What's happening now

Formerly the home of Beaumont-Wilshire Neighbors for Responsible Growth, the Portland Land Matters blog explores citywide land-use concerns, such as home demolitions, with the belief that development should create an improvement.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Farewell, old friend

Every demolition hurts, considering the history that vaporizes with walls that could have sheltered more lives and witnessed more stories. The Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple, which fell to airborne jackhammers and other heavy machinery last month, had ruled the intersection of Southwest Second Avenue and Taylor Street downtown since 1892. What an incredible building it would have been to reuse! What a wasted opportunity.

In this photo essay, Portland photographer Scott Tice documents the building as it left our landscape.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Middle housing gets demolition treatment, too

A shiny batch of units rises along the river in Portland, while another resident
pitches a tent. Demolitions remove the affordable in-between.
Courtesy of Stephen Poole.

Midway through the city's troubled Residential Infill Project the term "Middle Housing" became the buzzword. Introduced by the developers' lobby, it also turned into the battle cry for housing activists bankrolled by developers in another all-too-transparent bid to maintain dominance at City Hall and take down more of Portland's viable, affordable housing stock for cheaper construction with a greater rate of return.

The latest list of demolitions shows dozens of units more affordable than what is being built now—the sort that city leaders and staff, not to mention neighborhoods, say we need. Among the properties destined for the landfill are duplexes of that so-called middle housing, apparently not expensive enough for the teardown crowd to keep standing.

In another irony, don't miss the demolition permit issued to the firm that calls itself "Sustainable Development." Has Portland finally jumped the shark? (We do know Portlanders increasingly are jumping ship.)

How long until we say No to the destructive and outsize impacts of this kind of development?

The city's Urban Forestry gang has gone on the offensive looking for ways to stop or reverse an alarming loss of mature urban tree canopy. Going around to the neighborhood association meetings, the staffers harangue neighbors to plant trees, especially the large, old-growth-suitable kind that teardown developers love to raze for cookie-cutter units across the city.

Preserving this neighborhood old growth benefits everyone and requiring it would lead to more creative and site-specific buildings. A more robust, preservation-oriented tree code—instead of the pay-to-clearcut program in place now—could score a win for everyone, even for developers who might be able to make even more money with a plan less out of a plan book and a project more driven by the beauty of an established tree.

We love trees, don't we?


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Here come the 4,375-square-foot bungalows

A pair of Northeast Portland houses illustrates the trend in recent development,
which would proceed unabated under the proposed Residential Infill Project.
I've written more about the Residential Infill Project (RIP) here, but not about its scale provisions.

Planners and proponents of RIP still say that the proposal would limit the size of new construction. But one RIP committee member, architect Sarah Cantine, has found the proposal would do nothing to change the shape of the outsize construction we see now. Listen below starting at 1:26 where she presents the math that finds homes would be "limited" to 4,375 square feet, which no developer builds to these days, not even the new house in the photo above. It's only 3,520 square feet.

In this way RIP doesn't change anything about the size of new construction; it maintains business as usual. Many people want to believe that RIP will address the issue of scale of new construction, especially because planners said it would, but they may not be able to wade through the pages of technical proposal language to find that it isn't so. Hopefully planners will familiarize themselves with the proposal specifications and stop telling people about how new construction will be smaller.

(Also in that same City Council session, at 3:03, neighborhood endorsements of developer- and AirBnB-funded Portland for Everyone are called into question by Cully activist Chris Browne. It's not the first time.)

Hopefully all this will be moot soon if those funding the so-called "affordable housing" effort see the writing on the wall with the new City Council makeup and public awareness of who the RIP proposal is for, and what it is meant to do for the building industry. Given all the saber rattling over the recently adopted inclusionary zoning, developers and the Home Builders Association may have their hands full anyway.

Planners still want to say that measures such as the deconstruction mandate (which only applies to a small percentage of homes being demolished) should assuage anti-demo activists, but we've already seen developers game their way out of that requirement—look out for the "dangerous building" exemption, already applied to save a few thousand bucks and to keep on dusting neighbors and neighborhoods with hazmat the old-fashioned way.

Portland has many creative, caring people who work in construction; it's worth wondering why these folks aren't getting a crack at the playing field. Surely we don't have to settle for the gamers, the polluters, and the people making short-term investments that have long-term impacts on everyone else.

We can do better, and now with new leadership in place, we will.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Sometimes the truth hits you between the eyes

We've written about Portland for Everyone before, here and here when they made their debut with stolen artwork, and now apparently they have some treats in store. Free food! Never mind that the munchies likely will be sponsored by Vic Remmers and Everett Custom Homes (Portland for Everyone underwriters), and perhaps other teardown darlings wreaking destruction across our city, throwing away unique well-built homes to build market-rate units unaffordable to many.

