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  • 27 Aug 2014

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Demolition builds frustration for neighbors

City considers better notification rules to avoid future infill fights


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - An anti-large house sign sits near a Renaissance Homes infill project in Southwest Portland.City officials are considering ways to encourage developers to tell neighbors when they plan to demolish a house for an infill project.

An advisory committee to the Bureau of Development Services discussed several options during its monthly meeting last Thursday morning. They ranged from a standard notice that could be posted on the door of the house to door-hangers that can be left at neighboring homes.

No one on the Development Review Advisory Committee proposed making the notifications mandatory, however. That disappointed several neighborhood representatives at the meeting who argue that neighbors should always be notified before a nearby home is demolished. Under the existing City Code, notification is not required on homes where a developer applies for a demolition permit and a construction permit on the same day.

According to Anne Dufay, executive director of the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Program office, notification is especially important for houses built before 1973, when asbestos and lead paint were common.

“Asbestos and lead paint chips can be thrown into the air if a demolition isn’t done right,” Dufay says. “Neighbors need to know when it’s going to happen so they can leave or monitor the work.”

Some developers aren’t opposed to mandatory notification requirements, including Randy Sebastian, president of Renaissance Homes, one of the largest builders of infill projects in the city.

“We always go door to door and notify residents when we’re coming into a neighborhood, whether we’re planning on demolishing a house or not,” says Sebastian.

Notification doesn’t always stop protests, however. Sebastian’s company is building two new houses on a lot where a single home was demolished in the 8300 block of Southwest 46th Avenue. Anonymous handmade anti-infill protest signs have recently popped up near the project. They show a smiling small house next to a larger house with a slash mark through it.

“People have the right to their opinions, we understand and respect that. But we are responding to the market. Portland is a very popular city and people want to live here right now, and many of them prefer newer, more energy efficient homes,” says Sebastian.

Concerned neighbors

Committee Chair Jeff Fish says the requirement could eventually become mandatory if all developers don’t comply with it voluntarily.

“Residential construction is increasing and this is becoming more and more of an issue across the city. I suspect the city might make it mandatory in two or three years if we can’t come to some kind of agreement with all the developers before then,” says Fish, a developer who represents homebuilders on the committee.

Statistics maintained by the Portland Bureau of Development Services show that demolitions and infill projects are on the rise in Portland as the economy recovers. About 230 demolition permits were issued by BDS in 2013, an increase of more than 40 percent from 2011. Most were issued along with construction permits, eliminating the need for neighbors to be notified.

In addition, around 2,700 alteration and addition permits were issued in 2013, an increase of 370 from 2011. They included projects where a majority of the home was demolished.

Sebastian says his company expects to build more new homes in Portland this year, too. “We did around 100 last year and expect to do about 120 this year,” says Sebastian.

Dufay is trying to organize a citywide discussion about the notification issue through the eight other neighborhood coalition offices in Portland. She recent emailed other directors about the issue when a house in Eastmoreland was threatened with demolition. Although the house was saved when neighbors bought it from the developer, Dufay hopes citywide discussions will start within a few weeks.

Dufay’s email struck a chord with Sylvia Bogert, executive director of Southwest Neighbors Inc., the coalition office representing much of Southwest Portland.

“A lot of people in Southwest Portland are concerned about demolitions and infill projects in their neighborhood,” says Bogert, who promptly referred the email to the coalition’s land-use committee for discussion.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO BY JONATHAN HOUSE - Standing in the bathroom of one of his new house models in Multnomah Village, Randy Sebastian of Renaissance Homes talks about its amenities. Sebastian supports mandatory notification of neighborhood demolition plans.

‘Remodel by bulldozer’

The Bureau of Development Services is also beginning to consider a new definition for partial demolitions. Dufay says she has also heard a lot of objections to what she calls “remodel by bulldozer.” City regulations allow houses to be almost rebuilt without a demolition permit if just the foundation and part of a wall is left in place.

During the advisory committee meeting, BDS staff admitted the code does not define anything short of a total demolition. They presented the committee members with the draft of new definitions that attempt to draw distinctions between minor remodels and additions, major remodels and additions, and demolitions for new housing. Demolition permits would still need to be taken out for complete demolitions. They would also need to be taken out for major remodels and additions where more than 25 percent of the foundation is altered or more than 50 percent of an existing exterior wall on any floor is modified.

Several committee members noted that foundations and walls sometime need to be modified to support additional stories on a house. Fish agreed such changes are different than even a partial definition and says he would appoint a subcommittee to discuss the issue further.

Dufay says he was encouraged by the discussion because it was the first time anyone associated with BDS acknowledged the loophole in the code.


Neighborhoods shaken by infill, demolition fights

Many city residents are upset about more than the lack of advance notice on all residential demolitions. They are opposed to the demolitions themselves, primarily because the house that is torn down is almost always replaced with one or more larger homes or an apartment building. Complaints that such infill project are changing the character of Portland's neighborhoods are becoming more common as the number of projects increases.

Perhaps the most recent controversy concerns the pending removal of a large Queen Anne Victorian house built in 1902 at the corner of Northwest 24th Avenue and Quimby Street. It and an adjacent smaller house were purchased by Portland Leeds Living LLC. They are being removed to make way for seven row houses. Northwest residents are complaining to Mayor Charlie Hales and other members of the City Council about the project.

"Attention has been placed lately on the demolition of houses in Portland’s neighborhoods and now sadly my neighborhood Northwest Portland is experiencing one. Demolition is never a good idea. It is not sustainable, it takes from the historic character of a neighborhood. And for what? To add additional housing units?" Northwest Portland resident Karen Karlson wrote to the council.

The Bureau of Development Services posted a stop-work order on the larger house on Friday. The matter was unresolved at press time.

Before that controversy, neighbors in Eastmoreland had appealed the planned demolition of a single house to make way for two new houses to the council. The demolition was halted and the hearing was postponed after two neighbors bought the house from developer Vic Remmers for an undisclosed price. Other neighbors have volunteered to help remodel it as a rental.

And perhaps the most heated controversy before that was the demolition of a house in the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood to accommodate two new houses. Burnett Woods LLC plans to build two houses on the lot. Neighbors tried to stop the demolition when they heard about it but were unsuccessful.

Randy Sebastian of Renaissance Homes argues there are numerous sides to many infill projects. He says a lot of the homes his company acquires for demolition have not been well maintained, have little insulation and few energy upgrades and are smaller than families moving to Portland now prefer.

"Portland's schools are finally beginning to recover because more and more families want to live in Portland instead of the suburbs. They are creating the demand for housing that we are working to meet," says Sebastian.

As Sebastian sees it, much of Portland's popularity is related to the state's land-use planning laws that encourage urban not suburban development.

"The urban growth boundary is directing a lot of new development into Portland, creating a vibrant city where people want to live. I have children in their 20s, and they want to live in Portland, not the suburbs," says Sebastian.