By Midge Pierce
Following the recent advance screening of Straw Bales Films’ Den$ity: Profits or People, residents railed against what they called poorly-designed, big box apartments that tear apart existing neighborhoods, yet net developers “fantastic cash flow”.
The documentary by Milwaukee film-maker Greg Baartz-Bowman tracks the experience of residents along commercial and transit corridors like Division St. that bear the brunt of high density development.
The film illustrates how multi-story, mega-structures can create congestion, overshadow neighborhoods, reduce longtime resident parking options and undermine a community’s sense of place.
“Residents have no voice,” declared producer George Wolters who approached Baartz-Bowman about documenting development stresses in SE Portland.
The film’s goal is to raise awareness about a pattern of demolition that allows land speculators to build whatever they want, he said. Thwarted in his own efforts to stop big box construction near his Tacoma St. home, he continues, “There is less regulation of a 68-unit apartment than a backyard garage. The City exercises no oversight of developers who are buying up lots, tearing down homes and destroying mom and pop businesses.”
Southeast’s close-in neighborhoods are experiencing a building boom that heated up when the recession subsided. Film-goers claimed that neighborhoods like Richmond, Buckman, Boise, Sunnyside, Sellwood and Beaumont-Wilshire are attractive to out-of-town real estate investors who find Portland building standards low, while profit margins soar. Investing in Portland multi-use housing, they claimed, is far more lucrative than in suburbs like Beaverton.
Gene Grant, co-chair of the newly-formed, metro-wide Thriving Cities Initiative said, “What struck me about the movie is that all the residents failed to recognize that the land use battle is won or lost in the planning stage of the land use process.
“The root of the problem is the ineffectiveness of blocking a project that complied with zoning. Residents need to be paying attention years before construction begins. Once construction starts, it’s virtually impossible to stop.”
Neighbors are often surprised when they receive no notice about construction starts. If projects adhere to codes set in Portland’s 1979 Comprehensive Plan, the city generally permits demolition of existing buildings and requires no design reviews.
The result can be huge structures that are zoning compliant but that neighbors feel are noncompliant with existing one and two-story residences.
While building starts have jumped exponentially, the scale of buildings on Division St. has also jumped 200-percent, according to Heather Flint Chatto, an urban planner and designer.
The dynamo behind the Division Design Initiative, a community collaboration dedicated to identifying goals, vision and priorities for new development, she says affordable, plentiful mixed-use housing can be sensitive to the area’s context and adjacent development.
“What’s needed is architecture that includes more step-downs that help break up building massing and design guidelines that help clarify community design preferences. We support density, but not in such concentration that it disrespects existing character.”
Like Flint Chatto, Ellen Burr of the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood believes growth need not be ugly. “No one wants sprawl, but we don’t have to sacrifice quality of life to welcome new residents.”
Everyone at the screening agreed on the need for more affordable housing, but Burr and others said structures built out to the extreme cause problems that include lack of services, traffic safeguards, solar access, privacy and parking. An increase in local CO2 levels can be an unintended consequence of high density congestion.
The urban growth boundary limits the availability of land for development and pushes density toward the city core. Plus, Portland is a magnet for millennials who flock to Portland for its lifestyle.
Large buildings with small-square foot dwellings can be ideal for a young demographic, but even as the City promotes bike riding, car-share programs and dense housing clusters near transit lines, newcomers arrive with cars anyway. A single unit in a multi-family complex can add two or more cars.
So what can be done to fill needs, not greed, to drive construction that is more neighbor friendly?
Baartz-Bowman extolled the audience to take a leadership role in influencing future growth. “It’s up to Portlanders to get their neighborhoods together to find commonalities and establish a collective voice. The City has no incentive to do it for them.”
Flint Chatto believes incentives should be in place to encourage a Main Street and greenstreet feel. She suggests 1:3 “floor area ratios” for Division St. could facilitate better scaled buildings (within existing height limits). Density bonuses to build higher would be possible if innovative features are provided.
Flint Chatto is developing a toolbox of design ideas to help inform and empower neighborhoods going forward. A sign of collaboration is that Southeast Uplift may spearhead an area-wide conference about design and demolition.
Several film-goers suggested the solution was to follow the money. “Track those who are most vulnerable to public opinion,” said one. He recommended exposing financial institutions that provide favorable funding for big box projects.
“Big bucks are going out of the neighborhoods to big out-of-town builders and banks.”
George Wolters continues to seek project redress through the state Land Use Board of Appeals. He said pressure for demolition and development is accelerating. “There is no time to waste. Whether it’s your backyard or mine, it affects all of us.”
Baartz-Bowman and Wolters hope their film can spur action.
If your organization is interested in arranging a screening contact: email@example.com.
Old houses – New threats
By Midge Pierce
In 2012, Hawthorne residents were enraged by the removal of the Montgomery house. Last year, it was the complex at Division and 37th that outraged neighbors. Recently, residents gawked at a deep hole that appeared at Belmont and 28th to accommodate multi-housing. At press time, The SE Examiner received pictures of the demolition of the Baptist Church at 22nd and Lincoln.
Prior to any of this, the Buckman area fell under the wrecking ball. “We got hit up by development pretty hard in the past few years,” said Christine Yun, formerly of the Buckman Neighborhood Association.
From 2006 – 2013, Yun fought for preservation of a unique stretch of homes she calls the most intact example of Portland’s early middle and working class neighborhoods. Neighbors rejected her proposal to establish an historic district. Discouraged and exhausted, Yun gave up the fight. Since then, she has watched the teardown of several more homes she had identified as unique to the history of Portland.
National Register of Historic Places designation can provide a level of protection since it requires design reviews for major changes to registered properties, but designation does not guarantee properties stay threat-free. Just ask the residents of upper SE Taylor St. where the splitting of the Historic Herman Vetter property has been approved, despite driveway excavation work that began before a permit was issued – a situation the builder insists was an honest mistake. For that matter, consider the imminent threat of cutting off the water to Mt.. Tabor’s reservoirs, the centerpiece of our century-old park.
Now, Yun fears Buckman and other neighborhoods may face a new threat: upzoning. With the city updating its Comprehensive Plan, density could actually increase. She fears the next wave of development will once again split neighbors between those who stand to profit and those who don’t.
“People new to the area don’t know the rich history. They think it’s great to build bigger buildings and reduce the carbon footprint – but we lose the livability of our neighborhoods in the process.”
To learn more, go to www.historicbuckman.com.