By Midge Pierce
135,000 Portland residents received notices from the City that their single family property would be rezoned under the Residential Infill Project (RIP). Now they’re realizing their home, street and neighborhood could soon support density three or four times greater than current zoning allows.
For some that spells opportunity; for others the loss of the Portland they love.
The yellow mailers were sent in advance of this month’s public hearings with the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC), the last step before planners send the project to City Council for approval.
The RIP flier purports to explain a need for rezoning single family residential neighborhoods to allow duplex, triplex and multi-plexes through much of Portland and most of the Eastside. It contends RIP will accommodate growth and give people more choices to live in vibrant residential neighborhoods close to schools, parks, shopping and good transit.
As part of amendments to the original proposal, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability representatives say they listened and responded to citizen recommendations by reducing building heights and scale.
Adjustments to specific properties can be found on the RIP map app, but generally were made to reduce parking requirements, narrow lot lines and allow bonus units in plexes delivering affordability.
The project allows market rate, rather than cost-controlled housing and planners say more housing equals affordable housing that can be achieved through rezoning for greater density.
Despite the advisory, many residents seem unsure what the project means to them or what to make of the a-overlays. Local architect Sharon Nobbe says, “People don’t realize the impact rezoning will have until it hits their sideyards, backfence and cars double parked on the street.”
“Lipgloss” is what she calls the information in the mailers.
One of her fellow architects said, “RIP puts quantity over quality with no guarantees of affordability. Developers will take advantage of RIP to build housing that makes the most money.”
Insiders call the plan deceptive. “Throughout this RIP process we were told, repeatedly, ‘this is not a zoning change.’ And yet, here we are: a zoning change.” says Michael Molinaro, a disillusioned member of RIPSAC, the Residential Infill’s original Stakeholders Advisory Committee.
He is part of a break-away group known as the SAC 7 who sought solutions to demolition. Instead, he and his cronies say they bore witness to developers influencing a plan that encourages leveling homes and neighborhoods without regard to cost, compatibility, continuity or neighborhood stability.
Calling the flier one-sided, critics say it should dispel anyone’s doubts that the City intends to densify its way out of the housing crisis – a tactic many say has backfired in Seattle and San Francisco and should be tested here before it is implemented across the City.
Allowing market rate housing will cause rising rents and widespread displacement of longtime residents, resulting in the kind of housing loss experienced by low-income residents, they say, notably in the Albina and Alberta neighborhoods.
“Renters will be the ones evicted when their rental homes are sold and demolished to build big luxury duplexes that most Portlanders can’t afford,” says John Liu, a Laurelhurst resident who blasts the City for not doing a better job of informing renters about what to expect.
Liu fears the upcoming hearings will be co-opted by developers. If they get their way, he predicts, huge “quadplexes” will be built in 100% of eastside neighborhoods.
“The RIP is a political process. PSC is a hand-picked advisory committee stacked with developers,” charges James Patterson, part of a group mounting legal challenges to RIP.
He’s urging Portlanders who feel their property rights and neighborhood character are under assault to testify at the hearings and send comments in writing to City Council. “Make your voice heard before it’s too late,” he urges.
Patterson blasts the confusing nature of City information and says the rezoning of overlays unnecessary because the 2035 Comp Plan indicated there was more than enough capacity under current zoning to accommodate growth.
“It is ironic that council has just received a report about the city’s complete failure to slow displacement of lower income families due to redevelopment of N/NE Portland,” Patterson said, “but council is proceeding with sweeping rezoning that will redevelop all of Portland’s neighborhoods by demolishing existing lower priced housing to build large, new, unaffordable housing.”
Special interest groups supportive of RIP, many with paid staff and financial support from developers, have been busy espousing Infill Everywhere at brewpub meet-ups and neighborhood associations.
Portland for Everyone Project Coordinator Madeline Kovacs writes that P4E’s position balances the needs of both current and future Portlanders.
Showcasing attractive depictions of multi-family houses and fourplexes that could replace single family dwellings, P4E representatives coach residents on RIP – positive testimonies by prioritizing the underserved, economic diversity and housing humans over cars.
Kovacs says the objectives align with the state’s Goal 10 for flexible, affordable housing and Mayor Ted Wheeler’s State of the City remarks that “we cannot only support shelter if it’s not in our backyards.”
[Note: Kovacs, her 1000 Friends of Oregon counterpart Mary Kyle McCurdy and state rep Tina Kotek are all self-described YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard).
Last year, while trying unsuccessfully to pass a statewide Infill bill, Kotek referred to NIMBYs as racists. Anti-RIP representatives have been quick to retort that they encourage diversity. What they abhor is wasteful demolition.]
Following a forty minute presentation by P4E to the South Tabor Neighborhood Association, one listener said he heard nothing objectionable that would impact his neighborhood. He added, however, that he would have liked to hear an opposing presentation before deciding his own position.
Asked who objects to the RIP, a presenter responded “Eastmoreland” (which is currently seeking National Historic Designation.)
Yet, residents of more modest means from Rose City Park to Cully have largely taken the lead on opposition. Groups like Stop Demolishing Portland have called for public votes in their No Vote, No RIP platforms.
Anti-demolition groups like United Neighborhoods for Reform generally share a common objective: preserve existing houses because they are greener and more affordable than new builds.
At recent City preservation roundtables, the participants emphasized the importance of equitable housing solutions. Rather than tear down existing buildings, the participants recommended incentives for retrofits that could be repurposed for multiple families for considerably less cost than new builds.
Some cited the advantage of keeping demolition waste out of landfills.
Anti-RIP volunteers worry they are being streamrolled by the paid staffs of special interest groups focused on housing for new arrivals rather than longtime Portlanders who have put their life savings into the City.
“What do you get when the Home Builders Association, real estate investors and developers hijack a project originally intended to mitigate displacement, to create smaller, more affordable housing options and reign in an unprecedented demolition epidemic?
“A Trojan Horse, a lie cloaked in the words we want to hear and an opportunistic land grab that will put the current evisceration of our city to shame if passed,” said UNR blogger Margaret Davis.
“It feels like a done deal,” frets a resident near Burnside who fears potential “quadplexes” on a property with an owner intent on replacing modest homes and lovely trees with development that block solar from neighbors whose homes and gardens represent life savings.
She says the flier dropped in her box reads like a “highly- biased document. This seems unconstitutional. It’s like the City is determined to undermine homeowners.”
Planners are currently accepting online and written comments in addition to in-person testimony. Observers warn that with the clock ticking for the proposal to go before Council, planners may only do a scan and count, not a thorough read of constructive criticism. They emphasize the importance of brevity, stating positions upfront and copying comments to the Mayor and City Council as well as the PSC.
To comment on Residential Infill go to the Map App: portlandoregon.gov/bps/infill/mapapp or send written comment by May 15 to Planning Commission-RIP, 1900 SW 4th Ave., Suite 7100, Portland, OR 97201. Please cc City Council.
To testify in person at PSC hearings: May 8 and 15 at 5 pm, 1900 SWE 4th Ave., Room 2500.
To confirm time and date check the calendar at portlandoregon.gov/bps.