Donuts of Development in Portland’s Future

By Midge Pierce

Middle housing, so-called because it provides transition between neighborhood town centers and residential neighborhoods, is touted by advocates as a way to add density and affordability to Portland.

Critics say it would require upzoning that devastates established neighborhoods, caters to unaffordable, cheaply built buildings and hits SE Portland hard by encouraging greater demolition and development in historic areas.

They claim similar results can be achieved through internal conversions that add units to existing housing.

A middle housing proposal raised at last month’s Comprehensive Plan amendments hearing calls for rezoning to allow for triplexes, duplexes and courtyard style multi-family housing even in R5-zoned blocks within a quarter mile of designated centers.

Neighborhoods such as Buckman, the eastside’s most historic neighborhood that has already lost innumerable homes with classic architecture, would be a likely ground zero.

As one resident said, the proposal could result in the leveling of the entire neighborhood and the loss of all single family homes.

“As drawn, middle housing zones would encompass all of Sellwood-Moreland and almost all of the eastside from SE Holgate to NE Broadway,” writes Barbara Strunk of United Neighborhoods for Reform in a letter to citizens.

“Opening up such wide swaths of the city is an invitation to bring in the backhoes and decimate traditional neighborhood character, historic housing and urban green spaces that the Comp Plan and the Residential Infill Project are charged with protecting.”

She and others questioned why the City would consider this amendment before the infill project completes its findings. As UNR’s representative on the project, she said the group must weigh in on the proposal before it goes before Commissioners.

Without institutional vetting, it’s irresponsible to add changes to the Comp Plan at the last minute that she said makes thousands of smaller, older, viable homes vulnerable to demolition.

Strunk concluded the plan has merit only if re-zoning was limited to within 200-300 feet of mixed-use centers with complete services and frequent public transit.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz assured concerned citizens that the middle housing zoning change would go through extensive public process before it could be implemented in specific neighborhoods.

During nearly four hours of testimony in Council chambers, middle housing  was among the hottest  topics to  divide communities. Opponents  called it “density as punishment” and claimed “sales of backhoes will soar”.

One said this mosaic zoning would litter future maps of Portland with donuts of development.

On the other side, developers such as Eli Spevak said the plan for what he terms the “missing middle” near corridors and centers could accommodate some 10,000 housing units through a flexible, eclectic medley of housing types.

Spevak claimed the plan would fill in the gap between single family homes and four-story complexes.

A supporter of upzoning in Eastmoreland said it would allow “equal distribution of the benefits and burdens” of density. “The whole city needs to carry their weight of affordable housing,” she concluded.

A resident of nearby Sellwood countered that she would not have spent her life savings buying a home with a four-story building next door.

Others testified the plan does not guarantee affordability. They advocated for greater emphasis on retention of desirable neighborhood characteristics and historic resources.

Numerous questions about middle housing linger, such as how to define appropriate centers and determine which are most suitable for middle housing. The devil is in details about how to ensure affordability, scale and compatibility with existing neighborhoods.

Testimony was due to conclude last month on the Comprehensive Plan which dictates how and where Portland grows in the future. At this writing, City Council was scheduled to vote on final amendments in June.

As residents throughout SE are learning, and residents of North Portland learned the hard way, paying attention and speaking up with government officials is critical.

A longtime Portlander who grew up along a now unrecognizable N. Williams St. summed it up best: Give the neighborhoods a rest, she said, for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

Donuts of Development in Portland’s Future

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