By Midge Pierce
With roughly half the City zoned single dwelling, Residential Infill Project concepts that add multi-unit housing to single family neighborhoods could be the most impacting policy change in Portlanders’ lifetimes.
RIP is a complex issue that addresses scale, lot size and housing types. It has pros, cons, unintended consequences and new lexicons that describe housing choices such as the Missing Middle and cottage clusters. City planners have positioned middle housing as a way to add density and affordability by permitting duplexes, triplexes, ADUs and clusters in single family residential zones.
The Housing Opportunity Overlay was added in October to identify areas where Missing Middle housing types will be allowed. As currently proposed, the overlay consumes virtually all of close-in, amenity-rich inner SE, an area a Los Angeles Times reporter described as the convenient, less shiny side of town.
During multiple days of City Council hearings in November, impassioned testimonies ranged from comments that RIP did not go far enough to calls that it was draconian and should be scrapped because it would zone out all single family residences in the City.
The plan’s project initiators are both leaving City Hall before it comes to fruition. Outgoing Mayor Charlie Hales, who directed staff to find a panacea for the housing crisis, agreed with the general direction but said the plan needs tweaking.
Yet, given claims that 1,000 new people move to Portland every month and lamenting the recent loss of 700 homes to demolition, he vowed to push some version of it forward. “I’m looking for every idea to reduce the rate of destruction.”
Toward the end of testimony, departing Commissioner Steve Novick, who introduced middle housing as an 11th hour amendment to the Comprehensive Plan, said, “Let ‘er RIP, Rip City,” He claims a broader approach can help solve climate change.
“I want more people living in Portland than Houston where they have to run their air conditioners all the time.”
As well-versed citizens parsed the Portland Dream, both sides painted a town divided. What follows is a sampling of testimony high – or low – points, depending on your viewpoint, from participants in RIP’s Stakeholders Advisory Committee (RIPSAC) and key observers.
Mary Kyle McCurdy, 1000 Friends of Oregon, said Portland needs to adapt to changing demographics. Portland should not be limited to “1950s notions of single family zones. It’s not the time to shut some people out of some neighborhoods.”
In a similar vein, Developer Eli Spevak, who sits on both RIPSAC and the Planning Commission, criticized what he termed Portland’s history of “white picket fence zoning.” We can do better than that, he said, with a broader mix of housing choices.
SAC member Barbara Strunk, one of the SAC Seven denouncing RIP deregulation, cited the need for neighborhood context. She said developer speculation will lead to economic instability and loss of livability. “The greenest, most affordable home is the one already standing.”
Her colleague Jim Gorter added: “Drop the widespread (housing opportunity) overlay. This is no substitute for good planning. It will not reduce demolition. The process ran off the rails.”
Robin Harmon, who has attended every RIPSAC meeting as an observer, cited the conflict of interest of a SAC member also serving on the planning commission. She claimed the project was “hijacked by developers’ self-serving agendas wrapped in affordability.”
Low cost housing representative Julia Metz suggested density bonuses be offered to developers who provide accessibility for seniors and the less-abled.
In a surprisingly measured twist, Portland for Everyone’s Madeline Kovacs spoke of common ground. “Make internal conversions the easier more economic choice than teardowns.”
Peggy Moretti of Restore Oregon called for respect toward neighborhood heritage and character. She warned against “deep, dense, cheap mishmashes of ugly” and suggested restricting demolitions to vacant lots or houses less than 50 years old.
Planning consultant Mary Vogel, an advocate of new urbanism ideals to reduce carbon footprints, explained that Portland takes up 4x’s as much space as San Francisco or Vancouver. She called for 16 buildings per acre to support healthy retail and transit corridors.
Landmarks Commission representative Kristen Minor called for community design standards and historic building flexibility that encourages internal and external additions in lieu of demolition.
Members of the United Neighborhoods for Reform supported by more than 40 neighborhoods, slammed RIP as half baked.
Janet Baker warned of the climate implications of sending deconstruction materials to landfills and the time it takes to “cook” concrete for new construction. Her colleague Jerry Parker warned of 12,000 houses on split lots that were vulnerable to demolition.
Al Ellis called for a policy that does not bulldoze Portland into oblivion.
Southwest Portland residents spoke of the impact of densification in areas lacking sidewalks that force pedestrians to mix with cars parked on narrow streets.
Discussing the importance of pervious ground, a neighbor urged Council to re-evaluate floor area ratios in order to leave enough open space for trees and gardens.
Young Eastsiders wearing housing choice buttons shared stories about being displaced by high rents and getting priced out of neighborhoods. An architect warned of the wholesale destruction of Richmond’s once-affordable bungalows.
Multnomah Villagers came out in force to decry one- size-fits-all zoning. A neighbor claimed, “This plan uses a chainsaw when a butter knife would do.”
SAC member Garland Woodsong closed testimony by saying NIMBYs who do not embrace Infill are not progressive. He recommends floor area ratios that would fill 9/10s of a lot and allow for 8 units.
City Council is expected to give direction to the concepts this month. They will then be developed into specific code amendments that require public notice, review and hearings.
For more information on project specifics: portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/580581