Elliot Njus | The Oregonian/OregonLive By Elliot Njus
on April 24, 2015
Neighborhood groups have long complained that the city’s building boom has led to a generation of houses that seem to loom over neighboring properties, either because they’re too tall or too close to the property line.
Now Portland is considering whether to rewrite parts of its code to rein in that kind of development.
The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability is asking for $600,000 in staff time and consultants to launch a process it expects to take a year and a half.
The effort is a priority for Mayor Charlie Hales, who oversees the planning bureau. He’s asked the city council to fast-track the initial $150,000, adding it to the current fiscal year’s budget, to get the project moving before the next fiscal year’s budget is approved.
“People in our long-established neighborhoods feel threatened by demolition and haphazard infill,” Hales said through a spokesman this week. “The city will meet its density goals, but not by bulldozing solid, older homes and putting up $1 million mansions.”
A brisk real estate market has spurred development in the rebound from the recession. Large new houses in close-in Portland neighborhoods have drawn the ire of neighborhood groups, particularly when existing houses are demolished to make room.
It’s not clear what shape the new rules, which would eventually need approval from the Portland City Council, might take.
Planners say they’re likely going to focus on tightening existing restrictions on the new homes’ height, how much of a lot they can take up and how far houses must be from the property line.
“We already have these regulations,” said Sandra Wood, a supervising planner with the planning bureau. “It’s just that the regulations that we have have served some neighborhoods better than others.”
The city might also look into more specific regulations. For example, the city years ago created new restrictions on the size and prominence of street-facing garages.
And it’s also seeking to address construction of so-called skinny houses, built on lots half as wide as more typical homes.
Home builders say their industry is simply responding to demand for new homes in Portland’s desirable neighborhoods, and that the city’s restrictions would undermine the region’s sprawl-resisting land-use policies.
“I just think it’s a red herring for people not wanting development in their neighborhoods,” said Justin Wood, an infill developer and lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland. “Everything the city’s doing right now is making it feel like it’s making it tougher to do infill.”
The city council in 2013 introduced minimum parking requirements for apartment buildings that were previously exempt, and this year voted to require developers to notify neighbors before demolishing a house.
And Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the city’s development permitting bureau, has told staffers they should generally “raise the bar” in evaluating certain development proposals, particularly skinny houses.
But neighborhood groups say the city is still moving too slowly to address the wave of development.
United Neighborhoods for Reform, a group that’s sprung up around the infill-development issues, wrote a resolution calling for a number of changes to city policy, including limits to the size of newly constructed houses. It lists 42 neighborhood associations that have endorsed the proposal.
“Here we are, some months later, with all this groundswell of approval,” said Margaret Davis, a representative of the group. “We hope the city is invested enough in saving some neighborhoods and some homes.”
— Elliot Njus