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In case you missed it folks, several thousand of us were at the waterfront sunday trying to bring attention to the fact that we are destroying the air we breathe and the water we drink, just so folks can live in single family homes and drive all over town.

We are on the precipice of losing all that we know to be civilization. Fires and drought are tearing up our neighbor California, and as the ravages of the polluting processes that we have unleashed grow, they will come to Oregon and Portland.

We have an obligation to all the children alive today, and those not yet born, to not trash the future environment. So far we have failed, and at the heart of this failure is single-family homes, and the many polluting cars we drive to connect them to our sprawled-out city.

We no longer have the luxury to live in a wasteful manner, we must build close-in walkable density NOW.

Tearing down old energy-hog poorly insulated homes on big lots to build two new energy-efficient homes is a good step to saving our children's future.

Jim Heuer

It is a false choice to argue for demolitions and density increases as the only key to reducing our carbon footprint. Remember that most of the homes being demolished today were built when Portland's per-capita car ownership was about 1/3 of what it is today. The older homes that typically are being targeted by developers for demolition and replacement are in relatively walkable neighborhoods, which could tolerate lower car ownership were our public transit services to be ramped up even a little.

Further, retrofitting older homes for greater energy efficiency is almost always a more cost-effective solution than the hugely wasteful practice of demolition and complete replacement -- which results in large amounts of embodied energy being hauled to the dump. As it's been pointed out frequently, we spend millions recycling bottles and cans -- why are we so eager to throw away entire houses?

It is increasing evident that metro area residents prefer single family homes -- at least in contrast to the apartments currently on offer in the region. Yet multi-family housing is now how the planners expect to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of new residents expected in the next 20 years. Instead of at least protecting our existing single family housing stock, the current zoning has, in effect, put a "demolish me" sign on some 29000 single family homes in Portland, which sit on lots zoned for higher density. Do we REALLY want to demolish 20% of our single family housing stock in the name of apartment construction? Are there REALLY no alternatives to accommodating growth in underutilized areas.

We have an opportunity to start a city-wide dialog that challenges the planning orthodoxy to re-align its decisions along lines that truly meet the goals and needs of the community -- better balancing energy efficiency, density, the demand for single family housing, and the widespread desire to keep Portland's great historic neighborhoods intact. If we do not, then Portland will turn into a poorer version of San Francisco, where only the very wealthy can afford the remaining single family homes, and the city will become a playground essentially for the rich.


Zero growth or limited growth another choice. Sick of newcomer 20-something enviros asserting that the only choice is between density and not -- that's the capitalist's false dichotomy.


And lastly, there is nothing "green" about tearing down an "energy hog" home. It takes 50 years or more to make that environmental equation paper out. The most wasteful thing is to put a viable house into a landfill.


I am not advocating throwing away houses. There are great folks here in town that can take apart old drafty energy-hog homes piece-by-piece and re-use the parts.

The point of the Climate Change problem is that we have used-up our 'pollution-account' called the AIR, with wasteful settlement patterns [single family homes] and polluting cars. No one is going to care that 'folks prefer single-family homes' if that means the planet burns down and our kids and their kids have nothing left to drink or breathe. Are you that selfish?

We have to get our design-act together, and now. If that means tearing down all the single-family homes to build
new energy-efficient dense townhomes/duplexes/quads etc, then we need to do it. If you feel the need to save every stick in the demo, then good for you, go ahead.

This is a moral choice, are we in it for our own selfish [I love having my own single family home] needs, or do we care about repairing the damaged environment and the very air our children will breathe in twenty years. This is the end-game, we should not pretend that 'my lil lifestyle choice' is not ruining the AIR, because it is. Every time you leave your single-family home and get in your car, you are damaging the air that our children breath.


Is my math different? 700k minus 567k is 133k- right? Not 33k...

Mike Campbell

Jim, nice to see your comment. Increased density, historic preservation, and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. For a sad, sorry example of what NOT to do, come to Seattle. The lack of urban growth boundaries means new, large-scale single family home developments continue to swallow up forests and fields many miles from the urban core. Portland's close in, dense older neighborhoods such as Laurelhurst by contrast promote far less auto usage.

