large steering committee and six work groups to complete technical work, develop policy and address sensitive issues. During the planning effort, an endangered species listing by the Federal Government completely altered how the riverbank and greenway areas should be treated. Other issues included lack of roadway improvements and other infrastructure, transit access, affordable housing and jobs strategies, and overall urban design. Campus expansion for the area’s largest employer, Oregon Health Sciences University was a plan element and connection between campuses was achieved via an aerial tram. Streetcar service was also extended into the area.
In order to implement the Framework Plan, John worked with PDC staff and an advisory committee to prepare an urban renewal plan and report. He developed facilities plans and improvement strategies designed to implement the Framework Plan, including funding priorities for $260 million of tax increment revenues.
John also led the development of a number of implementation programs designed to further the Framework Plan. Specific activities included:
Portland Design Commission, City of Portland, Oregon (1989-1999)
John was appointed to the Design Commission by the Mayor of Portland and served for 11 years, 6 years in the capacity of Commission Chair. The Design Commission reviews and makes approval decisions on major public and private projects proposed within designated design districts. The Commission is also responsible for preparing and adopting design guidelines for each design district. Design guidelines aid architects and developers in understanding the city’s urban design expectations. The Design Commission review process ensures that these expectations are met.
Over his 11-year tenure, John helped analyze and provide urban design direction for a wide variety of major development projects within the Central City, including Pioneer Place, Federal Courthouse Building, Downtown Office Buildings, PSU Urban Studies and Library Buildings, Pearl District Housing Projects, Lloyd Center Redevelopment, Rose Quarter and Rose Garden. The Design Commission was also the approval authority for Westside LRT and the Downtown Portland Streetcar. Through his role as Chair of the Portland Design Commission, John helped develop and approve design guidelines and design standards for all design districts within the city.
Building a Region by Applying Smart Growth & Sustainability Practices
Metro, the only elected regional government in the United States adopted the 2040 Growth Concept in 1995 in order to maintain the Portland region’s connections with nature, preserve existing neighborhoods, strengthen employment areas, and concentrate growth in designated centers and corridors. John has assisted a number of cities throughout the region to develop plans and implementation strategies for compact, vibrant, mixed-use centers.
Development in centers is important not only for the economic development potential they represent but because these new high density residential and business neighborhoods are one of the ways our region will reduce pressure to expand the urban growth boundary. As one colleague notes: “John was our most effective advocate for solid planning and smart growth principals-including long before anyone was talking about Smart Growth.”
John has had an impact on the quality of centers and the contributions centers make to the life of local communities. He led the preparation of the first Regional Center Plan, Gresham Civic Neighborhood, which included the first mixed-use district adopted by a suburban City and the first to establish minimum densities and FAR in support of transit ridership and urban vitality. The plan considered market viability and developer risk, and when it was apparent there was a “gap” in financial feasibility; John developed a public/private financing plan and development agreement. The result was construction of about 600 residential units and over 500,000 square feet of commercial and office space as well as regional commitments for main street improvements and a new LRT station.
John has helped formulate legislation and implement tax exemption tools designed to stimulate multiple unit housing and vertical mixed use developments in centers and near LRT stations. He has worked with Metro to help educate and apply these tools to cities throughout the region. John is currently serving on an expert advisory panel convened by the Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies, Portland State University charged with formulating recommendations for how the Portland region might encourage and accelerate development of mixed use centers and corridors over the next decade and beyond.
Many of the projects described here use smart growth and sustainability principles as a structure for planning new neighborhoods. John has a working knowledge of LEED and LEED-ND criteria, the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute’s Draft Sustainable Community Development Code and the Code Barriers to the Living Building Challenge Report by the Development Center for Appropriate Technology and Sustainable Alternatives Consulting. John has also applied the principles of EcoDistricts, Portland+Oregon Sustainability Institute in a real-life case study setting. He has applied this knowledge to plans and development projects he has been responsible for that have achieved LEED-ND gold and platinum certifications. He has also been a participant in a number of trainings and workshops focused on sustainability.
Some examples of assignments where John served as project manager and principal planner include:
Downtown Gresham Regional Center Development Strategy, City of Gresham (2007-08)
Over the past 10 years, urban-scale mixed use development and redevelopment has occurred throughout the Metro area, but several older downtown areas, including downtown Gresham, have not attracted much development despite designation as a Regional Center. John headed a team that highlighted the barriers to achieving desired development types, created a development vision based on utilizing the MAX LRT service in the area, and established an implementation strategy to better position downtown Gresham for private investment. Specific recommendations for changes to zoning and design standards in support of mixed use development were adopted. New public and private investments, including a fine arts plaza and streetscape improvements are underway.
