BY BRIAN LIBBY
For a recent Portland Tribune column, I had the opportunity to visit the new Vermont 10 project in Southwest Portland's Hillsdale neighborhood. To me it's a nice little urban infill project in a part of Portland that is halfway between city and suburb, and not just geographically.
Hillsdale isn't ridden with corporate restaurants and big-box retail, nor is Highway 10 running through the neighborhood too ridiculously wide. It has a lovely branch of the Multnomah County Library. Yet Hillsdale is one of the only places in town that's fairly close in that I don't quite feel comfortable biking to. And more importantly, it's a place of strip malls and single-family houses: the kind of low-density area that, because of its proximity to the city center, probably is destined to become more urban and more dense.
Visiting the Vermont 10 project by Colab Architecture + Urban Design, I was reminded of a phrase mistakenly uttered in Back to the Future: "You're my density." In the movie, the character (George McFly) is trying to say, "You're my destiny," but misspeaks. I wonder if Vermont 10, a project laudable for the density it adds without sacrificing a human scale, is also Hillsdale's destiny, and the destiny of other close-in neighborhoods of single-family homes. It's not to say those single-family homes go away. I hope 95 percent of them stay. But we can't expect a single-family home to be right for everyone. While Vermont 10 is certainly not priced as affordable housing for low wage owners, it still contributes to Portland's overall density push and can help increase supply.
As I wrote in the column, "In the coming years fewer people will live in single-family houses and more will occupy higher-density dwellings like duplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and apartment complexes. The challenge is to design and build higher-density housing that fits in to single-family neighborhoods without seeming cheap or out of scale."
Vermont 10 was built on the site of a single-family house owned by the adjacent St. Barnabas Episcopal church, allowing room for five small duplex buildings, adding up to 10 three-bedroom units. Each features interior finishes like oak hardwood floors and energy-fficient triple pane windows. Yet as Mark Engberg of Colab told me in a recent interview, "It's about the community space first and then the architecture. The space between the buildings is the successful driver of the project." It's similar in that way to a prior Colab project, the Ankeny Lofts (and its second phase, Ankeny 2/3), in Southeast Portland, which were completed in 2014. "This all comes basically out of what we started on Ankeny, the idea of mews with duplexes on them and front doors, not big wide open spaces but little urban zones," he said.
There are other things I like about Vermont 10, such as the relative economy of exterior materials and the clean lines of the overall forms. But sure enough, the best part is just walking down the little pathway between the units. It gives the sensation of being in a little urban village. Instead of one big mountain—a single building with 10 condos—it's a series of foothills. Instead of passing each other in the parking lot, you come together in a little outdoor room with a human scale.
That said, the configuration of these clustered duplexes also contributes to the interior experience. "Most of these units have glazing and siding on three sides," Engberg explains. "Some have light on four sides. That makes for a nicer environment, and a little bit more expensive building. But because we stay within the residential code and stick framing, we can offset that cost. That’s what makes the units so nice: you’ve got tons of light."
Natural light is to me the biggest determining factor in the quality of a multifamily residential space. It's not to say you can't have a lot of light coming from one or two sides of an apartment or condo, if it's small enough and the windows are big enough. My apartment gets light on two of its four sides, and except for the hallway and bathroom it works because every other space borders a sizable window. But there are no luxury finishes or extra square footage that could entice me to live in one of those bowling-alley-shaped units that often get built in larger condo and apartment buildings.
Of course Vermont 10 is a series of duplexes, not a condo or apartment building. But perhaps it says something about the project that it's easy for me to refer to it in the same breadth. Its duplexes are closer in scale and materiality to single-family homes than they are to mixed-use multifamily residential buildings, but perhaps because they create a common infrastructure that's at a pedestrian scale, the brain makes the leap to thinking of Vermont 10 as urban.
What the project really represents, though, is a kind of missing-middle housing. That's a phrase I hadn't even heard five years ago but is common parlance today: the idea that there needs to be a middle ground between single family homes and large mixed-use residential buildings. There are many types of this housing—townhouses, courtyard apartments, triplex and fourplexes in addition to duplexes—and yet we haven't built or allowed nearly enough of them in recent years.
Vermont 10 isn't re-inventing the wheel, and it's just one piece of a much larger puzzle. But particularly as one imagines a future MAX line down Barbur Boulevard, perhaps neighborhoods like Hillsdale can show what's possible as Portland continues to grow and increase and density: to create dense spaces that feel tranquil and fit right in.