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Infill plan lands on Fish's doorstep

Commissioner sees demolition project as policy under scrutiny

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JAIME VALDEZ - The 1924 house in the middle is scheduled to be extensively remodeled into a much bigger house, near City Commissioner Nick Fish's home.  City Commissioner Nick Fish is about to find out whether the growing anger about residential infill projects is justified.

A developer plans to more than double the size of the 90-year-old house next to where Fish lives on a quiet stretch of Northeast Cesar Chavez Boulevard. Portland Development Group Investment intends to tear down most of the one-story, 1,447-square-foot house and rebuild it as a two-story, 3,423-square-foot house.

The house was sold for $349,900 in September. The Portland Realty Group, which is marketing the property, plans to sell it for $849,000 when the remodeling project is complete. Real estate broker Barry Smith says the work should begin in about two months and be completed within six.

Fish told the Portland Tribune he has no reaction to the project, other than, “I expect them to follow the code.”

The project is an example of the kind of infill development that is being protested across Portland: older homes being replaced or remodeled into larger, more expensive ones. A group of neighborhood activists is drafting a proposal to slow the pace of such projects, which is increasing as the economy improves. They are circulating a resolution for presentation to the City Council in December calling for the creation of an citywide advisory committee to craft new policies on the issue.

Fish has not said much about the controversy. Commissioner Amanda Fritz has been working on some of the issues through the Bureau of Development Services, which she oversees.

But Fish has been criticized for not stopping the sale of surplus Water Bureau property to a residential developer in Southwest Portland. Residents living near an unused water tank protested its sale to Renaissance Homes, saying they did not even know it was being put on the market. Fish said he could not legally cancel the sale, which occurred before he was put in charge of the water bureau. Signs objecting to the sale continue to dot streets around the property, however.

No demolition permit

Residential demolition projects are increasing as the economy recovers from the Great Recession and more people want to live in close-in Portland neighborhoods. Last year, 273 demolition permits were issued by the Bureau of Development Services — more than the 270 issued in 2006, shortly before the housing bubble burst. The number is expected to top 300 by the end of the year, and increase in 2015.

That does not include major remodeling projects, like the one planned next to Fish’s home. According to Smith, plans call for the two-bedroom, one-bath home built in 1924 to be almost completely removed. It will be rebuilt as a four-bedroom, three-bath house with such modern touches as granite and marble kitchen counters, a built-in dishwasher and microwave, a walk-in pantry with butcher block countertops, slate fireplace details and a jetted tub. As long as a small portion of the original house remains, such as part of the foundation or a single wall, current BDS rules allow such changes to be classified as a remodeling project, meaning no demolition permit needs to be issued.

Many people living near such projects in other neighborhoods have complained about them for several reasons. For starters, some of them have happened with virtually no advance notice, shocking neighbors when heavy equipment suddenly arrives and starts tearing down nearby homes. Neighbors also worry that hazardous materials are being scattered in the wind, like asbestos and lead-based paints. The new and heavily remodeled homes are frequently much bigger than the original ones, leading to charges that they are out of character with the existing neighborhoods. They are also more expensive, prompting worries about losing affordable housing. And some of the homes targeted for demolition are historic, raising the ire of environmentalists. In fact, neighbors have bought several historic homes from developers in recent months to save them.

Smith says that most developers work with neighbors and handle hazardous materials properly. “There are a few bad apples out there, but the marketplace tends to take care of them because their products are substandard,” says Smith.

And Smith defends the larger size of the replacement and remodeled houses, saying there are buyers for them, otherwise they wouldn’t be built. “A developer has to make a big investment in a property, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough profit in it,” says Smith.

Neighbors’ resolution

Two groups are working to address such issues, however. One is a subcommittee of the Development Review Advisory Committee that advises BDS on permitting matters. It has been meeting for months.

Among other things, the subcommittee is discussing how to guarantee that developers always notify neighbors about demolitions and handle hazardous materials properly. It has also discussed at what point a remodeling project should require a demolition permit.

The subcommittee is scheduled to report to the full advisory committee on Nov. 20. The recommendations will be presented to the City Council on Dec. 17.

The other group is comprised of neighborhood activists who called themselves United Neighborhoods for Reform. They support the work of the development review subcommittee, but want the council to address larger issues as well, including the bigger size of the replacement and remodeled houses. The group grew out of three Demolition Summits held over the summer attended by representatives of 36 neighborhoods. It formed a subcommittee that has drafted a resolution that is now being presented to neighborhood association boards across the city.

“We’re taking a road show on the road,” says Jack Brookwalter, chairman of the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association Land Use Committee, who led the subcommittee.

The resolution supports the work of the development review subcommittee. But it also calls for the appointment of an advisory committee split evenly between neighborhood residents and city staff to consider such changes as revising the building code “to limit the mass, footprint, setbacks, and height of construction to that of the average of existing homes within a specified distance.”

Brookwalter says the group plans to present a resolution to the council on Dec. 14. It is discussing meeting with each member of the council to discuss the resolution before that, in the hope that one or more of them will introduce it for a vote.