On Rents and Weird

Diversity is crowded out by the duplication of success. —Jane Jacobs

It’s sad to see bumper stickers now that say “Portland WAS Weird”. I definitely wasn’t drawn to Portland by that sort of resigned, defeatist attitude. Ten years ago the stickers said “Keep Portland Weird”. It really doesn’t matter if the phrase was stolen from Austin. What matters is the energy behind it. Portland was weird, the people wanted to keep it weird, and I wanted to help them.

Define weird

In this context it means diversity, difference. Diversity in the sense that the food and shops and theaters and architecture and zoning and transportation and whatever else are different than they are in other places.

People love it. Consider that some of Portland’s biggest attractions—for both locals and tourists—are an independent bookstore and parking lots stuffed with food carts. We’re known for these things—we’re known for being the city that doesn’t have all the same things as everywhere else. People don’t go to New York to marvel at their AMC Theatres and they don’t come to Portland to feast at our Chipotles.

People want more Portland. More weird. People that live here want to maintain its difference and people that visit want to immerse themselves in it, to soak it in and take some home with them. Another phrase I’ve heard goes something like: New Portland and old Portland want the same thing: old Portland.

What kills weird

It’s the rents. Portland was a much cheaper place ten years ago. People can keep a weird business running when rent is cheap.

Of course price is a function of supply and demand, subject to invisible hands and market pressures, etc. But demand—the market size—is determined in large part by the product itself. The market size for a 43,000 square foot event space will always be smaller than that for a 2,000 square foot restaurant.

Right now Portland needs more housing. Demand is growing, supply is low, prices are high. And the resulting action—at least among developers more interested in a sure bet for themselves than in giving Portland what it wants—is to duplicate success. They’ll build more of what’s worked before. And this duplication of success crowds out diversity and kills the weird.

Fortunately, many of the new buildings are mixed-use, because along with the housing we also need spaces for new businesses. Unfortunately, many of these new buildings are practically indistinguishable, both aesthetically and when it comes to rents. Only landlords will complain about rents stabilizing, but almost everyone will complain about how generic and boring the new buildings look.

But these are all known facts.

What grows weird

It doesn’t seem that real estate developers know that weird can be grown, or at least encouraged. Or maybe they do know this but they choose to ignore it and, instead, with a shrug, to kill the weird. And if that’s the case they can go to hell.

There is an evident, inverse relationship between rents and weird. If rents for spaces are too high for weird people and their weird businesses, and if the rents for these spaces need to be at a certain high level to generate profit, then maybe the units themselves are part of them problem. Maybe they are too big. The market size for larger spaces (and their higher rents) will always be smaller that that for smaller spaces.

So maybe smaller units should be built. And zoning rules should allow them to be used for whatever purpose the renter wishes—office space, studio space, food service, retail, whatever.

Smaller spaces enable people to test ideas without risking too much. I ran an art gallery for two years in a small space—we never made any money but when we closed we weren’t bankrupt. A lot of other businesses have started small, in small spaces, and grown from there—consider Tender Loving Empire, Floating World Comics, Ground Kontrol, Bunk Sandwiches. Small spaces create more equality of opportunity by lowering the barrier to entry. This lower risk encourages the creation of small businesses, which grows the weird.

Of course small businesses aren’t the only thing that makes a city weird, but they’re clearly a big part. And of course small spaces themselves won’t save the weird—they need low rents as well. We have plenty of ideas here, we’re just short on money.

In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander advocates for smaller spaces because they make a place more vibrant, more “liveable”, more desirable, and—most importantly—better suited to the people that live there. Smaller spaces and their lower rents could help make Portland weirder.