Mid Scale Housing Needed in Portland

By Don MacGillivray

The “missing middle” has to do with the low density post war suburban development in Portland’s neighborhoods versus the new high-rise apartment developments.

All the fuss over density has led to new housing in large buildings that often are out of scale with its surrounding community and denounced by their immediate neighbors.

A better solution is to build higher densities with small multi-unit buildings along and nearby busy traffic corridors. These can fit in much more comfortably with the character of the community and add to the quality of life for everyone. They are less dependent on off-street parking while being close to shopping, parks, and other amenities needed for improved walk-ability.

In fact the “missing middle” is already in many of our inner-city neighborhoods here. In the early twentieth century, homes were of a similar design and building materials were less varied. In fact, the Portland foursquare homes found in most of inner neighborhoods could be ordered from a Sears and Robuck catalog and built by a local contractor.

It is these neighborhoods that have more of a craftsman character with high walk-ability scores than the new high-rise apartment buildings attracting new Oregon-transplants as tenants.

There is room for the smaller scale four-plexes and garden apartments that make up the missing middle as long as great care is taken to preserve the existing neighborhoods.

The missing middle can be multi-unit or clustered housing, duplexes, triplexes, courtyard apartments, townhouses, live-work apartments, or accessory dwelling units. It is all about getting it right. Both baby boomers and millennials want these types of homes.

This kind of development consists of 16 to 18 units on a one-acre single city block. The single-family residential zone allows eight units to be built on a single block. By doubling this amount the missing middle density standard is achieved.

It can be accomplished by building accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on properties or by converting some homes into duplexes. It might be that two houses are removed and replaced with a ten-unit garden apartment building.

With caring owners, developers, and architects, high quality structures can easily be built that do not change the character of the neighborhood. This option would provide housing that is less expensive, simple in design, more adaptable to alternative transportation, providing a strong sense of community and still increase densities.

Unfortunately when the inner city was zoned for one unit per 1,000 square feet of property after World War II, many smaller motel-style apartments were built in the 1950s. Half the lot is a five or ten unit apartment building and the front half of the lot is parking.

In many of these neighborhoods, garden apartments of the same density were built before World War II that were in character with the immediate neighborhood.

Most people find these much more desirable places to live. It is the suburban single-family density that should become more dense, not the inner city neighborhoods.

The Division Neighborhood Association with the help of many neighborhood land-use advocates have recently completed a study of their own about neighborhood design and compatibility standards for the Division Corridor that can be applied throughout inner city neighborhoods.

These design guidelines took two years of work with extensive research and help from local design professionals. These community members seek to have more input, conversations, and methods for addressing the density and design of the future buildings nearby.

As the population of and above the age of 65 increases over for the next 10-15 years affordable housing will be in greater demand.

Single persons now make up 30 percent of households and it is predicted that 80 percent of urban households will be without children by 2025. Conventional development is not delivering the affordable housing choices that are most wanted and it is providing higher densities in the wrong places.

There is a mismatch between the market and the desires of the public. The public is demanding an increasing amount of livability and affordability in areas of increased density.

It is not being built because of the shortage of housing and the developer’s ability to build more expensive housing.  While many designers and developers understand these concerns others choose not to, but in the end it is the property owner that makes the fundamental choice.

The new policies and regulations may allow solutions that will maintain the character of Portland’s neighborhoods.

Currently the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is working on changes to the code policies and zoning that guides Portland’s development so that we can have more popular, livable, and energy efficient neighborhoods.

While there is resistance to these changes, it is likely that they will be adopted. There is a possibility that Portland will be able to change the code to be more form-based.

Today the code mandates height and size in general ways, but a greater form-based code could require compatibility with the surrounding neighborhoods. Lansing, Michigan is another city that is experimenting with this type of zoning.

Now is a good time to learn about what the city is doing in regard to the missing middle. The comprehensive plan has been written with these ideas in mind and several working groups are giving more definition to these concepts.

The review of this work is taking place with the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission, which will recommend a final proposal to City Council for adoption. After that, zoning policies and maps will be altered to conform to the revised goals and policies.

Mid Scale Housing Needed in Portland

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