By Midge Pierce
Portland residents have had enough of the so-called Demolition Derby that is defacing the City’s storied older neighborhoods. As frustration mounts, residents are beginning to push back on several visible fronts.
Last month, dozens of demonstrators sporting “Stop Demolishing Portland” signs stood at a corner near SE’s most recent nexus of tension: Division at 50th. It’s a development hotspot that puts longterm residents concerned about safety, particularly, bicyclists heading downhill on Lincoln, in the crosshairs of townhouse construction and developers planning units to house 100 plus.
Most demonstrators indicated that they are not anti-growth, but anti-irresponsibility. “We’re here to raise awareness of the destruction of Portland as we know it,” said one demonstrator as passing rush hour cars honked horns in support. “Our stock of affordable, vintage houses is disappearing. There is no oversight.”
The event was one of several planned throughout the City to call attention to the loss of affordable housing, urban tree canopies, wildlife and the displacement of residents pushed out by skyrocketing rents in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Spokesperson Jon Wood said the next demonstration would be at N. Williams and Fremont St. in mid-August.
Walk the protest line and you’ll hear familiar horror stories: demolition of perfectly sound, affordable residences replaced with giant boxes built out of cheap materials; razing 75-year-old redwoods to make way for skinny houses; loss of solar access for urban gardens; potentially hazardous materials drifting onto schoolyards; waking up to the sound of homes coming down; lack of adequate parking and vanishing civility as pro and anti development advocates choose up sides; the end of what made Portland welcoming and unique.
SE has been racked recently by rancor as neighborhood groups split over growth issues. Portland Commissioner Steve Novick fanned flames in an OPB interview by saying residents along Hawthorne and Division should “stop whining about the loss of their views” and “tolerate” the “inconvenience” of adding density in order to do their part to protect the earth.
Demonstrators claimed current growth is not a sustainable practice. One pointed out that homeowners are required to jump through more hoops for an attached development unit (ADU) than developers who trash old homes and build new ones.
“ADU’s are a sustainable way to accommodate growth that have little or no impact on the environment. McMansions are not.”
Others charge developers with gaming the system: Hiring families to pose as buyers to front purchases. Rushed permits. Bending or breaking rules only to ask violation forgiveness, and getting it from overworked City officials hamstrung by outdated codes.
“Affordability, preservation, livability, public health, safety and accountability” is a mantra of this and other groups rising from the debris. Teardowns are happening at a rate approaching one per day, according to The Portland Chronicle.
This online, watchdog outpost does a yeoman’s job recording the fate of every structure in the city from century-old grand dames dismantled in the Richmond neighborhood, handsome tudors being felled in Eastmoreland and Alameda to the loss of simple, working class homes in the Central Eastside.
While new “emergency” 35-day delay rules provide neighbors with warning before the dumptrucks arrive, it is difficult for homeowners, lacking the resources and sophistication of developers, to rally quickly enough to save a home.
The Chronicle writes that, “Almost everyone…who has been involved in trying to save a house will tell you that it takes much longer and will be more work than you expected.”
Ambiguous zoning codes lead to lot-busting by builders who exploit something called Lots of Record. These are so-called underlying lots, dating from the time neighborhoods were first platted that predate zoning codes established in the 70s.
A website called FixPortlandZoning calls Lots of Record the single most destructive element in the dismantling of Portland’s single family homes.
“It has directly spawned the out-of-control epidemic in demolitions by allowing lots to be divided without regard to the intent of the neighborhood zoning in place.”
In Eastmoreland, the site says, underlying lots of 3,000 square feet in R5 zones were allowed to be reopened for development, circumventing now-standard zoning regulations.
The best way to fix the zoning code, it continues, is to eliminate all references to lot lines that do not conform to currently accepted R Zone minimums.
In other words, a lot in an R 5 (5,000 square foot lot) could not be subdivided even if it was platted as two lots at the turn of the Century.
Portlanders for Effective Zoning describe zoning as a mess that confuses neighbors and builders alike. They recommend changing the code to include requirements that scale new buildings to the average height and mass of existing homes on a block.
On all fronts, critics are calling on residents to get involved in stopping bad development now. Action can take the form of writing council members, alerting neighbors, being vigilante, taking a stand.
Whether you live beside in an upscale manse or a block of simple, turn-of-the-last century working class homes, the house next door could tumble next.
For more information about what you can do: fixportlandzoning.com, stopdemolishingportland.org, unitedneighborhoodsforreform.blogspot.com
To learn more about underlying lots, see portlandchronicle.com/map-shows-extent-of-underlying-lots-citywide