Local historian evaluates new homes
Concerns have been expressed in neighborhoods throughout the city – including Sellwood-Westmoreland, Eastmoreland, Reed, and other Inner Southeast neighborhoods – about the demolition of older homes and their replacement with new ones.
The primary issue seems to have to do with size – the new homes sometimes contain three times the square footage of the originals – and cookie cutter style. That is exemplified by developers who repeatedly build the same Genuine Craftsman house, named after other places and neighborhoods. I hope, in The future, to drive into the Alameda neighborhood and see The Sellwood model home under construction! It would be interesting to hear from readers about the features and size of such a house.
Planning theories, and personal values, are struggling for resolution. Beginning with former mayor Vera Katz in the mid-1990s we have been directed by planners to increase density inside our neighborhood boundaries. This makes sense if we want to retain the rich Willamette Valley soil outside the urban area that produces the wonderful food available to all of us. Why cover it with repetitive shopping malls and housing developments and then import food from out of state?
But replacing a 1,200 square foot bungalow with a house twice the size does not increase density, unless additional people occupy all of the bedrooms. There can also be potentially negative consequences for the resident of a small house who is now literally living in the shadow of a larger new one. Reduction of privacy can also cause unease. Second-story windows that face the smaller of the properties can create feelings of over exposure. Last year, the neighbors on the north side of my property in Westmoreland put a two-story addition on their 1950s ranch house, which now towers over my small back garden where I spend a lot of time. However, its placement reflects additional heat into my mini orchard – and we shared the cost of a new six-foot high privacy fence. While I now see a big blue wall instead of their spring-flowering magnolia, the windows of their addition are too small and high for an easy view. Other homeowners may not be so lucky.
In architectural terms, I describe Sellwood-Westmoreland as a checkerboard neighborhood. Theres almost every style, size, and type of dwelling, including tiny cottages and commodious Four Squares, apartments and condominiums, floating homes, a retirement high-rise, public housing, and at least a dozen formerly mobile homes. In age they range from a small house built in 1876 and to ones that are still under construction. While walking around the neighborhood, I have inspected the new builds, chatted with construction crews, and examined floor plans, to try to determine why some (not all) of the new houses are troubling.A descriptive flyer from one developer confirms the size issue. Of the eight listed models, only one is as small as 2,500 square feet, which matches the square footage of an average old Four Square. The other five models pushed or exceeded 3,000 square feet. While this size house may sit comfortably on a 70x100 foot lot, it is just too big for a standard, 50x100 lot, when the existing houses are closer to 1,200 square feet in size. One of the problems appears to be a difference in setback – the space between the sidewalk and the front of the house. Many of the new homes have front porches, but they are not very deep, and are often built close to ground level. The porch railings are open, rather than enclosed; and while this could appear friendlier, instead it feels to me as if the porch is intruding into the public walking space. The porches of older houses are often elevated up and back from the sidewalk, creating an open but semi-private space.
The new porches are at ground level, because many of the houses are built on a slab, with a crawl space instead of a basement. This means that the laundry, workshop/craft room, and storage – traditionally subterranean – are now above ground. More rooms are added, and the new house becomes large, to accommodate these activities.According to one contractor with whom I spoke, the cost of a full-height basement is about $16,000. The builder of a speculative house has to guess what features will attract a potential customer. Will it be a basement or a great room? On the other hand, in the smallest of the eight model houses, The Nehalem, the site is excavated and the garage is under the house. This is less common, but does reduce the height of the house and makes it more compatible with existing homes.
There also seems to be a trend for every bedroom to have its own bathroom, which also increases the square footage. Those of us born after World War II also have more stuff, and walk-in closets and double-car garages help us cope. Truthfully, how many double-car garages really shelter two vehicles, and are instead are used for storage? If you attend an estate sale in a pre-1950 home, the size of the bathroom, bedrooms, and closets will make this increase in possessions very clear.A final difference in the new houses seems to be a reduced setback from neighbors, which results in little space for plantings or trees on the sides or in front. If Sellwood-Westmoreland has a defining characteristic, it is the presence and variety of trees, shrubs, front gardens and private, enclosed back yards.
The cookie cutter complaint cant be sustained. Repeated house designs are not a modern phenomenon. Southeast Twenty-Third Avenue, between Tolman and Reedway Streets, has nineteen houses built in the early 1940s from only two basic plans. They are not all adjacent to each other, and over the decades, varied paint colors and landscaping have blurred the repetition. Perhaps in time this will happen with the new houses, but only if there is enough space for planting.
