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City seeks creative infill housing ideas


Backlash against teardowns prompts new look at growth.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - The Hastings Green project in South Tabor is seen as a model, because it provides a cluster of homes on one site that fits seamlessly into a single-family block. Portlanders turn their noses up at “skinny houses” and “McMansions.”

They go ballistic when developers tear down old homes and build two in their place.

They’re hopping mad over new four-story apartments built with little to no on-site parking.

And they’re fed up with clogged traffic in general, blaming it on increased density in the city.

So where will we house the thousands of newcomers moving to Portland — or our children when they grow up and want homes of their own? And how can we make those affordable to rent or own?

Trying to respond to this seemingly impossible mandate, Mayor Charlie Hales has asked city planners and a citizens group to come up with viable ways to do “infill” housing.

Though the Planning and Sustainability Bureau’s Residential Infill Project is still in the early stages, participants are honing in on ways to lure more housing to already built-up areas — some innovative and some tried-and-true — that aren’t so objectionable to most neighbors.

Why infill?

Young adults keep moving to the city, and many want existing neighborhoods already blessed with good parks, coffee shops, restaurants and bars.

“The millennials are growing up and saying ‘why would I want a big house in the suburbs, and I don’t drive,’ ” says Sandra Wood, a planner working on the Residential Infill Project.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - This apartment under construction has some Mount Tabor neighbors protesting about dense and not so attractive development in a single-family neighborhood.They just want to live in Portland, she says, and they often don’t need a four-bedroom house on a 5,000-square-foot lot. Besides, Portland has little bare land left to put those kinds of subdivisions.

In recent years, though, residents have complained that the new four-story apartments on Division Street, Williams Avenue and other major streets are too pricey. And traditional single-family homes in close-in eastside neighborhoods are costing upwards of $1 million or more, pushing Portland in the direction of San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, where minorities and working-class families with children are increasingly forced out.

High rents on those new apartments is a “supply and demand thing,” says Eli Spevak, a developer who favors tiny homes, cohousing projects and accessory dwelling units. As economists note, development hasn’t keep pace with the demand, and the low vacancy rate translates into a landlord’s market.

“We need abundant housing of all shapes and sizes,” says Spevak, newly appointed to the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission. And it means moving beyond the one house on one lot model, say Spevak and planners working on the Residential Infill Project.

“If you want to have affordability in amenity-rich neighborhoods, we’re going to need to get a little more density there,” Spevak says.

But Hales empaneled the infill exploration effort due to the backlash against demolitions and density, so the group is moving slowly. It’s trying to take the public’s “temperature” before advancing new ideas, says Morgan Tracy, project manager.

Two ADUs per lot?

There was a lot of controversy when the Portland City Council voted to allow an accessory dwelling unit on practically every single-family lot in the city in the early 1990s, Wood recalls.

“There’s a general acceptance of ADUs now,” Tracy says, whether a simple attic or basement conversion or freestanding garages or cottages. Some call it “invisible density,” he says.

Skinny houses and McMansions often are perceived as “in your face,” says Kol Peterson, a local ADU consultant. But ADUs, he says, “create more density without creating more significant visual impact.”

The infill advisory group is not only talking about promoting ADUs, but allowing two on a property instead of one, as Vancouver, British Columbia does. One would be inside the house and the other would be detached or freestanding.

ADUs, smaller in size by city code, also tend to be more affordable as a result. They’re cheaper to build, because the homeowner doesn’t have to pay for land.

Other creative infill ideas

Another idea being vetted is allowing owners of large older homes to split them into two dwelling units. Or a grand old house could be converted into a fourplex.

“Converting a house into multiple units . . . . still looks like a single-family house,” Tracy says. Allowing it, particularly on older homes, could help families that are downsizing, and alleviate economic pressures to sell the house to a developer who wants to build two on its place.

Another idea being promoted is allowing “stacked flats,” where one dwelling unit is on one floor and another is on an upper floor. Those are common in Chicago, and, in taller versions, New York City.

Portlanders have not been keen on rowhouses, but flats are like rowhouses turned vertical, Tracy says.

A fourth idea under discussion is allowing more units in clustered developments, perhaps by grouping several cottages around a central green. The examples cited most are Spevak’s Cully Green cohousing project in the Cully neighborhood, or the Hastings Green project in South Tabor. Both were planned developments that required special city approval, and neither has more density than allowed by the zoning. But those in the infill project are discussing ways to promote similar clustered cottages that are easier to approve and provide more density.

Missing middle

The Portland Housing Bureau and nonprofit groups are tackling the affordability crisis by building more subsidized rental properties. But there’s also a way to promote affordability through zoning changes, Spevak says.

A simple walk through Northwest Portland and other older neighborhoods reveals many duplexes, fourplexes and small apartments of eight to 12 units sprinkled among single-family homes. Those were commonly built in the 1920s and 1930s, but are rarely done nowadays in Portland, due to a combination of zoning limitations and market conditions.

Folks call it the “missing middle.”

Portland rezoned most of the eastside decades ago into single-family residential zoning, where such plexes and small apartments aren’t permitted. On land zoned multifamily, developers seek to maximize the number of units.

Planners are talking about seeking new zoning that would allow such middle-density projects in transitional areas next to corridors filled with four-story apartments. Spevak would favor allowing builders to construct more units in exchange for building smaller homes. Those are inherently more affordable and have less environmental impact, he says.

The new comprehensive land use plan before the City Council calls for policies that promote more affordable and infill housing, though not zoning changes. But city planners may be ready to propose new zoning if the City Council so desires in the new comp plan, Spevak says.

Leaders of the Residential Infill Project fully recognize there are strong concerns about growing density in Portland and are proceeding carefully, trying to find “sweet spots” that are acceptable to the public.

But some residents don’t realize that many of Portland’s older neighborhoods used to be more dense than they are now, simply because families were larger in past generations. Now those larger houses are filling up again, sometimes without the proper permitting.

“People are doubling up,” Spevak says “People are doing this below the radar screen whether it’s legal or not.”

Find out more

The Residential Infill Project advisory committee holds a design charrette Thursday to show some of the ideas being floated and what they look like, including appropriate places to put skinny houses. The public is welcome to sit in, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Portland Building, 1120 S.W. Fifth Ave., Room C.

There will be an open house from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., after the charrette. Planners will give an overview of the project and share initial results of an online survey on infill housing.

For more on the Residential Infill Project: http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/532949

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