By Midge Pierce
A shift in proposed housing densification from vast tracts east of I-205 inward to more neighborhoods in inner SE and NE is a significant change to Portland’s Residential Infill Project (RIP).
As planners pitch the RIP amendments released last month, they say the rationale for revising housing overlay boundaries is to steer growth closer to inner City amenities. Subtracting parcels in Portland’s outermost reaches limits displacement, officials claim, of vulnerable populations caught in potential redevelopment.
While most growth is intended to land along commercial strips, side-streets in Buckman, Kerns, Richmond, Sunnyside, across Laurelhurst, into the Tabors and down through Sellwood and even Eastmoreland, (plus others on the inner Eastside) are expected to absorb the heaviest load of multi-unit residential Infill that essentially eliminates single family neighborhoods.
At a RIP reveal event, Chief City Planner Joe Zehnder described the plan as a way to ensure prosperous, healthy, equitable growth through initiatives such as “middle housing” units revised to fit the scale of existing homes. The City contends densification is needed for a 35% population increase by 2035.
In addition to compressing more growth into the City’s inner ring and allowing additional living units on single family lots, key plan points include rezoning some historically narrow lots from R5 to R2.5, clarifying allowable lot-splits, providing incentives for internal conversions of historic properties and adjusting design elements such as setback alignments.
Planners tout a “visitability” feature that requires easy access entrances (fewer steps and obstructions) to at least some accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Questions about infrastructure stresses, traffic congestion and parking shortages linger. Parking for narrow lots, for instance, is allowed but not required.
In the quadrant that stretches up to I-84, the most dramatic change will be to R-5 lots, the lion’s share of area zoning.
“Make no mistake. The bulk of densification lands squarely on the Eastside within 3 miles of downtown,” says citizen-analyst John Liu. “RIP doubles allowable density without a citizen vote.”
After the meeting, an observer pointed to the new map showing disproportionate Infill distribution on the inner Eastside. He questioned if the new boundary would undermine City promises to make improvements farther East; an area with large yards, less congestion, massive parking lots and affordability, but lacks sidewalks and services.
A few blocks away at a roundish coffeeshop table, Infill wonks parsed how RIP could play out with duplexes plus 2 ADUs, corner lots featuring triplexes with 1 ADU and clusters of cottages with an ADU each. In some cases, they determine, 8 per lot units of 538 square feet each could be allowed.
“Residents won’t understand the impact of the Residential Infill proposal until it hits their neighborhood,” warned Michael Molinaro, a disillusioned participant in a citizen’s advisory committee (RIPSAC) that reviewed infill concepts.
Builders build what sells, not what’s needed, he said. “Supporters are drinking the Koolaid of affordability. Developers are not their friends. Build what sells, not what is needed.”
At a time when fewer than half of Portland can afford single family homes with minimum prices approaching $400K, project proponents claim driving density close to downtown and public transportation is a way to lower living costs.
Critics counter that Infill follows the money developers can reap and fails to address affordability.
“Anyone who believes we’re doing this for the poor is wrong. RIP is for the rich,” economist Robert McCullough states.
Every caring Portlander agrees that affordable housing is crucial. The problem is how to achieve it. Few think that the current rash of one-on-one replacement of small homes with massive ones is the way to go.
Affordable housing advocates at Portland for Everyone call the reduction in square footage allotments a welcome “anti-McMansion” compromise. On R5 lots, the new proposal allows 50% coverage. That equates to an above-ground total up to 2500 square feet; 4500 square feet if factoring in basements and ADUs. While extensive, it is actually a reduction from the 6700 square feet currently allowed, but seldom realized.
Generally well-received aspects of RIP include reductions in scale of houses achieved by measuring height from the lowest rather than highest point of a building site. Incentives for adaptive re-use of historic properties and the “visitability” nod to advocates for the disabled.
At a largely receptive SE Uplift land use meeting, representatives suggested creative changes for larger backyards and allowances for uniquely Portland design elements like turrets.
If planners are the pied pipers of densification, developers are grand masters at pulling strings for how growth evolves. Close-in real estate is most valuable. This factor drives costs (and construction profits) skyward as developers replace existing homes with pricier houses. With few demolition deterrents, Portland profits from hefty permit fees that builders pass along in new build sales.
RIP does not stop demolition or reduce housing costs, according to Barbara Strunk of United Neighborhoods for Reform. “The time to comment on the future of Portland’s single family neighborhoods is now.” she urges.
McCullough charges Portland with abandoning good planning. Zoning designed for sustainability and intended to protect nature, neighborhoods and solar access has been discarded in what he calls a turn to the right that hoodwinked the left into backing densification.
Population projections should be challenged, he adds. “No one checks the forecasts. They are amazingly inaccurate. Why would people move here with the pollution, homeless camps and ugly buildings?” (He cites Burnside’s Darth Vader behemoth as embodying the “abandonment” of progressive, sustainable planning values.)
“The City once endorsed a City Beautiful concept. This was the heritage from the Olmsteds (the renowned family that designed Portland’s storied parks) which can be seen today in our boulevards and greenspaces.”
Citizens who have staked their lives and livelihoods in Portland feel their influence slipping.
“It’s a done deal.” according to Molinaro. “RIP is only for people who don’t live here yet.”
As the City shops the plan and advocates blanket the town with support, Molinaro charges that many RIP proponents come from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) drawing salaries for their testimony and time.
He says the impact cuts through if infill stops being about RIP and starts being about how people live.
“It’s simple. The message should be Save our Neighborhoods,” he concludes.
Comments on the discussion draft phase of the Residential Infill Project are due November. 20. For more information go to portlandoregon.gov/bps.
Residents can see how their own property is impacted at portlandoregon.gov/bps/infill/mapapp.