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City ponders about-face on density

Planners mull 'down-zoning' to relieve pressure on some areas


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A new mixed-use apartment complex is nearing completion on Southeast Division Street and 33rd Avenue.The city of Portland — often incurring the wrath of residents and neighborhood associations — has scrambled for two decades to increase density via infill developments, row houses, apartments and condos.

Now city planners are plotting something unthinkable in the 1990s and 2000s — reducing

density.

In the proposed comprehensive land use plan designed to guide Portland’s growth through the year 2035, planners are proposing lower densities on 2,100 acres of land throughout the city. It’s known as down-zoning.

“It’s been a half-century since we’ve had this much down-zoning,” says principal planner Eric Engstrom of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. The last time the city undertook so much down-zoning was 1959, he says, when many close-in neighborhoods were rezoned to bar apartments and only permit single-family homes.

To put 2,100 acres in perspective, it’s equal to the combined acreage of the Oregon Zoo, Mount Tabor and Washington parks, the Laurelhurst neighborhood, the River District and South Waterfront District, and the entire campuses of Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University, including its Hillsboro campus.

Dozens of parcels are proposed for down-zoning, but there are only a handful of reasons for such actions:

• Protect historic neighborhoods such as those near Reed College and the Eliot neighborhood from future upheaval.

• Reduce building on hillsides near the Oregon Zoo, Powell Butte, and Tryon and Johnson creeks to protect trees, avoid landslides and prevent flooding.

• Alleviate crowding in David Douglas School District.

• Restrict developments in Brentwood Darlington and other areas without sidewalks or other infrastructure.

Photo Credit: MAP COURTESY OF PORTLAND PLANNING AND SUSTAINABILITY - Portland planners want to reduce the density of allowable development on 2,100 acres of land sprinkled throughout the city, a process known as down-zoning.

Some upzoning too

None of the proposals are written in stone, as the city has just started taking public testimony on the long-awaited update of the 1980 comprehensive land-use plan. And to be fair, that “comp plan” also calls for increasing densities in many parts of town, especially on commercial corridors and intersections such as Southeast Division Street and 122nd Avenue, Barbur Boulevard and Capitol Highway, Killingsworth near Portland Community College, and several inner-eastside corridors.

But the changing tide on density is notable. Ever since the mid-1990s, when Metro released its Region 2040 Plan to chart growth for the next 45 years, Portland and every other city in the metro area has been under pressure to increase densities and do their share to accommodate expected population growth.

Portland planners couldn’t fathom how they could handle all the growth, Engstrom says, without some ideas now viewed as crude or ill-advised. A key example: rezoning to allow a slew of new apartments along Southeast 122nd and 136th avenues in East Portland, at a time when they didn’t even have sidewalks. “That was the only way we knew how to meet those needs,”

Engstrom says.

At the time, he says, Portland couldn’t demonstrate to Metro and state land use regulators that it could spur large new residential communities in existing inner-city neighborhoods such as the Pearl District or South Waterfront.

But residents have since flocked to those and other close-in neighborhoods. So now planners are saying they can accommodate growth in hot spots such as the Lloyd District, downtown, and four-story apartments on inner-eastside corridors such as Division, Hawthorne, Belmont and Burnside.

In addition, changes in family size and shrinking incomes mean 80 percent of Portland’s new housing in the next decade is projected to be in multifamily projects.

That gives the city more “wiggle room to entertain down-zoning,” Engstrom says, because there is plenty of land inside the city to accommodate population growth.

Technically, what planners are proposing are called “down designations” in the comp plan, Engstrom says. But if the City Council approves the proposals, it’s expected that the city will issue new zoning designations to match what’s in the comp plan.

Fourth go-around

Portland’s first zoning plan was completed in 1918. The next major change didn’t come until the rezoning in 1959.

Then, after the advent of state land use planning in the early-1970s, Portland completed its first comprehensive land use plan in 1980, which charted much of the city’s subsequent growth.

In intervening years, the city reshaped parts of town, particularly with the Albina Community Plan in 1993 and the Outer Southeast Community Plan in 1996.

This is the first overhaul of the entire comp plan, though, so planners are using the opportunity to make hundreds of land-use changes.

Because most developable land in Portland is already built on, the impact of the down zoning likely wouldn’t be felt for awhile. For example, many parts of the Eastmoreland neighborhood near Reed College are zoned to allow denser housing, but that would require property owners to knock down their houses and rebuild more

dwellings per lot.

“Under the current zoning rules, Eastmoreland as we know it could easily be gone in five years,” says Robert McCulloch, president of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association. “Basically, a vast majority of the homes will be eligible for demolition.”

By changing the zoning to match the existing density, though, the city in effect keeps the current character of the neighborhood, and removes an incentive to alter what is viewed as a historic neighborhood. “The key is, it will do nothing,”

McCulloch says.

City planners also are trying to undo some of the intense development they once piled onto neighborhoods like Brentwood Darlington, a Southeast neighborhood that still lacks basic sidewalks and paved roads.

“It’s gone from row houses back to single-family,” says chief planner Joe Zehnder.

City planners realized they have been working at cross-purposes with other bureaus by promoting more density, such as south of Foster Boulevard near Johnson Creek. The Bureau of Environmental Services has spent millions of dollars buying up properties along the floodplain to control perennial flooding of the creek.

So some of the down-zoning will alleviate city expenses down the road for storm drainage or extending roads and sewers into hilly or other hard-to-reach areas, planners say.

Some of the down zoning proposed south of Powell Boulevard near 122nd Avenue came at the request of folks working on the East Portland Action Plan, who complain the area got too much multifamily dumped onto it by the Outer Southeast Community Plan in 1996. The lower densities also could mean fewer students down the road in David Douglas School District, though the impact wouldn’t come until later, when developers tear down existing apartments to build even denser ones, says Frieda Christopher, school board chairwoman.

“The district is already at capacity,” Christopher says. “There is not a lot of land available in our district to build more schools. If it grows any more, it’s just going to compound the issue.”

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