Infill Ideals Pit Developers Against Protectors

By Midge Pierce

As the City reviews responses to last month’s Residential Infill Proposal (RIP) survey, the only clarity so far is the division between housing development advocates and citizens who question whether tearing apart neighborhoods is the best way to provide affordable housing.

Designed to squeeze in some 200,000+ newcomers over 20 years, RIP would increase density by allowing construction of multi-unit housing in single family neighborhoods within 1/4 mile of transportation corridors and town centers. That covers virtually all of inner SE. Setting a minimum of two houses in areas zoned R2.5 and allowing triplexes on corners are among proposals.

Neighborhood associations rushed to meet the comment deadline last month with a variety of reactions to a plan some consider housing choice and others a violation of homeowner rights. The only part of plan with broad support is the reduction in the scale and roof lines of homes.

On one side, citizens say Portland needs to control unsustainable growth, not embrace it. They are concerned that the demolition epidemic will worsen if developers are allowed to tear down existing homes to build multiple units with no guarantee of affordability.

They believe the value of land beneath existing homes will spike construction costs, raise housing costs and turn a green town into a city of teardowns.

They say Portland has been hijacked by developers eager to fast-track a form of re-zoning that disregards earlier surveys showing demolition is Southeast’s number one concern. They fret that the proposal offers little incentive for saving small houses critical to Portland’s housing stock.

“Just reading The Portland Chronicle’s (biweekly+) lists of demolition permits for small, affordable homes, hurts my heart,” said a Richmond resident after a contentious neighborhood meeting.

On the other side, progressives believe density is the key to affordability. A mix of building types called missing middle housing is the core of the highly visible, vocal Portland for Everyone, out in force during the survey month at meetings and neighborhood gathering spots urging support for multi-housing in all neighborhoods.

Portland for Everyone supports one-size fits all zoning as the most fair and equitable approach. The organization’s position, as espoused by Madeline Kovacs, is that all should share equally the burden of adding density.

“It makes no sense,” according to the group’s website, “when a standard 50’ X 100’ lot within easy walking distance of downtown can’t be used for anything more than a single-family house. We want a Portland where all are welcome and everyone’s interests matter.” Everyone includes new arrivals as well as lifelong residents, according to the posting.

Portland for Everyone is distinct from the nonprofit A Home for Everyone, a city and county partnership dedicated to help the homeless. Critics of Portland for Everyone claim it is a front for developers who drive demolition that displaces more residents than they house.

At its monthly association meeting, Sunnyside condoned the multi-housing concept, already a reality in much of the neighborhood. In a 5-2 vote, it split along renter and homeowner lines.

The neighborhood currently faces developer encroachment on its beloved Peacock Lane as well as threats to its Belmont streetcar-era commercial strip.

Tension ran especially high in Richmond as debate wound into the night. Growth advocates wore down neighbors who questioned why the board was pressing for an Infill vote when individuals could respond online for themselves.

Over objections, the board voted to support the affordable housing goals – if not the actual document – presented by Portland for Everyone.

Witness to both debates, activist Jeff Cole is bracing for the eastside to receive the brunt of demolition and density. He believes many residents are in the dark about what the Infill proposal means.

Cole said online that RIP would more than double allowable units in neighborhoods. His interpretation is that a standard 5000 sq. ft. lot could be permitted for up to 8 units if zone R2.5 and 4 units on lots zoned R5.

After a SE Uplift land use meeting, board member Michael Molinaro, an appointee of RIP’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee, commented that the Infill process was flawed.

He cited the “curiosity” that the City came to every neighborhood association to painstakingly explain the proposed Comprehensive Plan. Later, when the directive to develop Infill proposals was inserted into the Plan, citizens had to scramble to find six informational meetings.

To the South, the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement Board (SMILE) recommended that growth be determined in a sustainable manner by enabling neighborhoods to estimate how much their infrastructure could handle.

Objecting to density overload, the board cited overcrowded schools, narrow streets, unsustainable traffic jams and aging sewer lines that might buckle under the stress of multiple houses where a single home once stood.

From inner NE, Laurelhurst Neighborhood sent the City a list of what they did support – smaller scale buildings and lower roof lines – and what they didn’t – any mutliplex units in R5 zones. They found the proposal to allow triplexes on corners particularly egregious.

Throughout the eastside, longtimers liken the City’s pro-development push to a 1970s proposal to split the eastside with the Mt. Hood expressway.

“We stopped the expressway then. We need to organize to stop the wholesale demolition of the Eastside now.” said one.

Across the river, outspoken Multnomah Village residents continue to organize demonstrations and post online objections to RIP.

A coalition of 17 neighborhoods known as Southwest Neighborhood Inc. submitted a five page document to the City expressing concern over the demolition of small homes and condemning the one-size fits all approach to zoning.

They termed density bonuses for middle housing “irresponsible” and called for economic analysis of the plan before concepts are adopted.

As rifts grow within communities, online chatter heats up. Renters want the opportunity to live in affordable homes and homeowners struggle to protect their property. One pointed to homeowners’ direct investment in schools.

“Our homes are not only a place to live but also, for many of us, a primary source of economic stability. Homeowners can’t, like a renter, easily pick up and move away.”

He cited millions of dollars the City spent in underdeveloped areas such as Lents and Gateway where building would be cheaper and infrastructure less burdened.

While not set in stone, the RIP timeline seems accelerated.  “Hales wants to make his mark before leaving office,” said an observer.

Another said simply, “I’m worried about the City I love.”

Public comments are due to be released online this month. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability plans to take recommendations to City Council this fall.

Infill Ideals Pit Developers Against Protectors

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