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Greater density is coming to our neighborhoods, but we needn't sacrifice livability

COURTESY: BRIAN LIBBY - Brian Libby

By now, most of us have heard the projections: the Portland metropolitan area, a population of 2.4 million people in 2015, is projected to reach approximately 3.5 million by 2060.

With an urban growth boundary curbing sprawl and land values increasing accordingly, in the coming years fewer people will live in single-family houses and more will occupy higher-density dwellings like duplexes, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and apartment complexes. The challenge is to design and build higher-density housing that fits in to single-family neighborhoods without seeming cheap or out of scale.

That's why the Vermont 10 development in Southwest Portland's Hillsdale neighborhood is exemplary. Developed by Patrick Clark and built on the site of a single-family house owned by the adjacent St. Barnabas Episcopal church, the project is comprised of five small duplex buildings housing 10 three-bedroom units. Each features a handsome array of interior finishes and materials: oak hardwood floors, eco-friendly triple pane windows. Yet as Vermont 10 architect Mark Engberg of Colab explains, "It's about the community space first and then the architecture. The space between the buildings is the successful driver of the project."COURTESY: KUDA PHOTOGRAPHY - The Vermont 10 development in Southwest Portlands Hillsdale neighborhood was developed by Patrick Clark and built on the site of a single-family house owned by the adjacent St. Barnabas Episcopal church. The project is comprised of five small duplex buildings housing 10 three-bedroom units.

Indeed, walking through the Vermont 10 property feels less like being in a quasi-suburban setting (Southwest always feels like Beaverton to me, even when it's Portland) and more like being in Europe. A small pedestrian pathway serves as a central spine, with the buildings close enough together to create a sense of cozy intimacy, like the former carriage houses of London that became popular as urban mews. The two and three-story structures rise and fall on the sloping site like small foothills, while the alternation of natural cedar and painted lapped siding give Vermont 10 the feel of a development that was built over time.

COURTESY: KUDA PHOTOGRAPHY - The Vermont 10 project is comprised of five small duplex buildings housing 10 three-bedroom units.The best part of the design, however, may be how these units feel from the inside. Because Clark and Colab made the decision to build five individual duplexes instead of one apartment building, residents get light on three sides. Anyone who has lived in one of those Pearl District condos shaped like bowling alley lanes with light on three sides will tell you that even the most luxurious marble and mahogany surfaces can't compete with an abundance of windows and cross-ventilation.

In the years ahead, this neighborhood and others in the metro area ought to have a lot more developments like Vermont 10. After all, like many close-in neighborhoods, Hillsdale will evolve into a denser place, and while many people fear how that will negatively impact quality of life, to some extent the opposite will be true.

Less than two miles away, a new MAX line will soon be ferrying passengers up and down Barbur Boulevard. With it, Southwest Portland will become a denser urban enclave: one with more traffic, sure, but also more options to get out of your car. That doesn't mean tall towers are coming to this realm of old ranch houses, but it means a stand-alone house needn't be the only way to find entry into a livable neighborhood.

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com

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