Hopefully those snacks won't be laced with the lead and asbestos that Remmers and the other teardown developers regularly unleash on neighbors, but the swag has a cost: You will be urged to testify against your interests, your city, and your neighborhood by embracing a plan to increase demolitions beyond even current record-breaking levels.

Eat up, but look beyond the slick slide show and the feel-good promises. All you have to do is check out the masthead for the group and you'll see that front and center is an illegal AirBnB that rents for $160/night. The place looks cute, but at $4,800/month it sure isn't for "Everyone."

Monday, October 31, 2016

This round of testimony, see if you can spot the engineering

This Halloween, let the RIP rest in peace.
Remember the demo tax? I know, painful memories all around. The Home Builders Association—always against anything that cuts into profits, especially if it means retaining the well-built affordable housing we have around here—now brags that it harpooned the whole thing by recruiting a parade of people to clamor against it.

Dunno if they were paid actors, but I remember at the time scratching my head and wondering where all these suddenly passionate advocates of teardown construction were coming from. Turns out at least some weren't from Portland at all. There was, for example, the Esco engineer Clinton Wood, who opined long and hard about how he simply could not find any housing in Portland that fit his needs—this in a roomful of Portlanders who had somehow managed it.

The application for the award of "best government affairs effort" is full of inaccuracies, namely that Portland has very little available land (in fact, according to city officials, we have twice as much as we need to meet growth projections until 2035) and that the tax would restrict building affordable housing (now that the demo tax is long dead, we should have seen some of that elusive affordable housing already), but the meat of it is the great pains the HBA took to sway City Council with seemingly authentic voices from the ground level. In the HBA's words:
"Since Portland prides itself on being progressive, the HBA engineered a testimonial lineup that featured a leading housing/economics professor from Portland State University – the training ground for most of the city planners, an expectant mother seeking to tear-down her existing home and rebuild but could not afford an additional $25,000, a gay gentlemen [sic] who had recently adopted a son with his husband hoping to move their new family back into Portland but realized that the tax would hinder the chances of finding an affordable home, and an African-American retiree living in a rapidly gentrifying area of the city who understood that any tax would hinder the value of his “nest egg” and was not fair to him and other long-time residents that had seen that neighborhood through from the 'tail to the top.'"
As we approach testimony time for the latest HBA dream in the guise of the Residential Infill Project (or RIP), prepare for more gaming of the system and keep an ear out for flash recruits to the pro-demolition cause. Even better, be the honest voice of the Portland resident, and tell City Council what you think about the RIP recommendations that would exponentially increase demolitions and the uncontrolled release of hazardous materials, loss of tree canopy, and more.

Nancy Thorington (center) leads a city subcommittee that's
meant to address hazmat fallout during demolition. During this
early September meeting, however, she said "we can't" 16 times.
Until Portlanders see leadership more responsive to their needs instead of those of short-term and (usually) out-of-town investors, neighbor activists would do well to focus less on policy and more on ground-level actions that are making a difference. Look for a guide to teardown-proofing your block (coming soon), and keep distributing the neighbor pledge (at right margin and bottom of page here), keep demanding hazmat control at city meetings (right) and demolition sites, and keep making your voice heard, whether it's expressing concern over the scale and value of new construction in the neighborhood, educating would-be buyers about not letting their kids play in the dirt there or growing food (if mechanical demolition took place), and so on.

These guerrilla efforts are slowing sales, and reducing motivation to send to the landfill well-built unique housing that's served generations of Portlanders.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

It's a long way from conceptual to actual, and the devil may be in lack of detail

Some illuminating questions and answers have come out of the open houses dedicated to proposals brought about by the Residential Infill Project (more info and background here).

Among the queries heard from the keen audience at the East Portland Neighborhood Office event:

• "Is this the proposal for developers or for homeowners?"
• "I have $90,000 in student loans, is there anything in this proposal that would help me afford a house?"

I did not hear how the first query was answered, but for the second, planning chief Joe Zehnder said the proposals will not help with affordability.

City planners Morgan Tracy (left) and Joe Zehnder take questions at the
East Portland Neighborhood Office on July 13, one of several outings
for proposals issuing from the Residential Infill Project.
The building bonanza of the last several years has seen housing prices skyrocket, further proof you can't build your way to affordability (even more proof: New York City). You can, however, make creative use of the vacant land that remains—as the planning department reported, we have twice as much as we need to meet density goals until 2035. In the meantime, let's adapt solid old buildings for new uses, and treat the vacant sites as opportunities to show new development can benefit the entire community. Wouldn't we all love additional great neighborhoods to live in and explore?

Even more worrying for the loan-burdened student at the East Portland event, if we continue to lose single-family homes at such an astonishing rate, there will be ever fewer of them available to buy. The city's current demo-favorable policies decrease the type of housing that respondents in a Metro study overwhelmingly favored: the good old detached home. Read on for stats about places whose streetscapes are dominated by single-family homes and yet they're not dumping them into landfills because "in density we trust."

