By Midge Pierce
It has become a familiar refrain: We’re losing what makes Portland, Portland.
Mature tree canopies. Affordable single-family homes for first time buyers. Classic craftsmen houses. Century-old Victorians. Privacy. Ambience. Sense of history, continuity, community.
Residents mourn the loss of a quality of life compromised by projections of density that some say may never materialize, especially if developers demolish Portland’s quirky charm.
With wrecking balls moving ever eastward from downtown’s close-in neighborhoods, residents along SE 50th fear they are the latest Demolition Ground Zero.
At the corner of SE 50th and Stephens Ave., where a small factory once stood, a pile of rubble squares off against modest Portland bungalows sandwiched between a smattering of commercial buildings. Soon, the site may morph into a four-story, 72-unit apartment building.
“This project will forever alter the way 50th looks,” says Brian Mitchell, landuse co-chair of the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association. For better or worse, he says, it will set a precedent for development along a strip from Division to Hawthorne targeted for as many as 200 living units in the coming year.
The traffic impact of this latest swath of development is a major concern. New rules require buildings with more than 30 units to provide minimal parking.
Neighbor Steve Bingold says it’s not enough. He calls it a “horrendous” formula for traffic and side street chokeholds that residents throughout SE are already experiencing.
Then there is the issue of perfectly good, affordable homes being torn down. At neighbors request, the MTNA filed for a 120-day delay of demolition of a classic bungalow at 1924 SE 50th, next door to the rubble, that the developer may include in the complex. Neighbors hope the delay may provide time to find another buyer or someone willing to move the house.
For the commercially-zoned factory on the corner, no public hearings were required prior to demolition. Terry Whitehall, plan review section manager for the Bureau of Development Services, says permits are approved, providing projects comply with zoning codes and so far, the project at 1916 SE 50th does.
Developer David Mullens, representing SK Hoff Construction of Beaverton, has agreed to meet with neighbors January 14 at 7 pm at Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, SE 55th & Belmont. He is under no legal obligation to adjust plans to adhere to their concerns.
While he declined to discuss specifics with this reporter, preliminary paperwork indicates the magnitude of the proposal will rival similar projects at SE 39th and Division and the megalith going up behind Peacock Lane between Belmont and Hawthorne.
Mitchell says the 50th St. project will have much greater impact than two nearby townhome projects.
One at 50th and Lincoln is being undertaken by neighbors who live in the neighborhood. “The builders have a vested interest in retaining the area’s character.”
The other, underway at 50th and Mill St., is what Mitchell calls “responsible development”.
“The Paradox townhomes were reduced from 14 units to 12. The builder took a big financial hit to preserve a rare tree neighbors had rallied to save.”
Rallying to save solar access and property values, emails fly among neighbors concerned about the impact of a massive complex. Neighbors cite the incalculable loss of privacy, quiet and liveability. One claimed a realtor warned that values of properties abutting the development could drop by 30%.
Brian Houle has lived across from the factory site for 22 years and is leading a charge to preserve view corridors and get answers about the recent demolition. He tracked a cloud of dust over the neighborhood as the factory came down.
Houle claims calls and questions to the City about toxin discharge and abatement measures went unanswered. He wonders how high density housing might be built on the lot at 1924 zoned R1.
While some may consider a mixed-use street like SE 50th prime for development, Houle sees rampant opportunism.
“Our zoning gives developers more power than homeowners. Why is it that one man is allowed to increase his investment…while reducing the value of mine?”
Views of Mt. Tabor that were incorporated into the window designs of his home in the early 1900s would be obliterated by a four-story construct. “I work local, I buy local, and I want to preserve this view of a local treasure.”
Fifty-first St. resident Bingold says that, ultimately, neighbors seek to influence the design, scale and massing of the project. “We want stepped development with setbacks that leave a buffer between property lines.” In reality they may only be able to reduce the project footprint by saving the bungalow next door.
SE Uplift staffer Bob Kellett has told residents that zoning codes and policies are inadequate. Neighbors who have tried to stop four-story apartments have been unsuccessful.
Zoning laws will not change until 2017 when the new comprehensive plan is adopted.
Grassroots organization lobbies for code reform
By Midge Pierce
United Neighborhoods for Reform members say Portland can’t wait any longer for demolition reform. It is pushing to curb the loss of affordable housing, the wasting of old growth homes and the return to sustainable preservation practices.
“We’re in a demolition epidemic,” says Al Ellis, UNR chair and past president of the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association, who marshalled citizens citywide to form a grassroots organization to lobby for code revisions.
More than two dozen NAs have so far signed a petition for demolition notification and compatibility requirements for replacement homes.
“Beautiful, iconic, quality homes have been torn down and replaced with exorbitant McMansions – two or more to a lot.” He adds that despite 120-day delay requests from neighborhood associations, developers find loopholes that allow them to move forward without further notice.
The group petitioned City Council for demolition reform in December and will present again at a Feb. 12 meeting.
Until then, Ellis urges citizens to send emails and letters to the Mayor and Commissioners supporting modification and expansion of short-term reform recommendations made by a Bureau of Development Services Advisory Review Committee (DRAC).
Among UNR modification suggestions are code revisions to limit the size, lot coverage, height and floor area ratio of house construction to that of average existing homes within 200 feet.
How these reforms might be applied to a mixed-use street like SE 50th remains to be seen. For now, as long as developers abide by current codes, design and massing is at their discretion. For residents throughout Portland, it’s still open season for demolition.
For more information on the work of UNR and to see a video of recent demolitions go to unitedneighborhoodsforreform.blogspot.com.
A petition to stop demolition is posted online at www.change.org/p/help-stop-the-demolition-of-portland-homes-and-keep-portland-sustainable