BY BRIAN LIBBY
The history of cities has always been fluid. Metropolises continuously rise and fall in population, in affordability, and in economic activity—and not just the obvious examples like Detroit’s decline or Dubai’s dizzying rise.
Portland too has continuously transformed, even before the boom and bust cycle of the past decade. A 19th century pioneer town gave way to the timber-industry capitol of the 20th century, for example. In more recent years, as timber has given way to an economic mix of high tech, athletic apparel and food & drink, the city’s industrial enclaves have become high-density neighborhoods like the Pearl District and South Waterfront, and once downtrodden neighborhoods have gentrified as middle-class home buyers have returned to the central city after a generation of suburban flight. And with our progressive land-use laws, the metro area has densified more than it has sprawled (at least compared to other cities), which makes for a better sense of place but drives up the cost of living.
Yet while both physical and economic change is inevitable, these days it feels like some kind of tipping point has been reached in the city, or at least a period of particular transformation. More than the past decade’s economic boom, this one has seemed to affect existing, close-in Portland neighborhoods.
It is happening in almost every corner of the city, or at least those within a few miles’ drive of downtown. Historic homes being replaced by bigger ones, or by duplexes and triplexes. On major arterials, thriving buildings are being demolished to make way for bigger ones. This increasing density is better than the alternative that existed five or six years ago, when foreclosures were mounting amidst the Great Recession. It’s not exactly the same problem as the housing boom that existed in the 2000s before the bust, when speculation was driving up prices. Yet high prices remain, as well as the worry that our sense of place, or the kind of sweet spot the city has enjoyed between affordability and amenities, may be in jeopardy.
One can see the tension play out in a number of ways.
On the affordable housing front, the city has fallen behind its goals. In the Pearl District, for instance, a 1997 agreement between the city and Hoyt Street Properties (the private developer contracted to build out former rail yards) to have 35 percent of all housing units be affordable has fallen short. In South Waterfront too, a 2003 pledge to make 582 out of the first 3,000 units constructed affordable has also failed to happen.
It’s not just a question of the total number of affordable housing units but also where we’re building them. Healthy cities have a variety of different income levels living more or less in a mix, not in segregation. Despite the strictures of the 46-year-old Fair Housing Act, which is intended to sprinkle affordable housing across neighborhoods, an overwhelming majority of subsidized housing over the past decade-plus has existed in the poorest portions of the metro area. There is also very little affordable housing in affluent communities. A 2012 Oregonian report by Brad Schmidt found that Lake Oswego and West Linn, for example, contributed just 0.1 percent of the 34,000 affordable units in the three-country metro area. Instead, poor residents have been clustered in areas like Gresham and east of 82nd in Portland.
There are small bits of good news. As Schmidt reported last week, Portland’s City Council, perhaps prompted by the failure to build enough affordable units in the Pearl and SoWa, has recently approved an alteration of its urban renewal areas led by Mayor Charlie Hales that will raise another $3.5 million for affordable housing. A resolution from Commissioner Nick Fish will commit $47 million for 270 more units in South Waterfront. The close-in Zidell Yards development is said to be earmarking acreage for an affordable-housing project, and there is new affordable housing coming to the Pearl, even if too much of it is clustered together.
Even so, affordable housing—even if we went on a huge building spree—will not solve the broader crisis of affordability in Portland proper, where even the middle class is increasingly feeling squeezed out. Portland has recently been ranked as the most quickly gentrifying city in America. When this kind of high-end development and construction reaches fever pitch, as it has done in other big, popular American cities like San Francisco, Austin and Washington, DC, there is an increasing question of how the middle class can remain in the game, as well as whether we might lose something larger along the way: a sense of what it means to be Portland.
And affordability is not the only aspect of this emerging crisis. The city may be even more up in arms over what it is doing to our fabric of historic homes. All over Portland’s neighborhoods, developers and builders are tearing down old houses to make way for duplexes and other multi-family buildings. There is so much destruction happening so fast that entire publications like the Portland Chronicle have been created to document this grim continuing story. The latest? A 100-year-old house in Elliott went bye-bye to make way for a five-story apartment complex. A 130-year-old home in Hosford-Abernethy is about to meet the wrecking ball. And the church at 801 NE Failing street that dates to 1904 is being demolished by developer Peter Kusyk, the same person who previously had planned to tear down the historic Marquam Home in Laurelhurst (which was saved at the 11th hour when neighbors agreed to buy the home).
