Collaborative Designs for Division Street

By Don McGillivray


SE Division St. over the last ten years has evolved into one of the hottest, up and coming neighborhoods in the nation said USA Today last year.

The current building boom of medium density apartments is changing the SE arterial streets where we live. Nearby residents frequently lament over the rapid change of the streetscape due to new four and five story apartment buildings.

Many neighbors are concerned that these new buildings don’t fit well with the older neighborhood, won’t provide enough parking, are not affordable, and will have businesses that don’t serve the needs of the local residents.

Enter the Division Design Initiative (DDI); a well-informed, dedicated, proactive organization responding to community concerns regarding these recent developments.

The 1981 Comprehensive Plan tried to address this compatibility issue, but the power of property rights and the indifference of many builders tended to prevail. To address this and other issues the Bureau of Planning began to work with neighborhoods to develop “neighborhood plans”.

Somewhere around forty-two neighborhoods now have plans. In every plan there is a statement about the desire “to keep, maintain, and enhance the unique character of the neighborhood”.

These  plans have lost much of their influence, but today they remain as an important tool for neighborhood advocates in their efforts to preserve and improve communities.

Last year, the City of Portland defined Compatible as: “capable of existing together on city lots and blocks without discord or disharmony”, but Portland still needs new tools and measures in city policy for defining and evaluating compatibility.

What neighborhoods would like is the opportunity to learn of future new development projects at the preliminary design stage and to be considered a stakeholder in the project. This could be as simple as a meeting with a several knowledgeable neighborhood representatives, with a receptive developer or even just a written page or two that explains the neighborhood priorities.

If there are to be density bonuses given to the developer for larger buildings, shouldn’t the neighborhood be consulted concerning the resulting changes to the project?

After a great deal of investment, developers often believe that to change their plans will increase the time and cost as well as be an imposition on their prerogatives. Yet to have a building that is welcomed by the community generates good will rather than enmity.

Good architects and developers generally know this and work to please all stakeholders involved including the neighbors.

The DDI has recommended a notification and community engagement policy to encourage an early conceptual design stage presentation to involve the neighborhood before too much is invested in the design. This will help the neighborhood understand the impacts of the project and allow them to express their ideas.

Over the last year, the DDI has been working on Design Guidelines for the Division Corridor. The planning is a continuation of work previously done such as the neighborhood plans of Hosford-Abernethy (1988), Richmond (1994), Sunnyside (1999) Division Vision Coalition (2001), and the Division Green Street / Main Street Plan (2006).

The boundaries of the Division Design Initiative (DDI) are from SE 11th Ave. to SE 60th Ave.

The design committee was formed in early 2014 with leaders from area organizations selected by Richmond, Hosford Abernethy, Mount Tabor, South Tabor Neighborhood Associations, Division-Clinton Business Association, Sustainable Southeast, and SE Uplift.

During this past year, DDI members have worked collaboratively to engage the community in public forums, walking tours, community surveys and various studies in partnership with Portland State University and Architecture for Humanity.

The resulting information is helping to create and craft policy recommendations in ways that support economic development as well as infill that is sensitive to the existing neighborhood context and character.

The goals of the Division Design Guidelines are to: 1) create guidelines consistent with goals included in previously adopted city plans; 2) improve compatibility of new development with existing neighborhood business context; 3) clearly communicate the area design goals and concepts; 4) improve the process of engagement among the neighborhood, the city, and the project applicants; 5) provide the community with design tools, resources, and terminology to effectively advocate for appropriate neighborhood design; and 6) strengthen the community voice in design decisions regarding future development.

The committee is lead by a number of experienced professionals and community members with years of collaborative work with diverse interests.

DDI has hired the Portland architectural firm of Urbworks, Inc. and Design+Culture Lab, LLC to assist with the work of the committee and the development of design guidelines.

The Portland Development Commission’s Main Street Handbook provides excellent background on these subjects.

DDI is meeting with the city and working in parallel with zoning and planning committees to reach a consensus about the design of new buildings acceptable to developers and the neighborhood.

The new Comprehensive Plan and the revision of the Zoning Code and Map are excellent opportunities to address these issues. Even thought the zoning code might allow multi-floor buildings larger than the preference of the community, a solution might be appropriate Floor Area Ratios (FAR) that would reduce the size and bulk of new buildings.

The FAR is the total square feet of a building divided by the total square feet of the building lot. The zoning code does not count the FAR for the residential development portion in its calculations for the total FAR of the new mixed-use buildings and it should be included.

This is a moment of change. Good design must be enshrined in public policy if our neighborhoods are to retain their current character.

These guidelines are expected to be completed this fall and the group will continue their efforts to promote context sensitive design into next year.

The DDI needs the help of more volunteers and resources to achieve the projects full potential. Interested persons are welcome to attend regular meetings of the Division Design Committee.

More information? The website is

Collaborative Designs for Division Street

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