Beaverton Courtyard Housing Project, City of Beaverton, Oregon (2010)
Courtyard housing, small single family dwellings focused on common greens or shared courts, are an emerging housing typology that can achieve relatively high densities and contribute to sustainability. John helped assess the viability of this housing type within moderate and high density mixed use zones in the City, and prepared plan and development code amendments to enable courtyard housing in districts where it was originally prohibited. All amendments to the development code and design review standards were approved.
Beaverton Open Space Standards Project, City of Beaverton, Oregon (2008)
John worked closely with the Beaverton Planning Commission and staff to evaluate the effectiveness of open space standards in multi-family zones to meet density, design and sustainability objectives. A comparison of standards from a number of other jurisdictions resulted in comprehensive amendments to the development code that simplified open space standards, reflected a more urban form of development, and accounted for a variety of housing types and ownership options.
Beaverton Design Review Program, City of Beaverton, Oregon (2002-2005)
This project recommends wholesale revisions to the City’s design review process, decision-making, and design standards. An entirely new set of design review standards and guidelines, approval procedures and processes were developed by John, based on direct approval if design review standards were met, with options for quasi-judicial approval for meeting design guidelines. Design standards and guidelines address building design and orientation, circulation and parking, landscape, open space and environmental design, and lighting. Design review is focused in regional and town centers, and in commercial, industrial, and higher density districts throughout the city. A Handbook was also prepared by John for use by applicants, neighborhood associations and other stakeholders.
Washington Square Regional Center Plan and Phase II Implementation, City of Tigard, Oregon (1998-2002)
John served as project manager and head of a multi-disciplinary consulting team to prepare a development plan for this 1,250-acre regional center, focused on the Washington Square Mall. Primary issues included roadway and transit service, retrofitting an existing regional shopping center, infill and redevelopment, and environmental protection and enhancement of Fanno and Ash Creeks affected by recent ESA listings. He prepared a new Comprehensive Plan element and mixed-use development code and design standards adopted for the area.
John was also asked to develop analysis and recommendations to address five specific issues raised by the Tigard City Council during approval of the Regional Center Plan. He developed amendments to development code and design guidelines to reflect this additional analysis. Issue areas addressed included:
Beaverton Regional Center-Development Regulations, City of Beaverton, Oregon (1998-1999)
John was asked by the Mayor of Beaverton to conduct a review and negotiate revisions to draft mixed-use development regulations proposed for the Beaverton Regional Center. Major property owners, business owners, Planning Commission and City Council members along with senior City staff were consulted, and a wide range of amendments were developed to address concerns. The City adopted the final regulatory package.
Beaverton Creek Transit Oriented Development, City of Beaverton, Oregon (1998-1999)
As liaison between the developers and major property owners involveded with the 130-acre Beaverton Creek TOD, John prepared Comprehensive Plan and development ordinance amendments for new multiple use districts and staff reports for consideration by the City. John worked closely with developers and the City of Beaverton in securing development permits for approximately 600 units of high and medium density housing, as well as a park-and-ride facility.
Gresham Civic Neighborhood Plan, City of Gresham Oregon (1995-2000)
John served as project manager on behalf of the City and oversaw preparation of a master plan and implementation strategy for a 130-acre transit oriented development in Gresham. The essential features of the plan include:
He developed the implementation and financing strategy for the public component of the project, and negotiated a City/property owner agreement that includeded $11 million in funding for infrastructure improvements and a residential tax abatement program to assist multi-family dwellings. John provided on-going planning and urban design services to the City and the primary property owners/developers active in the Civic Neighborhood. His role was to review and analyze development plans, recommend revisions to better meet the objectives of the Civic Neighborhood, and secure amendments to the development code as warranted.
LaPlata County Land Use & Transit Strategy, LaPlata County, CO. (2009).
Mr. Spencer teamed with a transit planner to develop an integrated land use/transportation and transit plan. This plan proposed smart growth strategies that support increased walking, biking and transit opportunities. Based on the designation of growth nodes and corridors, the plan proposed a county wide transit system that will efficiency serve these population/employment nodes.
Revitalizing Downtowns and Centers
Downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts are often seen as the “heart” of local communities. John has been involved in many efforts to help revitalize, develop and promote downtowns as economic, historic, civic and cultural centers. In 1983, John was asked to join the Board of Directors of the Oregon Downtown Development Association whose mission is to bring the principles of the Main Street Program to Oregon’s smaller cities. John served on the board for over twelve years, was actively involved as a resource team member for dozens of downtowns, and served as a speaker and panel member during ODDA’s annual conferences. John also helped found and served on the board of Livable Oregon, a non-profit advancing smart growth principles throughout the state. He chaired committees leading to:
John’s professional practice also included preparing downtown revitalization and implementation plans. Along with his partner, Charles Kupper, he authored urban renewal plans in over 30 Oregon communities in order to utilize urban renewal as a primary implementation tool for downtown revitalization and economic development.