Justin C

While I don't think tearing down houses worth preserving is a great strategy, we can't argue against all housing development. About this time last year everyone was up in arms about new development on the corridors. This is the unintended consequence we're left with. Our city needs the ability to grow and change over time. As a result, we need to prioritize our preservation and growth efforts.

Jim asked about accommodating growth in underutilized areas. What parts of town are underutilized? All the areas on the periphery or outside the UGB? To stick inside the UGB and keep to the lighter side of environmental impact, we need to allow some high-density apartment bldgs on our urban corridors without freaking out, so we can save some of the housing at the interior of our close in neighborhoods. Portland's still a growing city - either we grow up or out. As a city we need stop complaining about density and parking along our corridors and build 8+ story bldgs along Vancouver, Williams, Division, Hawthorne, etc. if it means we get to keep Laurelhurst, Buckman, Ladd's, etc. mostly intact a little longer.

Jim Heuer

Justin C raises a great point, that hasn't been debated adequately in Portland... just how to fit higher density buildings along major transit corridors without hugely adverse affects on their surroundings. The City has evolved the notion of "transitions", meaning high density along the corridors, and decreased density progressively as you get farther from the corridors. Conceptually a great idea, in practice, potentially destructive...

The result in places like Sellwood, where you have some parallel transit corridors not far apart is masses of single family housing rezoned for higher density -- density levels quite out of keeping with the existing urban fabric a block or two from the corridors. Consequently, Sellwood is ground zero for demolition and replacement of homes with larger apartment structures that often simply don't fit with the scale of the neighborhood. So... how do we better accommodate these transitions, forcing density where it belongs, while protecting the immediately adjacent single family residences?

In thinking about this, our current approach to re-making the city needs to be clearly understood. In the 1960s and 1970s the City, using Federal money, embarked on a massive "Urban Renewal" project in South Portland and elsewhere. This was common around the country, where cities used their power of eminent domain to sweep whole swaths of the city clear of all buildings, to be replaced with the "city of the future". In general, this didn't work out so well, in many cities, while enraging the folks who were pushed out of their homes. So now we are using a drastically different strategy.

Now the City is doing "urban renewal by zoning", designating areas that "aspirationally" (using a term applied often by City planners to the zoning codes) should be cleared and replaced with something new and, possibly, higher density. The result is a free-for-all where vastly more land has been zoned for higher density than will be needed for many, many years, in the hopes that the developers will figure out where to do the "urban renewal" the city needs. Unfortunately, that results in a marketplace that rather flails around looking for the best "deals" which may or may not fit with how Portlanders would like to see their city evolve.

One alternative approach increasingly discussed in the current debate over demolition is a re-think of this "urban renewal by zoning" by limiting the amount of land re-zoned for higher density to what is really, actually needed in the next 5 years or so. Then periodically expand the rezoning as more land is actually required based on real levels of in-migration. The benefits of this are to focus the "renewal" on areas where there is a consensus it is needed, better match the increase in density to real population growth -- rather than depending on notoriously uncertain 20-30-year projections, and enable a focus of increased transit service in those intentionally higher density areas rather than having to spread scarce transit resources over a still distinctly non-dense metro area.


@billb - you have really drunk the LEED certification kool-aid. Any house can be made energy efficient. The embodied energy contained in an existing home can not be recaptured through "reusing" some of the "sticks" from a perfectly viable building. "Growth" itself is unsustainable in any consideration of environmental impacts and crappy 30 year lifespan "green" construction practices certainly aren't going to get us there. You talk about "moral" choices -- well, you're making them with assertions foisted upon us by the construction industry and city-planning graduates. There's plenty of room for morality in this debate. Gentrification and affordability come to mind. It seems clear which side you're on in that debate as well.


Mickey, Many thanks for your thoughts. I am on the side of the planet, and the many generations after us who will live with the consequences of our poor choices.

Single family homes and the polluting cars needed to get to them are selfish choices. Worrying about gentrification and affordability is just so much moving the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Please Consider the Bigger Picture.


Billb -- I am considering the bigger picture. Less growth, less population growth, maintaining what we have, keeping Portland both affordable and livable is not at all at odds with driving less and limiting climate changing emissions. In fact, not engaging in the very wasteful practice of demolition is exactly in tune with those goals. Destroying existing housing stock is one of the least green practices imaginable.


