By Midge Pierce
Portland’s reputation for good design needs to be refreshed, according to the final version of Portland’s Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA) project prepared by consultants for the City’s planning bureaus.
Redevelopment, preservation and architecture were forefront everywhere during April’s Design Week symposiums; exhibit reveals of the Green Loop’s “Bold new Portland” park strip circling both sides of the river; the Architectural Heritage Center’s Old House Revival Tour showcasing vintage home charms; ongoing debate about historic districts and release of the final version of DOZA.
The report lauds the City for its commitment to design but indicates execution falls short. “Parts of the city are beginning to lose an idiosyncratic character that Portland is known for,” according to an excerpt critical of “less than thoughtful building designs and repetitive, seemingly interchangeable, building forms”.
Sunnyside resident and architect Michael Molinaro sums up the feeling. “Sunnyside’s new buildings are a design disaster, devoid of character and oblivious to their surroundings.” On Hawthorne, he cites bunker-like buildings with no redeeming values like affordable housing.
Despite the dramatic redevelopment and densification of SE corridors, new buildings with heights and bulk that shock longtime residents may not qualify for design review.
DOZA calls for a high level of design guidance for larger projects but less review of smaller ones. As a result, the thresholds may be too narrow to matter much along SE’s historic commercial corridors. (see the related article in this issue, The Rip in Rip City).
The DOZA project was intended to clarify and streamline design reviews, which the report claims are often long and inefficient. Initially, guidelines were predominantly slated for downtown Portland with some extension into Eastside’s inner core along with specific mixed use zone fingers within so-called d-overlays. While a few d-overlays extended to N, NE and Gateway, SE’s historic corridors were not covered.
That may change. The advocacy group Division Design Initiative has lobbied extensively for d-overlays of SE mixed use zones like Belmont, Hawthorne and Division. Per the DOZA report, the corridors may be poised for overlays. Still, they may not get much attention due to high thresholds and short resources.
The recent explosion in the number of required reviews has created cumbersome backlogs. Delays frustrate architects, contractors and neighborhood activists seeking affordable housing.
Reports indicate the number of reviews last year was some six times higher than in 2008. The complexity of Portland’s construction processes, staff shortages and reliance on a volunteer citizen review boards pose serious obstacles to taking on more projects. As a result, concrete bunkers with cheap-looking batten board facades may continue to dominate.
With 80% growth targeted in so-called town centers, the work of SE’s Division Design Initiative to encourage attractive, appealing new-builds an repurposing takes on new urgency and relevance.
Recommendations made by DDI are well-reflected in DOZA proposals about scale, setback, aesthetic patterns, compatibility with physical characteristics of neighborhoods and pedestrian-friendly public spaces.
DDI recommendations likely influenced DOZA’s final recommendations to expand d-overlays by some 11%.
Despite DOZA’s tight scope, DDI champions Heather Flint Chatto and Linda Nettekoven press on, influencing processes and urging builders to provide quality construction and permanence.
Currently, they are identifying architectural styles from Art Deco to Craftsman to Spanish eclectic to include in their comprehensive toolkit of guidelines that could be used in official reviews that do happen and otherwise used as voluntary guidelines for builders who care about community.
So what constitutes good design? Flint Chatto and Nettekoven provided a list of newly-built mixed zone buildings that model good scale, height, setback and design.
A neighborhood favorite is the American Local Building at SE 30th and Division which references Art Deco, has roofline articulations, excellent storefront windows, balconies and compatibility with the neighborhood.
Townhouses on the north side of 25th are cited as good examples of missing middle housing. The five units have nice scale and good façade materials as well as architecture that relates to adjacent residences.
Despite good new-build examples, passionate citizens continue to advocate that SE’s Main Street style corridors deserve special consideration. Preservationists believe much of Portland’s vintage architecture should be saved from the wrecking ball.
Exhaustive research to spare historic streetcar corridors like Belmont have left citizen watchdogs demoralized.
Construction has started in Belmont’s mid 3300 block. Ground has broken to build on a skinny lot along iconic Peacock Lane. Laurelhurst and Eastmoreland residents favoring registry as National Historic Districts continue to run up against ever-sophisticated tactics to stop them.
Preservation protections take time, money and widespread support. Laurelhurst, Peacock Lane, Eastmoreland and stretches of Belmont and Hawthorne’s commercial strips likely qualify for listings on the National Historic Registry as would some residential sections of SE. While designation requires approval by a majority of property owners, opposition is supported by deep-pocketed developers.
In Sunnyside, where more residents are renters than homeowners, regard for old Portland may not be as deep-rooted as it is among those with long-term investments in the City, and, the building community is rich in resistance and funding.
DOZA Project Manager Lora Lillard says it will take at least 18 months of finetuning and more public engagement before thresholds, standards and guidelines are implemented.