The Rip in Rip City

By Midge Pierce

In Rip City’s cyclical economy, the bloom may be fading from the construction boom. Now, builders are using radical new tactics to muscle back, according to citizen-watchdogs, by supporting a House Bill that could legislate density and undermine the state’s first significant protection of historic resources in 20+ years.

The decline in construction permits sought and granted has apparently goaded builders to seek amendments that support their densification agendas into an affordable housing bill.

HB 2007 would mandate statewide density requirements and weaken historic preservation while riding the cloak of affordability and the dagger of social engineering by 1000 Friends of Oregon, critics warn.

Conceivably, the bill could undermine the recent work of the Design Overlay Zone Assessment (DOZA) Project by negating discretionary design reviews, considered by planners an important urban planning tool.

Pushback may kill HB 2007 along its way in Salem. Citizen-activists like John Liu seek its demise. He says amendments, added to the bill originally intended to expedite affordable housing, are clear signals that builders are determined to control the future not just of Portland, but everywhere in the state they can make ready money.

Liu calls it the equivalent of imposing Portland’s high density Residential Infill Proposals (RIP) on all of Oregon, including areas of Portland where City planners chose not to extend RIP. He believes the Builders Association, in tandem with 1000 Friends, took a laudable affordable housing proposal and turned it into a potential statute for multi-family housing requirements in single family neighborhoods statewide.

“These amendments have nothing to do with affordability,” he states. “I can’t imagine that other cities and towns would appreciate Portland’s urban planning decisions pushed on them in a one-size fits all approach.

“The bills original purpose was to speed approvals for affordable housing. The bill as it has morphed would prevent design reviews for any housing.”

Liu claims that preventing cities from extending protections for National Historic Districts like those proposed for Eastmoreland and under consideration in Laurelhurst was among the bill’s original intents.

As of this writing, the City of Portland had not taken a position on the bill, but Liu’s interpretation is that it would force every city and county to permit duplexes and ADUs in every single family residential neighborhood, what he calls mandatory statewide RIP.

He says it would also prevent discretionary design review of any housing project except in Portland’s downtown city center zone and Gateway along with a handful of locally-designated historic and conservation districts that exist. He says the language on preservation is confusing, and he believes it could prevent designation of protections in a residential National Historic District.

As Liu learns more about the bill, he and other Laurelhurst residents looking for historic protections are gearing up to raise awareness of its implications and fight it statewide.

Keith Comess believes the amendments seize local controls over their density destinies and are designed to stop national historic districts in their tracks.

“This is probably the real intent – to prevent local governments from applying design review to national register historic districts. It may even be an attempt to override the Goal 5 rules adopted in January, 2017.

Oregon Homebuilders Association has indicated online that it is working with House Speaker Tina Kotek and 1000 Friends of Oregon on HB 2007. “Though builders say they’re eager to respond to a hot housing market, the construction rebound so far has been less than robust,” posted CEO Dave Nielsen. “That’s in part because of a lack of buildable land.”

Whether builders are running scared or flexing muscle, data shows construction is in flux. Cumulative building permits are still up for the year, but most recent tallies indicate a dramatic month-over month decrease between this February and last. Site development applications were down nearly 20 %, permit applications received were down 11 % and permits issued were down 5 %.

While some downturn could be attributed to a rough winter, local architects claim that new policies along with increasing supplies of available housing are catching up with demand.

In addition, construction costs are rising and backlogs clog the permitting and design process. Scrutiny has tightened in the wake of surprise design changes at the 21-story Burnside Bridgehead Yard project.

Architect Michael Molinaro says he has been sensing a slowdown for the past six months in part because financial institutions are slowing lending, but inclusionary zoning may be the biggest factor.

He, like other observers, heard objections from developers about the requirements to include low-income housing in their projects. One told him that, “if Portland passed IZ, which it did, he would stop building apartments in Portland.”

Liu says the pipeline is thinning because “Builders jammed as many permits in as they could before inclusionary zoning implementation.”

For those balking at the wholesale demolition of the SE side, the slowdown has a silver lining.

“This could be a blessing in disguise for our streetcar corridor,” says Molinaro. “If developers stop building, more of the character will be saved.”

The Rip in Rip City

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