By Don MacGillivray
Portland’s small town feel and the friendliness of its citizens are a major plus for our city due in part to our neighborhoods.
Public safety and physical appearance were major drivers behind the creation of the neighborhood association system. The crime prevention situation has improved greatly over the last forty years.
The physical character and appearance of our neighborhoods slowly change over time and it is difficult to retain the charm and character of each one. Keeping them as they are requires much deliberation and compromise by those that care.
The population growth estimates for the future indicate that over 6,000 new housing units will be built each year for the next 20 years. Eighty percent of these will be medium or high density apartments and condominiums. Added pressure is on the city’s existing single family housing stock that is the foundation of our neighborhoods.
Related to the demolition situation is the abandoned and vacant houses. There are several hundred of these structures in Portland today.
Most are artifacts of the economic recession of the years after 2008. In many cases the property owner, be it a financial institution or an under water individual owner, has removed themselves from the responsibility of caring for the property.
It can be a bad situation when property is neglected and in some cases, when trespassers move in rent free. Some of these homes are destroyed beyond repair and the only economic solution is to demolish the existing structure and build a new home.
There is a great deal of subjectivity in choosing which buildings are worth saving. This varies whether you are the owner or an interested party. Unfortunately business decisions can trump preservation to the detriment of the neighborhood context. When it is obvious a building is in a state of disrepair, it is a judgment call whether the home is no longer worth rehabilitation.
In this economy there are a number of buyers that can outbid an individual craftsman desiring to purchase an older home to restore it to its original beauty and bring it up to contemporary standards.
Too often the commercial buyer is looking to subdivide the property, demolish the house, and build several large new homes on the one site. This can eventually destroy the integrity and distinctiveness of a neighborhood as well as its historic and social value to the city. There are situations where “highest and best use” is not always desirable.
One way to protect a building is with a preservation easement. This allows a property owner to ensure its long-term preservation. This is a legally binding agreement to protect a historic property from neglect, demolition and insensitive alterations.
Now the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association is considering the use of this tool to help preserve their homes. More information about this option is available from Restore Oregon’s website, restoreoregon.org.
Many advocates think the notification of neighbors and the Neighborhood Association is not adequate. The Portland “Public Involvement Principles” clearly states that the public needs to be informed of changes to a neighborhood as soon as possible before they are implemented.
It also states:
“Public involvement is an early and integral part of issue and opportunity identification, concept development, design, and implementation of city policies, programs, and projects.”
While this seems to limit public involvement to city actions, the citizens of each neighborhood expect notifications to include all actions affecting a neighborhood.
When the Bureau of Development Services has the information, it should be shared with neighborhoods as soon as possible. Neighborhoods should be given the status of a “key stakeholder” and have the option of participating in meetings regarding properties to be developed.
Title 33 of the “Code of the City of Portland, Oregon”, covers zoning regulations. Title and chapter 33.405 is the Alternative Design Density Overlay Zone commonly referred to as the ADD zone. It is shown on zoning maps with the map symbol of an “a” after the base zones of R2, R2.5, or R5.
It allows for a fifty percent increase in dwelling units more than what is allowed in the base zone. These projects will also go through a Type III design review process. This section is intended to encourage the provision of well-designed housing that is attractive and compatible with an area’s established character.
The building demolition regulations are to be found in Title and Chapter 24.55.200.
It mandates a 35 day waiting period before demolition and notification of the nearby property owners and other interested parties such as the neighborhood association and district coalition.
However, in 1990, section K1 of this chapter was added which exempts the applicant from all the provisions of section .200 if the application for demolition of a single family residence is accompanied by an application for a building permit for a replacement of a single family residence.
If section K1 were removed, the public notification of demolitions would be greatly improved.
Changes to the development code policy may be initiated by simply submitting an e-mail to Bureau of Development Services through the comments form on www.portlandoregon.gov/bds/37528. Select Code Change Recommendations in the subject. line.
Those recommendations will be forwarded to the Director of BDS and the Commissioner in Charge of the Bureau and if approved, changes will be presented to the City Council for their consideration.
This is never easy, but change is possible.