By Midge Pierce
Love it or lump it, Portland’s revised Residential Infill Project (RIP) concepts would turn Portland into a dramatically denser town.
The original plan limited higher density multi-unit buildings to within a quarter mile of commercial centers. The new plan would extend multi-unit housing to 64% of the City’s single-dwelling zoned lots.
Denouncing the proposal as “draconian, untested and non-responsive to the public comment process”, seven members of an infill Stakeholders Advisory Committee (SAC) sent a missive to City staff charging that the plan would rezone Portland’s entire Eastside to increase density as much as 300% and incentivize further demolition.
A week later, advocacy group Portland for Everyone declared “policy victory” and invited citizens to two happy hours it was hosting to encourage citizen testimony in favor of the plan. (The offer of free snacks at the Nov. 3 SE Lucky Lab raised local eyebrows.) In a widely distributed email, group spokesperson Madeline Kovacs wrote that the group was delighted that the proposals call for more residential area infill that allows “missing middle” multi-unit housing types such as duplexes, triplexes, and cottage clusters.
For the SAC seven critical of the infill expansion, the revisions dashed hope that the Bureau of Development Services would tweak concepts to slow the tear-down epidemic. SAC and United Neighborhoods for Reform (UNR) member Barbara Strunk called the infill plan a “radical idea that deregulates development”. She added that developers would focus on areas where they can make the biggest profits.
The recent construction craze in inner Southeast indicates it is a frothy profit center indeed.
RIPSAC was convened – at least in part – out of citizen concerns over demolition, an issue that was taken off the table. Citizens who religiously attended meetings said the RIP process was hijacked by developers’ sweeping proposals to replace single family homes with pack and stack development.
The new concepts propose expanding multi-unit building into residential zones that planners call “higher opportunity neighborhoods” – those close-in, with good transit and access to parks, jobs, services and schools.
The recipe blankets Southeast.
“The RIP changes will irreparably damage Portland’s single family home neighborhoods,” wrote Laurelhurst resident and citizen watchdog John Liu in a rapid-response letter to City Council forwarded to the Examiner. The expansion is not needed, he continued, referencing a Bureau of Planning Service document that indicates Portland has enough buildable land under current zoning to accommodate more than 200,000 units, sufficient for current and future needs. The need may be softening. A recent report from the Daily Journal of Commerce indicated that demand for new construction – especially apartments – is slowing.
Project critics believe the process is profit, not people, driven. They are now considered the minority view.
From the majority perspective came praise for extending the Infill proposals multi-unit “overlay” ever deeper into residential areas. Concordia Neighborhood Association board member and SAC appointee Garlynn Woodsong said, “The new boundaries appear to be more equitable, as they include higher-income neighborhoods such as Eastmoreland, Laurelhurst, and Irvington….this will distribute the benefits and burdens of additional missing middle housing across a broader variety of neighborhoods.”
She added that the plan does not go far enough. “Since it does not allow for new construction fourplexes anywhere, it really doesn’t allow the market to provide for the sort of affordability that median-income Portland households require.”
As for the SAC seven, they wrote that concepts allowing alternative housing that exceeds current densities in R5 zones renders zoning “meaningless”. The “one-size-fits-all approach is disrespectful to neighborhoods and will lead to polarizing regulations. And, middle housing is likely to destabilize neighborhoods and cause loss of existing viable, affordable homes.
“The one-for-two house demolition infill has become a business model for some developers who represent these as affordable housing and align themselves with housing advocates.” Under the “rubric” of affordability, the infill concepts allow building size greater than 80% of existing houses. The letter takes specific aim at Portland for Everyone for its advocacy of concepts with unsubstantiated claims of affordability.
The writers, who say they represent a “coherent and cohesive” third of the RIPSAC appointees, come from neighborhood associations, Southeast Uplift, East Portland Action Plan and UNR which has been outspoken about what it feels is a density grab by developers. The like-minded seven “support neighborhood contexts consistent with the Goals of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan”. The systematic, multi-year hammering out of the Comp Plan has generally been applauded for its open, citizen-driven process. By contrast, the group believes RIP sideswiped citizen concerns about bulldozing affordable, single-family homes.
SAC member Michael Molinaro questioned the Infill process. “I think one of the strongest points is that online survey results were given weight rather than the testimony provided by neighborhoods and those attending the public open houses.” Molinaro added that the proposal seems more concerned with those who don’t live here yet than those who do.
Portland’s so-called open season on demolition and development runs counter to tenets of growing cities that fiercely protect their residential zoning and “treasured” housing resources. Speaking at a Compatibility Matters conference downtown, national infill expert Nore Winter said the norm is for planning departments to respect the integrity and self-determination of neighborhoods. “Portland’s existing housing stock is incredible,” Winter said. Clearly, it is something that should be valued and preserved, he added.
In addition to concerns about open-season on demolition and development, the concepts lack housing accessibility for the elderly and disabled. In a separate letter to the City, SAC member Alan DeLaTorre said, “This outcome is inequitable, short-sighted, and unacceptable and I fully expect that our leaders will take the steps necessary to remedy this omission.” He called for housing that enables citizens to age in their communities and maintain existing social connections.
By concentrating on close-in opportunity neighborhoods, the Portland plan does little to draw development into areas of town that could benefit from new infrastructure and construction. And, the numbers of housing units needed may be overestimated. A recent report from the Daily Journal of Commerce indicated that demand for new construction – especially apartments – is slowing.
Despite criticisms, the majority and minority views shared several areas of common ground. The SAC seven cited agreement with proposals over height, setbacks and placement of off-street parking. Pushing for truth in zoning, the group supported innovative housing so long as it is limited to areas where current code allows and does not involve the splitting of historic underlying lot lines. They cited lot line divisions as a key cause for demolition and pricey developer speculation.The letter claimed housing diversity can be achieved best by respecting housing scale, condition, history and economic and displacement factors as well as the aspirations of existing neighbors and businesses. The letter called for “contextual standards to be a guiding principle”, citing other cities modeling this approach.
Rather than risking the demolition of the entire Eastside, Strunk suggested testing the Infill zone in a much smaller area, perhaps “a neighborhood that would welcome development”, to see how it impacts neighborhoods and infrastructure. The Sunnyside Neighborhood Association was one of three in the City to support the original Infill concepts.
After the recent Compatibility Matters event, an attendee warned that the rush to densify the inner Eastside stresses existing schools and community resources. She continued that it hurts Portland’s hard-earned reputation for doing the right thing. “The City doesn’t understand unintended consequences,” she said, adding that not everyone can live close in.
As for the hordes poised to move here, her husband wondered, “Why do people move here if all they want to do is tear the City down?”
City Council hearings on RIP concepts are scheduled for Nov. 9 and 16. The public can testify in person or by email to email@example.com.
The Residential Infill Concept report is available at: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/67728. A timeline posted for the project indicates it is at the midpoint point in a process that is rapidly moving forward.
Media analyst and writer