By Midge Pierce

Stats don’t begin to describe the impact of development in SE Portland. But they do prove what many are experiencing: drastically altered neighborhoods.

Within the Hawthorne, Belmont, Division so-called Town Center, 443 permits have been pulled for mixed use development since 2005. Most have been issued within the last two years. Add in detached houses, apartments and duplexes and the number nears 600.

Managing Portland’s raging development is a race against time. Enter the Division Design Initiative.

The grassroots coalition meets monthly to imagine a great corridor.  Creativity in gear, pencils in hand, crayons at the ready, community interests at heart and in mind, neighbors, architects and shopkeepers shape skylines no higher than three stories and render dream streets with people-friendly public areas and green spaces, interesting architecture and vitality.

“The last 18 months have changed our streetscape in both positive and negative ways,” says DDI steering committee leader Heather Flint-Chatto.  She balances the added energy and vibrancy of Division Street against increased congestion and concerns about loss of privacy, sunlight, quality of architecture and subpar materials, among others.

To identify and harness development elements that work and give stakeholders input in the transformation of their communities, DDI will release design guidelines by summer.  The guidelines are intended to fill a significant gap in the City’s system planning.

In Portland, permits that comply with zoning are invariably approved with no design review.  The result can be a hodge podge of development that conflicts with existing buildings, alienate residents and destabilizes neighborhoods.

In comments submitted to the City for its Comprehensive Plan, DDI calls for increasing design review policies and analysis of development impacts in order to mitigate negative outcomes. The group also supports improved notification and neighborhood involvement processes and updates of the historic inventory.

Design guidelines DDI would like to see the City consider cover architectural character, building form and massing, relationship to adjacent buildings, preferred building materials, preservation of historic or culturally important buildings, streetscape components, pedestrian amenities, landscaping and public art as well as recommendations for incentives and regulatory approaches toward implementing the guidelines.

According to board member Linda Nettekoven, DDI is taking a proactive approach to inevitable growth. “I truly believe the way to effect positive change is to start initiatives with design. People need something to get excited about. Otherwise, you’re just reacting or running interference.”

With a 134 unit development with ground floor retail and tuck under parking planned for Division and 55th, the group recently expanded its reach up to 60th St. include the South Tabor and Mt. Tabor neighborhoods.

Typically, meetings begin by sharing opinions collected from surveys and comment boxes along Division. Among 500 comments processed, a remarkable consistency emerges. Residents want compatible building scale with existing architecture. That can translate into buildings no taller than three or four stories with set-backs that provide visual interest.

The group calls it context sensitive development that balances sustainability, historic preservation and vital public spaces sensitive to the neighborhood that surrounds it.

Ongoing discussion turns on who development ultimately serves. Is it visitors, existing residents, or those who come after?

City planners are believed to favor developers and swarms of anticipated new arrivals. Residents want meaningful involvement to protect neighbor’s visions and concerns.

With development churning through SE Portland residential streets and arterials, the ultimate goal of the group may be to influence government. DDI recommends the City implement a Quadrant Design Review Process.

While architecture is highly subjective, a committee member said good architecture can be like a conversation with the street. Friendly façades with overhangs, indentations, step-ups, step-downs, quality materials, variety and height limitations can create a rhythm along a street that entices pedestrians and ensures the vibrancy of the street and its economic health.

By contrast, stagnant planes create stagnant places that turn pedestrians, neighbors and shoppers away.

The group is an outgrowth of the Richmond Neighborhood’s Division Green/Main Street Plan, funded by donations from neighborhood associations and a recent SE Uplift grant.

To learn more about the organization and how you can make tax deductible contributions see:  divisiondesigninitiative.org.