One of Portland's dense new buildings that went up in a hurry recently caught fire, just three years after opening. The fire, according to the news report, "disabled the complex's fire detection systems." Eighty residents were displaced, but are probably counting themselves lucky.
                                          Courtesy Patrick Hilton/Citylove

Neighbors dig into data

Patrick Hilton of Citylove crunched the numbers the city gives for population forecasts and desirable density increases. Slides from a recent presentation show some of his findings. He found we already have sufficiently dense neighborhoods—even higher than what seems to be the city's target—so why keep demolishing already?

                                                                      Courtesy Patrick Hilton/Citylove
                                                                      Courtesy Patrick Hilton/Citylove
                                                                       Courtesy Patrick Hilton/Citylove

Small setbacks spur creative response

Roseway neighbors who in the wake of new construction faced a window staring into their breakfast nook devised this privacy screen:

                                                                                    Courtesy Randel Perkins

Monday, June 27, 2016

We've got 1000 questions for 1000 Friends

In Québec, new construction (right) matched in size, setbacks, and volume to
older construction shows how easily the two can co-exist. Note how
established trees are allowed to remain as well. Portland can learn from this!
Portland may strive to be a world-class sustainable city, but its recent record-breaking years of demolitions speak otherwise.

Fox News is contacting local activists for a coming exposé focusing on the ironies of our "green" city—tossing old-growth homes full of character and craftsmanship in the landfill, mowing down mature trees, and unleashing plumes of hazardous materials across neighborhoods. Why?

What's even harder to believe are the recommendations coming out of the Residential Infill Project (actually, more the city staff's, but the group was capably led to the foregone conclusions—something astute observers picked up on right away). After wonking out in an office building downtown for months, the developer-heavy group (surprise!) went beyond the mission of the project and decided to propose opening up much of the city to even more demolition; start reading from Page 12 here. Modest homes don't stand a chance in the face of a radical rezoning that allows a free-for-all of use. They will be plowed under in a second by those who speak "affordable housing" but really only want to mine real estate gold.

If "affordable housing" was what these developers crave to create, then let's see some already. It is difficult to give a nod to more construction when what is being built brings such outsize impacts and so little benefit to the neighborhoods. Antidemolition activists can point to a litany of code violations large and small; add to them the fallout of hazardous materials from mechanical demolition, unpaid fines (some are just factored into the pro forma, or never paid at all), lax oversight, noncompliance with code, and lack of accountability and there's reason for skepticism.

Opportunities exist to build better

The Urban Growth Boundary is not to blame. Again, there's that city study showing we have enough vacant land to meet density goals twice over until 2035. Even television news stations are tuning in to the fallacy that we need to demolish to make room, showing that there's plenty of vacant, buildable land within the UGB. It's just that developers would rather trash the lower-hanging fruit of smaller well-built homes in established and well-functioning neighborhoods. How about creating new exciting neighborhoods to live in and visit?! Let's bring quality and creativity back to our built landscape.

Another Québécois trick for new
construction: Save a historic, handsome
facade, and build behind it (and another old-
growth tree). 
Show Portlanders a preponderance of solid, creative construction that actually addresses housing needs beyond offering market-rate, amenity-poor apartments, and it could be easier to look forward to more. I've long wondered why the developers don't pony up for some good public relations, they need it so. Now it looks like they've found that outfit in the form of 1000 Friends of Oregon.

It's hard to imagine that a group inspired by Tom McCall would embrace recommendations to further raze quality housing made of old-growth materials. What happened?!

McCall's not here to speak for himself, unfortunately, but a staunch preservationist as he was likely would be appalled that thousands of Portland homes were painted with bull's-eyes, just waiting to go to the landfill to make way for another MDF manse or plex. This was a guy who would have smirked at the projected influx of people moving to Portland and questioned the necessity of killing ourselves to put out the welcome mat.

Sunny-sounding group makes awkward start

Another group working PR for the developer-led recommendations out of the Residential Infill Project is the newly launched Portland for Everyone. Their first event is Wednesday and sold out. Apparently, Portland is for everyone but only the first 45 people. Why not show up anyway to show you care about your neighborhood?

Under the utopia envisioned by the recommendations (which by the way are making the open-house rounds and everyone should go to as many as possible; more background and details here) most everyone becomes an apartment renter, even when 80 percent of respondents in a Metro study said they wanted to live in a detached house.

One of the first things that Portland for Everyone did was swipe a local photographer's image to paste all over its website and other materials, without asking permission or god forbid paying to use it. For artists increasingly pinched by the cost of housing, that's gotta hurt. First, they lose their studios and places to live in a building bonanza; now they suffer theft of their artwork and livelihood.

Credibility and inclusion will play a large part in these coming conversations. Anyone undecided should weigh what the proponents and opponents have to gain or lose, and why they're involved in the first place.