The cover-story headline from today's In Portland section of The Oregonian is a provocative one: "Score One For The Neighbors."
"Tired of infil that doesn't fit," Erin Hoover Barnett's story goes, "residents are fighting back -- and winning."
There are definitely reasons to cheer for the neighborhood in this particular case. The focus of Barnett's story is a project in the Foster-Powell neighborhood near SE 74th Avenue. Developers wanted to put 19 row houses on a site near many single-family homes. On September 13, residents succeeded in winning a City Council vote that rejected developer Jeremy Osterholm's plans. Osterholm had even met with neighbors there about the plan. But, in Barnett's words, "he failed the earnestness test." It's not enough to just pay a lip service to neigbhors, listening and conceding little. In a way, that's very good. But it also can be very dangerous.
Barnett's story (or at least the big-font headline and subhead) casts this largely as a classic David-Goliath story, with the neighborhoods as good-guy crusaders and the developers as bad-guy wreckers of Livable Portland. In reality, of course, every project is different.
It's not at all wrong to look at this case as an indicator of the city council's increasing willingness to side with neighborhoods. There's more urban infill happening all the time, and some of it seems out of scale with nearby houses. And the neighbors have their community's health as motivation, while many developers are swooping into these neighborhoods for a short time driven by financial gain.
However, I also don't think the system is blameless here, nor are the intentions of the neighborhood organizations. First, we have to look to zoning for cues about what's allowable and what's not. That's what developers do. Who wants to gamble on a project that might get rejected? But there's also a lot of wiggle room about height and scale, so more and more often it seems to come down to some kind of fight. I'm not saying I want to cozy up with developers, especially the ones who build ugly, cheap stuff. But this is the same profession that empowers designers. It's a two-way street.
In many cases, it isn't David and Goliath. Instead, it's often a local small business person, maybe a builder or an architect, trying their hand at a small project in order to meet with the city's explicitly stated density goal by filling a market need, and doing so with very little if any profit margin. And with a lot of the people I talk to, like Sum Design Studio, the goal is to express and demonstrate their design talents, which happen to be impressive. But then their project gets stuck in limbo for weeks or months, sometimes even when the neighborhood association favors the design when a few dissenting voices file an appeal that stretches out the process some more.
What I'm saying, I guess, is it's great that neighborhood organizations and various design review mechanisms in Portland are strong, and it's an entirely proper use of their collective power to stop oversized, cheap and ugly developments from happening. But good design can also be undermined by those same efforts, and that's why I read a story like Barnett's and feel a sense of unfairness in the characterization. I felt this same way when Fred Leeson wrote in the In Portland section a few weeks ago about a neighbor's weeping at a hearing when her appeal of William Kaven's fine but modern and flat-roofed design was rejected.
I'm all for power to the people, but they have to earn the moral high ground, which can't be taken by shooting down good projects along with bad ones. We need to fine tune this process to ensure that good design is sorted out from bad. And no neighborhood organization should be entitled to change the design of a project simply for its own sake. With due respect to all involved, it can be a treacherously fine line between the collective little guy fighting for their voice to be heard and ensuingly becoming a localized mob.
I'm thinking now of another story I read in the paper recently, about a suburban resident's battle with her neigbors over her right to hang laundry outside to dry. I'm just sayin', let's not let ourselves do the same with buildings.