The economics have changed compared to the last decade's boom: developers like Kusyk who back then were more likely to work in the suburbs are now turning their attention to Portland's close-in neighborhoods as they've become more popular and suburban land has become scarcer. And even if Kusyk had never been born, another developer would do the same thing he's doing: eying the church's site with only a profit motive in mind. The church has sat vacant for years and no one came along who was both willing and financially able to preserve the building, either as another house of worship or converted into some other type of facility. Yet the system could have been better equipped to make preservation an attractive option.
It isn’t just that these houses and other neighborhood buildings are being torn down. Some of this is inevitable for any city: the passage of time and changing needs necessitate continual transformation of the housing stock. But what’s particularly troubling has been the lack of reasonable brakes on the process.
With the church on NE Failing, for example, there was supposed to have been a 120-day waiting period before the building could be razed because it was part of the city’s official Historic Resources Inventory. That would have been the case a few decades ago. But now it’s possible to remove one’s property from the list, allowing demolition to happen quickly.
This question of whether or how much owners should have the right to remove their properties from historic building lists is also about to go before the Oregon Supreme Court, in the case of Lake Oswego Preservation Society v. City of Lake Oswego. The case centers on the state’s 1995 “owner consent” law, which allows for owner removal of a house from historic designations. It began from a dispute over the circa-1855 Carman House in Lake Oswego, which a new owner wants to raze in the name of fattening the wallet. But the case will have huge precedent.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t welcome most new development, be it in close-in Portland or the suburbs. It’s the engine that drives much of our economy and a matter of continuously reconfiguring the collective built environment for today’s needs. And with many thousands moving here every month, we’ve got to plan for a more highly populated and high-density future. Although there is arguably a real crisis going on with respect to the loss of our stock of old single-family homes, we need high-density apartments and condos to keep being built on our major streets. Yet there seems to be little question that the city and the metro area are falling behind with respect to fine-tuning just how that balanced growth happens.
It’s easier said than done, for not everyone agrees on what steps to take. Last month when Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, instructed staff there to “raise the bar” and show more willingness to reject discretionary land-use appeals of the zoning code, it seemed to some like a chance to bring a more balanced approach to the many neighborhoods where big apartment and condo projects rub up against single-family homes. Yet the first feedback I received was from a prominent award-winning local architect, who warned this created a dangerous precedent: more uncertainty for developers, and an antiquated standard for what constitutes compatibility. “The idea that she is placing ‘compatibility’ and the definition of what compatibility is in the hands of neighbors and staff will likely result in a stifled and homogenous building fabric,” the architect wrote by email.
Yet there are still some worthwhile steps that can be taken. On the Bike Portland blog as well as on his own site, developer Eli Spevak of Orange Splot offered a series of moves that could be taken to create what he called a “more affordable urban infill policy.” We should allow or expand allowance of internal conversions of older homes to two or more units in single dwelling zones, Spevak wrote, so long as their exterior is minimally altered and they retain their single dwelling appearance. We could make it easier for a second home to be built on the same lot as an older home, capping out the combined square footage as equivalent to a large new home, and waving some of the remaining restrictions on accessory dwelling units. We might try removing the “household” definition from the zoning code to open up spare rooms for occupancy in larger homes.
And perhaps most of all, we could implement inclusionary zoning, something that is banned in only Oregon and Texas but would do a lot to ensure developers include affordable housing in new multi-family building projects.
Even if we were to do everything possible and make all these moves—the rejection of owner consent laws, the implementation of inclusionary zoning, the enforcement of Fair Housing Act strictures for distributing affordable housing across neighborhoods and suburbs of all income levels—the Portland metro area will still transform. Certain neighborhoods will still be too expensive for the overwhelming majority to live in. State laws and local codes will always be playing catch-up to contemporary realities. And we don’t even know what the next crisis will bring. We very well may be headed for another economic bust in a few years, and if so, that will bring another round of foreclosures and cash-strapped government budgets.
What’s more, we can’t ever fully separate the dangers of massive growth from the benefits. After all, perhaps never before in Portland’s history has the nation been more focused on our city as not only a destination, but a way of life: one that’s a little quirky but refreshingly less corporate; one that favors pedestrians and transit over the automobile; one where architecture is rooted in good values like collaboration and sustainability more than ego. We have a hell of a lot going for us. It’s just that now is the time to make sure that it’s more blessing than curse, and that ours is a city that everyone has a chance to embrace.