Eastmoreland neighbors persuade developer to dump skinny house plan
For a decade, with Portland being a city that's pushed for increasing residential density, there's been no shortage of developers eager to knock down an old home and replace it with two or more 'sliver houses'.
Regardless of neighbors' wishes, if a developer gains official permission to split a lot and build high-density housing, those structures do go up - and the developer often defends the action as 'property owners' rights' and a fulfillment of city housing policy.
A 1926 home at 6745 S.E. 36th Avenue would have met this fate, except for diligent neighbors - and, in the end, a thoughtful developer. You may have read about it in a series of letters published in the September BEE.
Bill and Molly Morgan live at the south end of the block where the redevelopment was to take place, and told THE BEE how efforts of more than a dozen neighbors changed the situation.
'We learned about it an August 7 neighborhood block party, a barbecue,' began Bill Morgan.
At that get-together, Morgan said, neighbors were abuzz with news that the house on their block had been sold to a developer who either was going to renovate it - or, more likely, tear it down and build two skinny houses.
'Nobody thought of it as being two lots together,' Morgan said. 'People were upset.'
Instead of marching with protest signs or sending 'hate mail' to the developer, neighbors got to work, Morgan explained. 'We got a map of the 100 closest houses. If this lot were divided, the result would be two of the smallest lots for many blocks in every direction.'
Days after the block party, some neighbors were doing research online; others were contacting the city's Planning Bureau. And, yet another person went to the Multnomah County Records office to look at deeds.
'One of the developer's associates was also at that office,' Morgan said. 'That's how we learned who to contact at the developer's company.'
From this initial contact, neighbors were put in touch with Mike Hubbell, the General Manager of Portland Development Group. 'We met with him that week, on Friday.'
At that meeting, neighbors presented Hubbell with three main objections to building row houses:
• The extremely negative attitude of many neighbors about aesthetic nature the project;
• That, from a legal land-use standpoint, it could be blocked; and,
• The economics of building the 'sliver houses' probably wouldn't pencil out.
'When he left Friday night, you could tell the developer was thinking about the alternatives,' Morgan recalled. 'But we had no way of knowing what he would do. So, between Friday night and Sunday, we made up and printed a flyer [describing the situation], and about 15 neighbors distributed it to 1,200 homes.'
The response to the flyer was a hundred or so e-mails sent to the developer, and almost all of them copied the City Planner - and to Mayor Sam Adams' office.
'The City Planner responded with the same response to many of the e-mails - basically, 'we will do what the law requires us to do',' Morgan said.
On August 19, the developer sent Morgan a message saying they were getting closer to making a decision. Shortly thereafter, Mike Hubbell sent out messages from the Portland Development Group announcing his plan to renovate the property.
On September 12, Hubbell invited THE BEE to the house in question, to talk about the project.
'Portland Development Group buys, renovates, and sells homes all over the greater Portland area,' Hubbell said. 'In some cases, if it's sitting on two lots, we will put two homes on it.'
Instead of simply knocking down old houses, Hubbell said, they prefer renovation. 'We do more than remodel; we renovate houses and bring them up to current energy and structural codes. We'll put new fixtures in them, and try to keep as many of the old features as we can. We try to keep the character of the house.'
While Portland Development Group has been in business for about two years, the principals have been involved in renovation for quite a while. 'We were doing the same thing, but for other developers.'
While the 36th Avenue house looked OK from the street, his partners considered demolition because much of the infrastructure was out of date. 'This 'knob-and-tube electrical wiring strung through the framework looks scary, and can be dangerous. Electricians haven't put that in for 60 years,' Hubbell pointed out.
He indicated where the home had been remodeled - but not renovated - at least five times since it was built. 'That's why there's mix-and-match wiring and plumbing here.'
Asked if he was surprised by the neighbors' concerns, Hubbell replied, 'I'm not surprised. They have a strong desire to keep the community the way it is. The city is pushing for more density. On the other hand, the neighbors in this area really don't want it. If you think it through, 'two lots' really doesn't fit in this part of Eastmoreland.'
The interior of the house has now been gutted down to the studs. 'We're going to rip off the roof and add a story - we're adding 1,500 square feet to the house - and there will be attic space above that. It will meet 'Earth Advantage' and 'Energy Star' certifications.'
He's taking care to preserve the hardwood flooring on the first floor. Hubbell pointed out. 'We'll refinish it, and we're keeping the fireplace. And, we're taking it a step further - not a lot of people are doing this - the studs we take out will be reclaimed and made into cabinets, or milled down for flooring upstairs. We'll be taking less to the landfill.'
The family that buys this house will likely think that it's just a spruced-up, stately older home, observed Hubbell. 'But everything inside the walls will be better than code, while it will still look like a period house.'
So, how did Hubbell convince his partners into doing this extensive renovation?
'We never really had to be talked into it,' Hubbell explained. 'We are buying in this community, and the neighbors feel strongly about retaining the qualities of the area. I feel that I had a responsibility to hear what they had to say.'
What really clinched it for him was meeting the neighbors in person. 'It helps to put faces to e-mails. Meeting people face-to-face, you understand that they all have the same problems, ideas, desires, and you start to connect with them personally - and once you do that, you start to realize that you have a responsibility to do something differently than what you planned on doing.
'From the get-go, the neighbors probably thought I was a big bad developer. But once they met me, they said, 'Oh, okay, this person actually cares about what we think is good for our community.' Then you start to get treated differently.'
Moving out of his workers' way as the renovation proceeded, Hubbell concluded our visit by adding, 'Hopefully some of our biggest critics may end up being some of our best salespeople. A lot of them stepped forward and said 'we'll do what we can to make sure that your house gets sold'.'
About the resolution, Molly Morgan said, 'The way things work today, this outcome is pretty remarkable. All credit to the neighborhood for saving this charming 1926 house.' Credit also is given to the developer.
Her husband added, 'Probably, of all the neighbors, I was the least surprised. While not surprised, I was certainly very pleased. Other neighbors were shocked, happy, and were delighted. They're also very happy that it will be done quickly. He's talking about being finished by sometime in November.'