By Midge Pierce
Reactions to the Residential Infill Project’s Draft proposals expose density’s underbelly. Will the project be Portland’s saving grace as masses move here? Or would it turn the City into up-zoned, chopped up blocks of “moldering swiss cheese” as a group of Infill Project meeting attendees has warned.
In a world gone mad, developers’ dreams are becoming neighbors’ nightmares. Critics say the proposals to add 20% of needed density to single-family neighborhoods by allowing multi-unit dwellings would feed the demolition frenzy and destroy the fabric of existing neighborhoods. They call it backdoor rezoning that could result in up to six units on an R5 single-family lot.
Proposal supporters say the Residential Infill Project would provide housing variety, size limits and cost effective alternatives to the lack of affordable options. They say it is necessary to accommodate thousands of anticipated new residents in coming decades.
This month, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability staff continue to shop project recommendations to citizens at a series of community meetings. They are soliciting feedfack online at residentialinfill.participate.online.
Few object to curbing pricey McMansions. What’s in contention is “middle housing”, approved as a Comp Plan amendment, later enhanced by Infill advisers. It would allow duplexes and triplexes plus indoor and outdoor ADUs with no parking requirements.
On the surface, growth and affordability sound laudable. Dig deeper and Eastsiders decry what it is in practice.
“It’s a totally untested concept that completely disregards citizens’ desires,” laments a Laurelhurst resident who questions “phantom” population growth of 123,000 new households within the next 20 years. “There is no guarantee those people will materialize. Why are future projections more important than those of us already here?”
A livid inner SE resident says the City caved to developer greed. “Wake up Portland. This is social engineering. What might sound good in theory will dictate every aspect of our lives.”
The missing middle concept was first conceived for homes near commercial corridors. What is now under consideration reaches deep into neighborhoods within a quarter mile of commercial corridors. “That covers virtually all of inner Southeast,” says a Buckman resident.
Sunnyside Landuse co-chair Jeff Cole recently sent a letter (expressing his own views) to project manager Morgan Tracy contesting middle housing proposals as aggressive over-reaching that needs vetting. He says the vast swaths of multi-dwelling housing the project advocates should be construed as rezoning that is “Comp Plan level in scope”. It breaks BPS promises that many single family neighborhoods like Sunnyside would not be rezoned, he adds.
The Infill committee was convened last year to bring diverse stakeholders together to balance concerns about scale and housing variety. In a curious gumbo of alliances, many neighborhood leaders feel the scales tipped toward Darth Vader developers who have aligned themselves with low income housing advocates, in spite of the fact that infill has no guaranteed affordability. Neighborhood activists have found themselves at odds with progressives. Preservationists concerned about saving old houses from the wrecking ball wound up with virtually nothing, they feel.
“Nothing in this plan slows demolition,” says Cole. Instead, it encourages more destruction so developers can reap more profits by building more – though not necessarily affordable – housing units. Cole cites last year’s citizens’ survey that listed demolition as the top concern of SE residents. In addition to the lack of demolition restrictions, he says historic preservation, system development charges and community design standards are missing from the project. What he supports is cottage-style cluster housing and ADUs in zones R5, R7 limited to one per lot whether attached or detached.
Any way you cut it, the Portland of tomorrow will be a very different place. Infill Project critics paint a bleak picture without cozy craftsman bungalows on tree-lined streets. Patches of green and cherished sunlight vanish as lots are filled to the max with multiple housing developments. Gone will be a significant number of mature trees and tidy frontyard “sharing” gardens of fruits and berries. Gone too will be the sweeping roll-around lawns of the neighborhood Victorian manses and with them the young families who head for greener, more affordable stretches. Gone will be the holiday magic of a Peacock Lane once it becomes littered with skinny post-moderns. Gone will be Portland’s sense of place.
On the other hand, many progressives feel that Portland’s sense of place is outmoded protectionism – a sense of entitlement that resists inevitable growth and change. An emerging group called Portland for Everyone is lobbying neighborhood associations and Portland leaders to support increased density in single family neighborhoods as well as to strengthen renter protections and place a general obligation bond on November’s ballot to fund affordable housing.
Rifts widen. Policy wonks look at data that projects demographics of younger, smaller households with fewer families and more singles. They push policies to serve that demo in the future. Neighborhood residents look next door and around the corner to a City implementing self-fulfilling policies that push out and price-out families. One Millennial said; Hardworking colleagues are not having children because they can’t afford a single family home. They keep getting outbid on fixer-uppers by tear-down developers.
Another disillusioned observer fears that with rising land values, property tax increases that surpass the cost of living and bond measure passages, enforced density will be tantamount to forced density that pushes out struggling workers and seniors on fixed incomes unable to keep up with rising costs.