By Midge Pierce

Love it or hate it, Portland’s post-recession transformation was unforeseen by framers of the original Comprehensive Plan 35-years ago. Now, as the Plan is updated,  citizens have a window to influence City Hall.

Public comments to City Council about the Comp Plan are due to conclude mid-December. The Plan projects land use policies for the next 20 years.

Zoning hearings with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) will follow in January to address changes like up or down zoning that could add or subtract density on streets like SE 50th St., or grant developers allowances such as extra stories as an incentive for affordable housing in commercial mixed use zones.

With comments, pointed words slip into the local lexicon like the “oops factor”, describing the gap between what many Portland residents want the City to be and what it is becoming. Often, it references the eye-popping changes happening along Division St.

At the first Comp Plan hearing, Heather Flint Chatto presented the Division Design Initiatives 10-point plan to avoid future mistakes such as over-massing and neighborhood incompatibility. Citizen volunteers spent two years developing detailed guidelines. Yet, it will be many more months before the City can implement any recommendations.

As urgency escalates, Eastsiders would do well to mimic the playbook of well-organized Multnomah Villagers. A dozen or so decked out in bright yellow t-shirts stole the day with-informed testimony to save the small town feel of their SW enclave.

At a recent SE informational meeting, BPS’ SE Uplift Liaison Marty Stockton told Tabor residents the hearings are a “once in a generation” opportunity to effect change. “Every day that goes by, is a day something citizens don’t like can get built.”

While the Comp Plan dictates future land-use, zoning controls what gets built where. It’s a way to decode the incomprehensible – as in why the big box complex around the corner blocks solar access, ruins gardens and steals parking spots.

Stockton explained that in four-story zones, such as Hawthorne Blvd. up to 51st, new codes could grant builders a fifth story in exchange for providing low-income housing.

Residents, many from beleaguered construction areas like 50th St., responded that zoning change notifications sent to nearby neighbors and more parking should be required.

One goal of rezoning is to align with the Comp Plan. Stockton described the “swiss cheese” factor in which properties zoned R 5 are listed 2.5 in the original plan. These scenarios, usually found on the fringes of commercial areas, could cause streets of proud bungalows to become rows of multi-family townhouses. Toss in a solar-blocking behemoth on the corner.

Apparently, “swiss cheese” differs from “underlying lot” lines that enable builders to undo century-old land plats, split properties, teardown affordable homes and build pricey McMansions or tall skinnies. No wonder Portland residents feel they need a graduate degree in urban planning.

Stockton walked residents through a proposal to compress nine Mixed Use categories into four zones that reflect green practices, push density toward commercial “centers” with “intensive” uses and designate “corridors” that preserve Main Street ambience.

She explained how zoning changes could impact a nonconforming apartment on Belmont St. and density at the 60th Street Max Station.

Even Portland Nursery is under review. For years, it has operated with a noncompliant designation that makes it difficult for the owners to finance improvements. Neighbors are reluctant to support zoning the entire property commercial. A city staff compromise would rezone the part of the property with existing buildings.

If the process still seems opaque, Portlanders should honor a key take-away. Whether you are a housing advocate identifying where affordable units can be built, or a homeowner protecting property values, it pays to understand zoning, because if you don’t, your friendly neighborhood developer will likely exploit your property for you.

As meeting moderator Paul Leistner said, “With density as our value, we need to learn how to be smart about it.”

Comprehensive Plan comments can be emailed to City Council until December 10 via cputestimony@portlandoregon.gov. Testimonial times are flexible so check the city website for information and schedules. Zoning comments should be directed to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. No specific hearing times have been set.