Trying to Break the Mold
Amid a record-high level of redevelopment in the First Addition neighborhood, Lake Oswego residents say unique houses are being supplanted by 'cookie-cutter' replacements
First Addition residents Annelies Kloosterman and Leslie Anderson-Jonsrud have gotten used to the sight of construction projects dotting their neighborhood. The women frequently go on walks together, and they often pass by new developments fueled by an ongoing housing boom in one of Lake Oswegos oldest neighborhoods.
The pace of development alone has already proven to be controversial, but as more and more homes pop up, Kloosterman and Anderson-Jonsrud say theyve begun to notice another problem: The new houses all look the same.
Out of my kitchen window, I can look out and see five new homes and three of them are cookie-cutter, says Kloosterman. The City doesnt seem to know that the same houses are getting built over and over again.
According to Kloosterman and Anderson-Jonsrud, many of the recent development projects follow similar or identical blueprints, and the new houses feature only cosmetic differences such as the color of the exterior paint. The pair say they want to bring attention to the issue in hopes of spurring an update to the neighborhoods development codes, and they began their efforts with an open letter sent two weeks ago to the First Addition Neighborhood Association board and several City departments.
Theres no way we can stop (development), says Kloosterman. The only thing we can impact is the quality, the charm and the character we get in return.
The letter has generated interest in the dispute, both among neighbors and inside City Hall. At a recent board meeting, First Addition Neighborhood Association leaders disagreed as to how best to solve the problem, but there was a general agreement that repetitive housing designs had the potential to damage the character of the neighborhood.
Carole Ockert, the associations chairwoman, says the board has yet to take an official position on the issue. But speaking as a resident, she says the neighborhood has always featured pairs of similar houses, just not on the same scale as the more recent developments.
There were variations; maybe one was a mirror image of each other. That would have happened occasionally, she says. But this cookie-cutter trend, where its duplicated again and again, is something completely out of the context of development that we had seen in the past.
Lake Oswego City Councilor Jon Gustafson also chimed in on Facebook, saying he was not impressed with the lack of variation.
This practice of building the same plan over and over may save the builder design costs, but it does not save neighborhood character, Gustafson wrote. Before we consider changing the development code to prohibit this practice, I plan on asking the builder to voluntarily improve the design diversity of the houses they build in any one neighborhood.
Other neighbors told The Review that they have similar concerns, both about the pace of development and the homogeneity of the new homes. Anne Augustine, another longtime resident of First Addition, describes her block as very stable up until about two years ago. Since then, she says, three new houses have been built, and two of them are identical.
Two houses up from me, theres one on my side of the street and one on the other side of the street, says Augustine. And I often wonder what the people on the other side of the street think, because they bought their house first and now theyre looking at a house thats exactly like theirs.
Building to code
Kloosterman and Anderson-Jonsrud point to Portland-based builder Everett Custom Homes as the foremost example of repetitive construction, although they stress that ECH is just one of roughly half a dozen active builders in the neighborhood and that others also use repetitive designs to varying degrees.
This is not a target to Everett its a target to the concept, says Kloosterman. This is a community with a unique style thats totally being ignored and damaged.
The two neighbors say the problem could be solved by adding a single line to City code to prohibit repeated designs, but Planning & Building Services Director Scot Siegel says a longer code may not necessarily be the answer. The neighborhood would need to move forward carefully, he says, to avoid making the code too complicated.
You can make it really difficult to actually meet the code, because you can end up with standards that are working across purposes, he says. And then there can be unintended consequences as the builders inevitably figure out how to work through or work with those codes. So its difficult. It can be done, but I think the first step is really to identify the problem, if there is a problem, and for the neighborhood to consider that and weigh in on it.
In fact, according to Siegel and other planning department staff, the City code already includes several building restrictions unique to First Addition.
I think whats happening with Everett Custom Homes, with the example (Kloosterman and Anderson) are using, is they have certain house plans that they use frequently and thats probably a house plan that happens to work well in First Addition in terms of their site development limitations, says Senior Planner Jessica Numanoglu. Thats efficient and less expensive for them to do that, because they found a plan that fits and so they keep repeating it in the neighborhood.
