By Midge Pierce
Once upon a time, several decades ago, neighbors came together to stop the Mt. Hood Expressway from tearing the Eastside apart. Portland is again at a crossroads as growth pressures threaten housing affordability, community stability, infrastructure capacity and tree canopy health. Yet, residents are unable to agree whether Infill is the route to utopia or ruin.
According to a recently released citywide survey by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, a majority of 2500 respondents believe the City is moving in the right direction with Residential Infill Project (RIP) concepts that support more multi-unit development in single housing neighborhoods. Concepts essentially increase zoning density in residential areas within 1/4 mile of town centers or transportation corridors to permit so-called middle housing such as duplexes, triplexes and multi-house clusters.
During the two-month questionnaire process, hundreds of Portlanders attended six public informational meetings on Infill. The results follow a 2015 survey answered by some 8000 residents that was downplayed as not representing Portlanders east of 82nd, communities of color and new residents.
The Infill issue has split neighborhoods and generations, pitting newcomers against longtime residents. Not surprisingly, renters and newer residents were more likely to be supportive of BPS’ concepts than homeowners and residents over 45 who have lived in Portland for more than 10 years.
More than 70 percent of renters said they felt all proposals related to housing types were moving in the right direction. Homeowners, by contrast, were more divided. What is surprising is that nearly half of the homeowner group seemingly supported denser Infill, a possible prescription for demolition.
One skeptic said that’s because questions were phrased in a way that begged the answers planners wanted. In the earlier survey, demolition was the number one concern of SE Portland residents. Long-timers hold that the time and taxes they have invested have value.
The City summary of the recent questionnaire marked the end of the early public feedback phase. BPS is using the comments to revise concepts before tackling a lengthy code development process. A city official says the public will have plenty of time for additional input.
Preservationists hope the City incorporates their position into a plan some say is the deathknell for existing neighborhoods. Peggy Moretti, executive director of Restore Oregon, calls the initial concepts a mixed bag needing more work.
“Not since the 1960s have Portland’s older neighborhoods come under greater threat of the bulldozer and loss of their identity, she said. “The drive to increase density and affordability in the face of ramped up market demand, along with the lack of meaningful incentives for preservation, have resulted in the loss of over 300 homes per year and the wholesale change in neighborhood character.”
Moretti cites scenarios in which posers buy homes with promises to preserve them only to turn around and sell to developers. Beloved landmarks, she writes, have been held hostage by unscrupulous developers ransoming houses – sometimes successfully – back to communities.
As interpretations of the recent Infill questionnaire circulate, some complain it was incomprehensible to the average Portlander.
An architect experienced in building practices refused to respond to the survey because it obscured the impacts of the concepts on Portland’s cityscape. Others cited builder bias and the shady practices of developers posing as affordable housing advocates to strong-arm support for Infill as a solution to housing equity.
What is now the minority view reflects fears of grassroots organizations like United Neighborhoods for Reform and Stop Demolishing Portland. They warn that developer-centric housing progressives like Portland for Everyone seek to take the City apart brick by brick in order to rebuild their version of affordability.
In the process, one blogger wrote, every residential street would turn into be multi-housing units, putting infrastructure, urban canopies and the City’s history and charm at risk.
“The survey read like a set-up,” said another. “The whole thing was intended to bolster the development position.”
Bolster it did. Roughly half of respondents felt the proposal would be at least somewhat effective at meeting project objectives such as diverse housing options. In response to questions referencing multi-unit residential housing within a 1/4 mile of commercial and transportation corridors, a significant number of both renters and homeowners said these alternative housing types should be more “broadly applied.”
Critics say this concept would expand density into every tree-lined nook and cranny of Portland. The breakdown showed almost 60 percent of renters vs. 45 percent of homeowners in favor of extending the reach of middle housing that could include triplexes, duplexes and cluster housing.
A reduction in scale of homes was generally supported by both groups. Still, homeowners sought to reduce square footage while renters favored splitting properties to allow flag lots.
Parking was another area of disagreement with concerns expressed about adequate spots and arguing that lack of parking would reduce housing costs and encourage use of mass transit.
Whether or not this survey took Portland’s pulse accurately remains to be seen. Contradictions seemingly abounded. A significant portion of homeowners seemed to support density, though a majority said incentives to retain existing homes were their first priority.
More than a third of homeowners thought allowing duplexes on all lots, triplexes on corner lots and houses with two ADUs would be moving in the wrong direction.
For renters, the consistent priority was affordability, a concern shared by every thinking Portlander.
Some wonder if using density as a tool for cost effective housing is magical thinking given the high cost of new construction’s contribution to spiraling rents.
Comments referenced San Francisco, Seattle and New York as examples of dense cities with exorbitant housing prices. Some claimed the proposed changes would raise the value of land over existing affordable homes so much it would encourage more lot splitting and demolitions.
Others cited internal conversions as a way to reduce demolitions and maintain neighborhood character.
The Save Portland minority rallies on. “Let’s salvage the Portland we love and consider ways to save small affordable houses for first time buyers not the developers who outbid them.”
Another asked, “If newcomers are so eager to change the City, why did they move here in the first place?”
Ironically, the words of a former resident sum up the feelings of many on both sides: “I thought Portland was a liveable, affordable City with charming neighborhoods, but all I see is construction, congestion and new development that few can afford.”
Revised concept recommendations will be presented to City Council and available for additional comment in November.
After Council provides staff direction, the development process will begin, followed by more public review before the document returns to City Council for a final decision.
To learn more about the survey and the Infill projects next steps go to portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/590649