- Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coast: Ralph Bramel Lloyd and the Shaping of the Urban West by Michael R. Adamson
Michael R. Adamson's meticulously researched biography and business history of Ralph Lloyd reveals how dividends from southern California oil leases shaped the urban landscape of east Portland. While most people familiar with Portland's history will have heard of the Lloyd Center shopping mall, this is a much larger story than Oregon's biggest mall. Lloyd, as Adamson reveals, had many Portland real estate developments beyond the mall.
An independent oil operator in the Ventura, California, oil fields, Lloyd both competed against and cooperatively worked alongside the biggest oil companies. About half of the book focuses on Lloyd's work in California. As an independent operator, he developed a process of influencing municipalities as a "citizen outside the government" to drive policies and public investments favorable to his interests.
Lloyd quickly amassed considerable wealth and dividends from his oil leases and looked to real estate to diversify and insulate from the volatility of oil markets. He began acquiring real estate in Portland in 1907. His largest holdings became a large portion of vacant lots [End Page 112] in the Holladay Addition, but he owned parcels all over east Portland. Portland business elites initially mocked his dreams to build a world class hotel, golf course, and conference center to make the area "the trade and transportation hub of the Pacific Northwest" (p. 77). Throughout the 1920s, however, Lloyd's "citizen outside the government" lobbying convinced Portland officials to back his proposals: namely street widening, vacated rights of way, and overall actions favoring automobile expansion.
Lloyd understood the connection between the crude oil that fueled his wealth and the very same oil that fueled the burgeoning automobile culture. As Adamson shows, Lloyd understood that his Ventura oil fields would soon be competing with oil discovered in Texas, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Developing real estate in a smaller city with the prospect for growth from the automobile was an irresistible opportunity for both financial diversity and added security.
Despite his wealth, developing Portland was not a straightforward process. A conservative developer, Lloyd was cautious about using debt to pay for his developments and sought guarantees from construction firms and public funds to assist his projects. Adamson skillfully documents the finances behind Lloyd's decision-making, and how the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, deferred many of his ambitious developments for Portland. A skilled writer, Adamson breaks down the jargon of finances, capital, and investment in an approachable way by tying it directly to places on the Portland landscape.
While Adamson skillfully positions the story of Lloyd's real estate developments against the push and pull of local politics and national economic history, the author ends the narrative with completion of the mall in 1960. Unfortunately, readers will not get a sense of the full ramifications of Lloyd's developments. It is hard not to see this as a missed opportunity. Portland's enormous urban renewal projects and freeway developments, which were beginning just as the Lloyd Center opened, mark a major chapter in the history of the city. How did Lloyd's developments and lobbying link to the larger work of the Portland Development Commission, freeway expansion, and urban renewal? Although these questions remain, they also mark an opportunity for additional scholarship—especially as the future of the mall emerges in the public discourse.
Ironically, as a man who was opposed to many New Deal policies, Lloyd found a stable tenant in the Bonneville Power Administration to anchor his eastside holdings for the eventual construction of Lloyd Center. Following World War II, Lloyd also developed extensive affordable housing units that featured innovations in design, negotiation, and construction. Adamson argues that Lloyd's approach—design, negotiate, build—is significant and worthy of further study. He concludes that one of Lloyd's most significant...