It’s time to end Portland’s new zoning charade: Guest opinion

Skinny houses on an unimproved street in Hazelwood reflect growing population pressure in East Portland neighborhoods that originally were populated with ranch-style houses on suburban-sized lots. (Fred Leeson/2007)

By Jim Gorter, Michael Molinaro and Leslie Hammond

The yellow flier concerning zoning changes and the Residential Infill Project that appeared in the mailboxes of most residents of Portland’s single family neighborhoods is alarming. It is a reminder that the objections of 27 of 31 neighborhood associations have been ignored.

Those neighborhood groups, among others, took the time to coordinate, discuss and provide thoughtful written testimony in December 2016, opposing the density sprawl policies presented to Portland City Council. Despite cautionary amendments from council members, now with Mayor Ted Wheeler at the helm, they’ve now doubled down on the worst ideas.

The areas to be "overlayed" with "housing opportunities" have been expanded. Now, three "innovative" dwelling units would be allowed on every lot in the R5 and R7 zone where the "overlay" is applied.

What are these "innovative housing types" that advocates say we so desperately need? Along the way this rolling stone accumulated the "missing middle" a term that appeared just in time to add a lot of green to the marketing frizz. To be fair, zoning for the "missing middle" is already in place in many areas of the city. For its part, the market has shown little interest in small duplex and tri-plex units — instead favoring single family houses that surveys show are what most owners and renters prefer. And thus, what most developers find profitable.

The core proposal (aka HOOZ or the Housing Opportunity Overlay Zone) blankets much of the city with a rewrite of the single dwelling zoning code that is incongruous with the purpose of the zone. At heart, it promotes a vision of urban renewal that entitles developers to build multi-dwelling units posing as single family houses. One result is already in evidence. The more affordable single family housing stock in a given neighborhood is being demolished in favor of much more expensive replacements. It’s well known that new construction is much more expensive even when it "shares a lot" and when it’s comparable in size to what was demolished.

The populist impetus for the elimination of single dwelling zoning in much of Portland is energized by the cost of housing compared to wage growth and a collateral erosion of the social safety-net including federal spending for housing, rent subsidies and mental health. Tapping into the angst, an unholy alliance of profit-minded developers and ideological bias from 1000 Friends of Oregon has been driving this project for more than three years. It is wrapped and re-wrapped in a shifting sand of unsubstantiated claims that the infill project will lift the city to an affordable, prosperous and sustainable future.

At least for those able to sustain the redevelopment.

To date, the project is notable for its lack of thoughtful analysis of the impacts. The advocates, developers and planners supporting this highly divisive strategy, have failed to consider demolition, displacement, sprawling densification, transportation, social destabilization, loss of character and green space among other considerations. City officials point to their economic study that, upon close scrutiny, concludes that the policies will produce relatively little in the way of additional housing units.

If the past 50 years are a guide, the demolition and displacement in areas of the city with modest affordable housing will bear the brunt — just as occurred in the Albina neighborhood or the tracts redeveloped with the infamous "skinny house." Portland for Everyone (aka 1000 Friends) counters that selfish, elitist, privileged single family homeowners and renters "need to share the land." Investors and developers agree.

Along the way, the Residential Infill Project fails to consider history, economics, distinctive neighborhood context and goals for supporting walkable centers. Did we say parking? The planners fail to acknowledge that without the infill project, the city has almost double the amount of land zoned for housing that is needed for the next 20 years! The core proposal code rewrite and its accompanying zoning map comprise a fundamentally flawed and ultimately destructive vision for Portland. These provisions are not derived from the spirit or policies of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan. It is time to end the charade.

— Jim Gorter of Southwest Portland, Jack Bookwalter of Northeast Portland and Leslie Hammond of Southwest Portland. Other contributors include Michael Molinaro, AIA, of Southeast Portland, Robin Harman of Southwest Portland and Sarah Cantine, AIA, of Northeast Portland.

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