From the builders perspective, a repeated design helps predict cost and profit. When construction picks up, the costs of materials and labor begin to rise. If you build the same home, you know what those two expenses should be. Sometimes economies of scale help you get a better price on materials if you purchase enough for multiple houses. Changes to a design, unless it is a reduction in square footage, usually means a higher cost to the builder and buyer, because materials and labor have to be recalculated.
Restoration and remodeling is often more time-consuming and challenging than new construction. A company that builds new houses from the ground up can predict the costs more precisely. But the materials in an old house are usually of better quality than a new one: Why toss the materials from an old growth forest and replace them with glued-together chunks of wood? Adding on, maintaining or restoring an old house can engage the homeowner for a lifetime! We should all be grateful for those residents who have the patience and budget to do so.
There is another way to increase density on a 50x100 foot lot, and that is by adding on to an existing house, or building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). Almost twenty years ago, when the city assisted Sellwood and Westmoreland in a visioning process for its future, the ADU was a new and generally disparaged option. As a participant in that eighteen-month long process, I heard many suspicions voiced that this would lead to tacky, ugly little granny flats at the end of the driveway that would be future slum dwellings. However, the ADUs were a new concept, and the city wrote very specific design guidelines for them.
Consequently, these little buildings – usually two-stories, with an apartment or office above a garage – are successful. They are small, and repeat the exterior design elements of the main structure. They increase density, but usually allow space for a small back garden between the two structures. According to SMILEs land use chair, Ellen Burr, until 2010 applications for ADUs were averaging thirty per year in the entire city. But when the System Development Charges were reduced (the costs to apply for construction and planning review), the number of applications rose to 200.
The waiver has been extended until July, 2016, and we should be seeing more of this small-scale infill. Perhaps neighbors in Eastmoreland will consider this option to help increase density.
Finally, not every old house is structurally sound enough to merit rehabilitation. Sometimes the neighborhood gets lucky and a tear down is replaced by a new structure that enhances the streetscape. Following are a few examples of that
Two years ago, a tiny cottage on Southeast Fourteenth near Yukon Street reached the end of its lifespan. It seems that it had been built as a temporary construction shack when the surrounding bungalows were built in the early years of the Twentieth Century. While it had served as a rental, the floor finally rotted through, and bringing it up to current code was not feasible. It has been replaced with a modest, well-designed town house.
The house on the north side of the former Keanas Candyland on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue was another tiny dwelling. Built before 1910 at the very back of its slightly oversized lot, it was less than 700 square feet, with a low-pitched roof and full front porch. It was purchased by the Premiere Property group, a small firm that did a miraculous job of rehabilitating a derelict house at Southeast Seventeenth and Ellis Streets in 2012. They hoped to do the same with this small house on Milwaukie Avenue.
However, when their contractor opened up the wall, he wondered why the house had not collapsed. It apparently was a do-it-yourself project and there were no 2x4s in the walls, only a rudimentary framework. It was demolished and a new two-story house, of 1,620 square feet, was put in the same place. The original detached garage was rebuilt as well. The historic setback was retained, with a long new lawn and low fence in front. If the new owners turn into gardeners, there is plenty of space for a green oasis on Milwaukie Avenue.
A final example is a property on S.E. Fifteenth near Miller Street, just north of St. Agathas Catholic School. The original house, built in 1965, was a small, plain ranch style of less than 900 square feet. The new owners, who were downsizing from a larger multi-story home, lived in the house for two years before deciding they needed a lot more light, and larger living spaces. They had the house deconstructed and built a new one, which is still one-story in height, but with more windows. The owners also extended the rooms toward the back of the lot to gain a private garden, and partially enclosed the entryway with a handsome split stone wall.
Change is difficult, especially when you have lived in a neighborhood for a long time, and have to adjust to new structures that look different from the accustomed ones. Some of the new houses, especially if reduced in size, could do more to enhance the character of the neighborhood. But there are remodeling jobs on older houses by long-term residents that could have been more sympathetic, as well. What is being built may not be compatible, but it is legal under current city code.
One of the recommendations in the 1998 Neighborhood Plan was to develop standards for new infill buildings. No one has stepped forward to follow through on that recommendation. SMILE has a land use subcommittee with a hard-working chair, and she welcomes others who are willing to put in the time necessary to work toward positive change. This takes time and commitment, not just complaining at a SMILE meeting or putting a sign in your yard. In the meantime, we suggest you maintain your own house and property, stay put, and if you make alterations to your own house, make sure you give it as much consideration as you hope your neighbors will.
Above all, volunteer some hours to make a positive difference!
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