Ryan Singer is coming home to the Northwest. Born and raised in Eastern Washington, he moved to New York City after getting a master's in urban planning from the University of Washington. But growing up, he spent holidays with relatives in here, shopping at the Lloyd Center and downtown. An avid long-distance runner, he ran the Portland Marathon in 2007, after which he joined his sister and her family to visit the Rose Garden, where – like so many others – he was struck by the iconic view of Downtown and Mt Hood.
Fast forward almost 20 years. Now Singer is an accomplished city planner in NYC. Leaving the position of Senior Director of Pipeline and Public Review in the Big Apple, he’ll become BPS’s new principal planner overseeing the bureau’s urban design and comprehensive planning groups.
During his tenure in New York, he served as project leader on the Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market, as well as supervised the Sheridan Expressway-Hunts Point Land Use and Transportation Study and the HUD Sustainable Communities - Metro North Study. He spent 12 years in the Bronx office, where he worked on the new Yankee Stadium, neighborhood and boroughwide plans, and many affordable housing developments.
Jack of all trades
Intending to become an architect, Singer switched to urban planning because he liked working with communities and hearing their voices. He considers himself a “jack-of-all-trades,” reviewing code violations one day and briefing the mayor the next. He has extensive experience in urban design, incorporating it into areawide and neighborhood plans, as well as working with underserved communities to advance equity through affordable housing, public benefits and public spaces. His experience also includes budget oversight and advising commissions and boards on urban design.
At the New York Department of City Planning, he most recently supervised three teams: Land Use Review; Housing, Public Facilities and Data Quality; and Pipeline Management. His job was to manage the agency workflow, set priorities and generate performance metrics. But he also spent a lot of time out in the community talking to people.
“Real estate,” Singer says, “is driven by private interests. But planning – comprehensive or neighborhood planning – is where everyone gets a chance to weigh in, say what they want. And because of that, you get a better outcome.”
Addressing inequities in planning
Because public infrastructure is more robust in wealthier neighborhoods - which have more parks and open space - Singer cites an example of how he and his team worked to change that.
“When I started in the Bronx, I worked in this neighborhood called ‘The Hub.’ At the time, it had the highest poverty rate of any district in the nation,“ Singer recalls. “Walking around the neighborhood, we found a little triangle of space; the subway was underneath, and three or four bus lines ran through it. I thought … this could be something. So, I talked to business and community groups, my bosses and the Department of Transportation. And with a $5 million grant, we turned it into Robert Clemente Plaza. That’s in the realm of the city’s power, to build good places that work for people in lower income areas.
“But it’s essential to make equity a central goal of planning,” he continued. “This means meeting people where they are, going to events and venues to engage groups that would otherwise not have their voices heard.”
Singer says youth engagement is a particularly rewarding part of outreach for him.
“During the Sheridan Boulevard study, we partnered with The Point, a community development organization with a strong youth program. Having young people of color talking about what they wanted to see in their neighborhood was really powerful. When they said they didn’t want to leave their neighborhood to go shopping or that they wanted to be able to come back and live there after they went to college, I thought, ‘We can make policies that will support that goal.’”
Long-range planning vs. urban design
According to Singer, long-range planning is about goal setting with the community. It involves everyone saying, “This is what we want in the future.” Urban design, on the other hand, is about what a person’s experience in those spaces is, creating “rooms” for people to live and move around in.
“I ask people to describe a place they like: Is it very green, with trees and landscaping? Does everyone have a front porch? What are the ‘in between’ spaces like? How do public and private spaces interact?”
NYC vs. Portland
When asked what are – perhaps – the obvious differences between New York City and Portland, Singer cited “the style of government, histories …. New York was built before the car and suburbs, and Oregon was first in the nation to develop a growth management act to plan for the future in a community-oriented way.”
He acknowledges that New York is scattered and messy, but through comprehensive planning Portland isn’t (or is less so). That said, working with community boards and other local groups in the Bronx Bureau offices, serving 1.4 million people for 12 years, was highly community driven.
“We did walking tours with board members and the lessons were the same: Residents say they want to see this thing here. From those community talks, we translate that into code.”
Addressing Portland’s greatest challenges
Regarding Portland’s housing shortage, Singer says, “It’s about stating your goals and backing them up with data, then breaking that down by housing type. People need a tree canopy and nature in their city, so we must honor that, too. The Comp Plan goals give equal weight to housing, the economy/jobs and the environment. When it comes down to it, you have to balance them all.”
An example of this balancing act is found in new development along the Bronx River. In the 1970-80s, it was an open sewer, full of abandoned cars and tires. For decades, the Bronx River Alliance and other local groups worked to clean up the river. So as part of the Sheridan-Expressway Land-Use and Transportation Study, Singer worked with the same groups to turn an expressway that runs along the river into a boulevard, opening new sites to development. Eventually – after robust environmental impact work – new mixed-use development along the river was approved, with open spaces and affordable housing.
“In this case,” said Singer, “building along an ecologically sensitive area with robust environmental regulations can be better than what was there before, especially with green building regulations and wetland restoration requirements.”
Future of downtown
Reflecting on the current challenges facing Portland’s downtown, Singer cites the dynamic nature of cities.
“Planners are by nature optimistic. All of this can be seen as opportunity,” he says. “I look at a vacant storefront and think, ‘What could go there? It could be a 24/7 neighborhood.’”
“When I first moved to NYC, it was a year after 9/11. People were saying, ‘How could Lower Manhattan ever come back from that?’ Now it’s a thriving 24/7 neighborhood.
"The people working in Lower Manhattan thought of the challenges as opportunities. It’s cyclical; you just gotta believe.”
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