By Midge Pierce
Quality design, community context, scale, neighborhood compatibility, welcoming public spaces, citizen engagement and sufficient project noticing – these are bedrock concepts in three years of meticulous work by the grassroots Division Design Initiative (DDI) well-reflected in the City’s proposed Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA).
The problem is, SE commercial corridors like Division St. may not fully benefit from improved design systems unless adjustments are made to DOZA’s interim report set to go to City Council in April.
To move the high volume of PDX building projects – more than quadruple what they were in 2008 – DOZA proposals call for high level assessment of large projects in the Central City while lessening critiques of smaller projects like those in the mixed use zones along Division, Hawthorne and Belmont Streets.
While D-overlays are newly proposed for SE, the threshold for implementation is set for buildings 55 feet or more. In effect, they are too high to capture the commercial corridor development that is transforming streetcar-era Main Streets into what is perceived by some as slipshod eyesores and eye-catching versions of Oz to others.
Without proposal revisions, five-story, skinny buildings, not massive enough for review, and big box buildings under 55 feet, not tall enough for evaluation, will continue to consume Division and its parallel corridors. More bungalows on adjacent streets will be overshadowed.
The result is a blow to DDI which has seen projects of all sizes alter its streetscape beyond recognition. The group has long advocated for neighborhood specific standards. Its position is that SE design thresholds should be lowered from five to three stories.
In a letter prepared for DOZA, DDI chair and co-founder Heather Flint Chatto supports public realms, standards to improve street “pattern” conformation and a sense of permanence in materials.
A seasoned urban designer named a Woman of the Year in 2015 by the Daily Journal of Commerce, she calls for design review of any buildings above 35 feet, stepbacks that break up massing, reductions in floor area ratios (FAR), and adjustments to address solar shading.
At a recent SE Uplift land use meeting at Foster Burger, DOZA Project Manager Lora Lillard explained which projects get objective standards reviews while others are discretionary.
Under proposed thresholds, little attention of either sort will focus on Division. D-overlays do not automatically guarantee good design, she said, and good design can happen regardless of overlays.
Flint Chatto’s presentation followed. Laying out the group’s top priorities she said, “We need our own Design Commission. We can not wait. There are at least eight properties about to redevelop on SE Division now.”
Citing a dozen projects in Division’s last building wave plus the anticipated new construction, she indicated that the impact of cumulative development in an area should be considered in deciding which projects get evaluated.
“We strive for high quality, context sensitive development. We also believe we can keep community character and livability by providing incentives for density.”
Her recommendations include incentives for adapting and adding stories to existing buildings and placing stronger emphasis on green features such as zero energy buildings.
Afterwards, neighbors hashed out frustrations about City Hall’s head-spinning array of zoning and code updates.
“We’re undergoing a rate of unprecedented building in which developers take advantage of every policy the City implements,” said Jeff Cole. “Open a planning door and they make it pencil out.”
Equally worrisome, he continued, is a lack of appreciation for Portland’s special places.
“The City doesn’t get how important our streetcar-era corridors are. Tourists come from all over to see our authentic Vintage streets.”