Micky, our existing single-family housing stock, contributes significantly to our environmental crisis by even existing. This settlement pattern requires most people to drive toxic-polluting cars everywhere they go. Now sure you can ride a bus or bike-commute [as I did for 6 years], but most folks still drive, and pollute our only air every single day. Our problem is massive, and immediate. We cannot just fix up poorly made, widely-spaced old houses and call it good.

We need to keep our air at 350PPM and we are way over that now. We need to go backwards fast to save the atmosphere.

In fifty years they will ask 'were those Americans really stupid, or really selfish?'

Of course if we do nothing but fix up old homes, many major American Cities will be under 3 feet of water.


I think you are not talking about close-in existing homes then, are you? I work at home in my existing neighborhood. Tearing down my neighborhood won't help our planet. All these close in homes are very walkable. They are also close together. So, you apparently are talking about somewhere other than close-in Portland neighborhoods.

If you want to live somewhere that is dense, there is no need to create that, feel free to move to that place now. Chicago, NYC, Paris. You choose.


I was unaware that lots currently zoned for single-family homes are being rezoned to permit the construction of apartments. Where in Sellwood is this happening?

David D

Unfortunately the downside of opening up the comment function is the risk of folks co-opting the venue and veering off topic. I would like to address the subject Mr. Libby has introduced and to engage the comments of Jim and Justin. I would suggest many of the issues related to preservation and density are best resolved when our codes reflect sound urban design principles. Too often our code is focused on minutiae while neglecting the broader principles that are responsible for the qualities of the place.(residents in the Richmond neighborhood were able to stop construction on an apartment building due to the location of a retail door. This is absurd whether one is for or against the project) For example areas of SFRs should remain as such with tear downs severely limited. Density should be achieved with multifamily buildings along transit corridors. Homes with historic significance should be identified by experts (not nearby residents resistant to change) with a trust set up to pay for preservation and/or relocation if necessary. If these structures are worthy of protection (which I happen to believe many are) then we should be willing to pay to keep them. But we must be sure we are preserving structures of significance and not simply fighting change out of fear or personal preference. I do question however whether we have an "epidemic" of tear downs of historic homes. Simply because a house is old does not make it significant. In general however tearing down existing structures is not good practice--for the environment or the neighborhood and certainly shouldn't be encouraged by our building codes. Given current conditions a temporary waiting period is a reasonable quick move. I would go one step further and suggest the formation of a tear down process requiring the builder/owner make the case for the tear down using a standard criteria composed of agreed upon best development practice. Our code must make tear down the exception not the rule.

Jim Heuer

For those who feel that Portland's current approach to free-wheeling demolitions, including allowing notice-free, surprise demolitions, is wrong, there is potential for action. City Council has charged the Development Advisory Review Committee (DRAC) to recommend improvements to City Code in this area. Their work is ongoing.

A team of neighborhood activists and historic preservationists has put together a petition laying out its preferred path for DRAC's recommendations to the City. I urge you to check this out at
tinyurl.com/stopthedemolitions and join us in sending a message to City Council and DRAC that there is a better way.

Phillip BD

My impression has been that many of these houses are torn down to be replaced with bigger houses. In that case an effort to prevent demolition should not really affect density goals.

Its a different story if they are tearing them down for high density developments.

Jim Heuer

Phillip BD is correct. The City's own statistics show that around 75% of all demolitions don't result in any meaningful density increase -- just in converting a small house to a very big expensive one.

That itself is worrying from the standpoint of maintaining some shred of affordability in our housing stock. But even where density is increased, there is a big question of "why this house?"

The City's approach to encouraging increased density is to zone the land under 29,000 single family houses for higher density. Further the City has decided that single family houses on R5 lots (single family on 5000 square foot lots) can be replaced with two houses if 100 years ago the lots were platted 25' wide. This puts another 17,000 houses on the chopping block.

It is important to ask, do we REALLY want to demolish 46,000 of our 145,000 single family houses in the name of density. The argument that all single family houses contribute to global warming because they force us into a car culture is nonsense when you realize that nearly all of Portland was platted with those 5000 square foot single family lots well before the automobile became a factor in local transportation (or in many cases had even been invented.)

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