By Don MacGillivray

Better Housing by Design is an ongoing project of the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to improve medium density residential zones of R3, R2, R1, and RH encouraging affordable housing, creating a more balanced transportation pattern and providing communities with nearby stores and services.

When making changes of this scale, everyone is a critic. The City takes this feedback and write new codes based on city objectives and public response. The comment period will be open until August 7 so it is not too late to express your opinion. The draft code will be published this fall and sent out again for public review prior to adoption by the planning commission and city council.

Better Housing by Design has received plenty of feedback from the community already. The public response has been great from stake holder meetings, neighborhood walks, presentations with community discussions, questionnaires, etc.

Portland is adept at doing outreach and the results have been good, but not entirely clear. The meetings generally have a diverse group of people with their own perspectives on how to improve Portland’s housing.

Home owners and renters want to improve their neighborhoods, and builders and developers are concerned about complexity and expense. Many believe the building and zoning codes are overly complex and any changes will take time and effort to understand them.

The following are a selection of the major themes being discussed, followed by a sampling of the public’s responses.

The City asked what in the existing codes are, or aren’t working well and among the responses were: • The process is too complex and the regulations should be more flexible. • Don’t make big changes because there will be unintended consequences. • Greater clarity is needed. • Design standards are too prescriptive. • The review process of building plans is inconsistent. • Use design review to address issues of context and compatibility. • Allow increased density and change the way it’s calculated. • The large setback regulations are difficult to use. • Don’t rip out perfectly good sidewalks. • People love shared courtyards, but they are too difficult to build. • Communities are concerned about the lack of parking. • Setbacks reduce the space for interior courtyards.

The idea of a Form Based Code is being explored. This would allow more flexibility with regard to density and building configurations. The number of units would not be fixed within a specific lot size and a building the size of a single family home might include two, three or four units. It would give the small developer greater flexibility.

Parking may concern the neighbors as well as the use of the open space. The smaller units could be more affordable than the normal market rate apartment.

Public responses about Form Based Zoning are generally liked with some reservations about: building heights, setbacks, density, and Accessory Dwelling Units.

Outdoor Spaces are a concern to many. Currently in most of the middle sized apartment zones, 48 square feet (6 feet by 8 feet) is required per unit. Some think this is not enough. Some suggest is should be larger while others think it should be combined into a community space. Families with small children need more space and the designers and developers must make it work. It may add increased costs or take away from needed interior space.

Public responses about Outdoor Spaces: • They encourage long-term tenants. • They are hard to fit on small sites. • Many people don’t use outdoor spaces. • Landscape requirements are difficult. • Balconies are often used for storage. • There should be a mix of public and private courtyards. • Shared courtyards are the best solution.

Front Garages are a common feature of low density residential neighborhoods. Narrow-lot houses, row-houses, and multi-dwelling buildings have little room for garages. They can take up too much of the front yard and dominate the curb appeal. Some consider them unfavorable to a pedestrian-oriented street environment.

The city suggests that a garage should not be more than 50 percent of the front facing facade.

In public responses about Front Garages, some liked them, others didn’t. • Loss of on-street parking is important. • On-street parking must be preserved. • Don’t require parking, • There are consequences if garages are eliminated,. • They are often not suitable. • Rethink the issue.

Some areas of the city have poor Street Connectivity; important for pedestrian and other forms of alternative transportation when densities increase.

This would involve making new streets, sidewalks, or walkways as part of new development. The issue is who will pay for these capital improvements? Developers want the city to pay and the city wants to give developers incentives to provide them.

Public responses: • Street connection requirements are expensive and deter development. • Portland Bureau of Transportation needs to be more reasonable and flexible about making needed connections. • Streets cost a lot and the city should pay for it. • Tax abatements could defray the costs. • There should be narrower pedestrian and bike connections. • Eight foot sidewalks take up a lot of space. • The Fire Marshall requirements are excessive.

A major component of the zoning system are Amenity Bonuses. These trade desirable features of building design for relaxing zoning restrictions.

The wide range of amenity bonuses include: affordable units, recreation facilities, children’s play areas, three-bedroom units, storage areas, sound insulation, crime prevention features, solar water heating, larger outdoor areas, and tree preservation.

Without bonuses, they may not be part of new projects. Neighbors often deplore this system because developments become much larger and the amenities do not help a neighborhood.

Public responses about Amenity Bonuses: • Bonuses make sites more attractive. • There should be bonuses for: larger units, storage, sound insulation, solar heating. • Several wanted to get rid of the bonus system.

This discussion about Better Housing by Design will be continued later this fall and winter. To find more about the subject go to for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability website.