ECH President Vic Remmers told The Review in an emailed statement that the company has built 11 houses in First Addition, six of which use the same Irvington design. The remainder use a mix of two other designs. He says the primary reason for reusing the Irvington design is that its a favorite among homebuyers, but he adds that Lake Oswegos very restrictive development codes also prevent more variation.
The architectural diversity of the neighborhood is something that ECH touts on its own company website, where it describes First Addition as featuring an architectural A to Z of home styles everything from Craftsman and Colonial Revival to Gothic, Vernacular and English Cottage. When asked if the reused designs undermine that character, Remmers says its up to the City to take action to preserve the variety of styles by changing the code.
If the City isnt willing to add more flexibility to their building code, then yes youre running the risk of having most of the new homes being similar, Remmers says. Having a stringent building code forces our hand and, of course, that plays into the culture of the neighborhood.
But some of the neighbors dont buy that explanation. Longtime resident Jim Bolland, who helped with the neighborhoods most recent code update in 1996, says the intent was to encourage design diversity rather than limiting developers options, which is why the code specifically avoids rules that directly prohibit specific types of architecture.
We were not trying to prescribe architectural style at all, he says. If we couldve looked into our crystal ball in 96 and seen this coming, I dont know what we wouldve done.
Part of the problem, Bolland says, is that the newer houses are often built as large as possible while still conforming to the existing dimensional restrictions, which tends to lead to boxier final products. He says the current scale of new development both in terms of the number of houses and their size goes far beyond what the residents had anticipated in 1996.
At the time, none of the new houses were being built to maximum square footage, he says. Now they all are.
Additionally, Bolland and Ockert both say its been a struggle to get the City to enforce the codes that are already in place. One of First Additions specific requirements is that every new house must have a front porch on the street side, but Ockert says neighborhood residents have been frustrated by what they see as a willingness on the part of the City to allow developers to bend that rule.
Theres code thats written and then theres getting that code enforced in a way that its intended, which is also complicated, she says. For front porches, we just went through a two-year process of delineating how that needs to be enforced.
Neighbors, City staff and Remmers all agree on one point: Once developers find a style that will be approved under the existing regulations, they tend to reuse that design. But theres less agreement about how to change that pattern.
Remmers says the rules need to be loosened to allow ECH and other builders to use more of their available designs. Designing new houses from scratch, he says, would be extremely time-consuming.
It would take six months to a year to get the new plan designed and approved through the City of Lake Oswego before we could build something, he says.
Kloosterman and Anderson-Jonsrud say the solution is to change the development code to limit or prohibit design reuse, and they argue that given the booming housing market in the neighborhood, developers should be able to afford the extra effort.
Theyre not hurting, says Kloosterman. Instead of making 80-percent profit, do you think you could make 70 percent and live with it?
At the most recent First Addition board meeting, Bolland speculated that a design review process might be the ultimate answer to the problem, but added that redevelopment is a thorny issue that has not been easy to resolve in the past.
This is not a new conversation, Bolland says. Its tough to get City Councilors (on board).
Neighborhood Association members agreed to revisit the issue at their next meeting in May, and to discuss the topic at the upcoming annual neighborhood association meeting on April 26.
Siegel and Numanoglu say the City Council would need to issue a directive before the Planning Department could consider any code changes, and Siegel adds that the neighbors should also explore solutions that dont involve changing the code.
I think the next step for the Planning Department is to reach out to Kloosterman and Anderson-Jonsrud, Siegel says, and I would encourage them to work with the Neighborhood Association and with the builder to see if the builder would be receptive to their suggestions without the City taking a regulatory stance on it.
But Kloosterman and Anderson-Jonsrud are calling for fast action, saying the code needs to be updated before more of First Additions existing houses are demolished. If the issue isnt addressed, they say, the neighborhood may soon pass a tipping point where too many identical houses have already been constructed and the character of the neighborhood has been lost.
There are only so many homes that can actually fit there, says Anderson-Jonsrud. There arent many of the old ones left.
Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.JW_DISQUS_ADD_A_COMMENT