By Nancy Tannler
Oregon’s Governor Tom McCall (1967-1975) loved our natural beauty and easy access to nature. In order to preserve this grandeur, he convinced the Oregon Legislature to sign Senate Bill 100 on May 29, 1973 that establishes what is now known as the urban growth boundary (UGB). Every city in the state has a land use planning line to control urban expansion onto farm and forest lands. Metro is responsible for managing the Portland metropolitan area’s UGB.
Oregon’s UGB is not static and over the years it has been expanded about three dozen times in order to accommodate the growing population. The UGB is one of the reasons Portland is such a desirable place to live, 20 minutes in any direction and you are out of the city and into nature.
The price for this luxury is the need to build more in a smaller space. The city’s most recent zoning change was on June 30, 2022 when the Residential Infill Project 2 (RIP2) was unanimously approved by City Council. This change expanded housing opportunities in Portland’s very low-density zones, allowing attached houses and cottage clusters across all neighborhoods.
According to statistics however, we still haven’t remedied the housing emergency we have been in since 2015. The city’s residential rental vacancy rate is among the nation’s lowest while home prices continue to rise. Just 12 percent of Portland’s residential land is zoned for four-story mixed-income housing.
Portland: Neighbors Welcome (P:NW) has started a campaign, “Inner Eastside for All,” that promotes the mantra “four floors and corner stores.” P:NW’s vision is to allow any residential lot from 12th to 60th avenues, Fremont to Powell streets, the ability to build street-scale apartments.
The reason these lots are no longer zoned for mixed use is that the 1981 Comprehensive Plan down-zoned these areas to residential use. At this time, there was a major exodus known as the “white flight,” where median income families from the inner city moved to the subsidized suburbs, which was happening around the country.
In order to redeem this valuable real estate, city planners developed the “population strategy” approach to down-zone the area. This established who would be eligible to live there–employed, homeowning families with children. Like many cities, Portland’s discriminatory land use practices over the years have shaped our urban layout along lines of race and class. Matt Tuckerbaum, a volunteer on P:NW’s Board, spoke about why the proposal to change the zoning along this swath of land will lead to a healthier more inclusive city.
Tuckerbaum grew up in the suburbs and hadn’t experienced any other type of city living until he visited Spain before college. He lived with a family in their large, fourth floor apartment. “It was in a quiet neighborhood and at street level, the small shops met most people’s daily needs.” This experience inspired him to study sustainable development and urban design while in college.
Tuckerbaum and all the other sustainable housing advocates see the Inner Eastside for All zoning change as a new/old way to solve the housing crisis we are faced with in the inner city.
Because of zoning and density mandates, apartments built over the past 10+ years are mainly on busy corridors and are generally studios and one bedrooms. What P:NW and other affordable housing developers would like to see is more three-story, single stairway, multifamily apartments.
Tuckerbaum sited Seattle-based architect Michael Eliason, whose vision for this type of “middle housing” is beginning to happen. (Seattle approved single stairs in buildings up to six stories.) Eliason is the founder of Larch Lab, a small group of architects and developers designing multifamily buildings with only one stairway.
According to Eliason, in order for developers to comply with the mandate for any new build over three floors to have two stairways, every residence has to have access to both staircases (not just fire escapes like in the past). The units in this type of apartment are usually built around one long, dark, double-loaded corridor. This ruling makes it harder and more expensive to build small-footprint, mid-rise, multifamily rental buildings. Developers then charge more per unit as compensation for the unsalable interior space consumed by these long corridors.
Along with the campaign to bring back multifamily, walk-up apartments, the Inner Eastside for All wants to zone for services to support these urban dwellers. Tuckerbaum says they envision corner grocery stores, bakeries, coffee shops, florists and other small businesses that enable people to stay close to their neighborhood.
The campaign to educate the public about this idea is relatively new. The first step for P:NW to move forward is for the city’s Housing Production Strategy (HPS) department to prepare a formal zone change proposal for City Council. If the proposal is acceptable, City Council will send the documented zoning change to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) for approval. If the BPS approves the proposal, it goes back to Council for a vote. This would likely happen in 2025 or 2026.
For more information, visit PortlandNeighborsWelcome.org.