Project examples emphasizing downtown revitalization where John served as project manager and principle planner include:
Lower River Road Corridor Concept Plan, City of Eugene, OR (2006-2009).
John headed this project that reached agreement among a number of stakeholders on an integrated program of design improvements on River Road, a major arterial street connecting to downtown Eugene, and a planning framework to guide surrounding development and redevelopment into a pedestrian and transit-friendly higher density Mixed Use Center. Concepts considered include a Multi-way Boulevard and EmX improvements.
Grants Pass Downtown Riverfront Plan, City of Grants Pass, Oregon (2007-08)
Historic Downtown Grants Pass developed around a railroad station not the scenic Rogue River that flows less than a mile south of the CBD. The Downtown Riverfront Plan connects the historic center of Grants Pass to the river and to the city’s premier park also along the Rogue. The plan emphasizes compact, pedestrian-oriented mixed-use development along a state highway couplet, enhancements and expansion of Riverside Park, and redevelopment of lands south of the river to take advantage of the river location. Extensive traffic and pedestrian studies resulted in a number of transportation and streetscape recommendations designed to ease traffic and improve pedestrian access and safety. Adding close-in housing was another important plan element. A financing and implementation strategy sets out an action plan for project success.
Downtown Stayton Transportation & Revitalization Plan, City of Stayton, Oregon (2007)
Like many downtowns, Stayton has a nice collection of late 19th century buildings in need of improvement and is overlooked as a significant retail, office or residential area. The revitalization strategy is based on extensive market analysis, opportunities and needs assessment and public involvement. Elements of the strategy include: concentrating commercial development in a single compact area; providing for more mixed use and housing; locating a new civic center in the area; redeveloping a former woolen mill site for high density housing; and providing streetscape, infrastructure and parking improvements. A business development plan aimed at business recruitment and marketing and formation of an urban renewal district are key implementation actions. New zoning districts and design standards and guidelines were developed specifically for the downtown area.
Oregon Downtown Development Association and Livable Oregon, Board of Directors, (1983-1995)
John joined the ODDA Board of Directors shortly after the non-profit was formed to advocate and advance the principles of the National Main Street program throughout Oregon. He served on a number of committees and the executive board and helped grow the organization to one of the most effective in the country. He participated in many resource teams throughout the Northwest to assess and make recommendations for downtown revitalization. John was also a founding board member of Livable Oregon, a companion non-profit to ODDA formed to advance smart growth practices within the state.
Focusing on Practical Implementation Tools & Management
For the past 40 years, the firm has assisted over 30 Oregon communities in utilizing urban renewal as a primary implementation tool for central area revitalization and economic development. Urban renewal plans authorize tax increment financing, which has been used to finance a wide range of revitalization programs including pedestrian, transportation and infrastructure improvements, building rehabilitation, housing assistance and construction, land assembly and disposition for development and redevelopment, and marketing activities among others. John and his former partner Charles Kupper have prepared urban renewal plans and reports, feasibility studies and substantial plan amendments. We have also acted as urban renewal advisors to Agencies and City Councils for tax increment bond financing and underwriting, developer negotiations, land acquisition/disposition, project design and construction and urban renewal program management.
In urban renewal planning, John has been responsible for analyzing the physical conditions within potential boundaries for compliance with blighting condition findings in ORS 457, analyzing development and redevelopment opportunities within potential urban renewal boundaries, and identifying needed infrastructure and other project activities eligible for tax increment financing. John has also been the lead in agency and public outreach activities associated with urban renewal planning.
The list below summarizes John Spencer‘s urban renewal experience preparing urban renewal plans and reports, feasibility studies and substantial plan amendments.
Urban Renewal Plans
City of Stayton Urban Renewal Plan
City of Tillamook Urban Renewal Plan
City of Portland - North Macadam Area Urban Renewal Plan
City of Salem – W. Salem Urban Renewal Plan
City of Redmond- Airport Industrial Area Renewal Plan
City of Redmond- Downtown Renewal Plan
City of Astoria – Astor West Urban Renewal Plan
City of Sherwood – Urban Renewal Plan
City of Woodburn – Urban Renewal Plan
City of Seaside - Greater Seaside Urban Renewal Plan
City of Cottage Grove- Row River Road Renewal Plan
City of Keizer- North River Road Renewal Plan
City of Harrisburg- Harrisburg Industrial Area Renewal Plan
City of Oregon City- Downtown/North End Renewal Plan
City of Oregon City- Hilltop Renewal Plan
City of Gladstone- Gladstone Renewal Plan
Urban Renewal Feasibility Studies
Downtown Gresham Regional Center – Urban Renewal Feasibility study
Grants Pass Downtown Riverfront Plan – Urban Renewal Feasibility Study
City of Stayton – Urban Renewal Feasibility Study
City of Portland – Urban Renewal Feasibility Study for the Con-way Properties